Trump’s Afghan strategy has been long in the making. But the wait has been well worth it.
The US Afghan policy by Donald Trump enunciated on 21 August has the potential to transform the political dynamics and security situation in South Asia.
Trump’s Afghan strategy has been long in the making. But the wait has been well worth it. Trump articulated a well thought through plan of action for his administration to bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan. However, while articulating the broad contours of the policy, Trump refused to divulge any of operational detail. He said in his address it can be counter-productive. He did not mention the number of additional troops to be deployed in Afghanistan and also kept open the duration of deployment of US forces in that country. He provided flexibility to the security establishment to fight the war per the situation on ground.
In his first prime-time televised address to the nation as Commander-in-Chief of US forces, not as a campaigner, Trump laid out the broad parameters of his South Asia policy to send out an unambiguous message that as far as relations with Pakistan are concerned and dealing with terrorism in Afghanistan is concerned, it will not be business as usual. He spoke warmly and positively about the role of India in Afghanistan inviting it to do more in the area of economic development and assistance saying that a “critical part” of his plan was to further develop US’ strategic partnership with India.
In hindsight, it is a welcome development that Trump took considerable time to discuss all elements of the Afghan policy with members of his security team rather than rushing through it in an impulsive manner.
This provided him an opportunity to deliberate upon all implications and ramifications of different approaches in dealing with terrorism and bringing peace in Afghanistan. As he confessed in his speech, the final product enunciated by him was diametrically opposite to his own gut feeling on the issue. Trump had declared during the campaign that he would like to quit Afghanistan as quickly as possible. He has, in his discussions with his advisors, allowed himself to be persuaded to change his views completely and to stay engaged in Afghanistan till “victory” is attained. This raises confidence and enhances credibility of the Trump administration globally. An important reason for such a policy appears to be to shore up America’s standing in the global community as its image has considerably got tarnished in recent months because of its flip-flops on several issues confronting the US, ranging from the Middle East to China, from Russia to the ASEAN region, etc. It gives hope that in future too, on important issues like relations with Iran, NATO, climate change etc., he might be willing to change his impulsive yet strongly held views, and be persuaded by arguments of his advisors.
The most important element of the declaration is that Trump refused to be guided by artificial, politically convenient deadlines while determining the duration of stationing of US troops in Afghanistan. He declared that it will be conditions on the ground, which will decide how long the US forces will stay in Afghanistan and support Afghan forces to quell terrorism in the country. The earlier approach of departing the country by a given date was helpful for the Taliban, other terrorist forces and their patrons in Rawalpindi to bide their time and strike with full force after the American troops departed. This is what seems to have happened when Obama’s commitment, given as an election promise in 2008 was carried out with the departure of the majority of US forces from the Afghan soil by 2014. This has had disastrous consequences for the security situation in Afghanistan, so much so, that the Taliban today controls more territory in the country than at any other time since 2001. Taliban was also able to reach Kunduz, one of the northern most cities of Afghanistan, bordering Tajikistan, in 2015.
Resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan can have serious adverse consequences for stability and peace in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with which Afghanistan shares land borders.
This is also true for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, which do not have common boundaries, but still are at serious risk of infiltration of terrorists from neighbouring states. This is an important reason why Russia has been proactive in reaching out to Taliban in recent months so that the latter’s sway remains limited to Afghanistan and does not expand beyond those borders. A weakening of the Afghan authority in Kabul provides political and strategic space to other terrorist forces like the Islamic state (IS) who have been expanding their influence and control in the eastern region of the country over the last many years. This challenge has the potential of becoming even worse as fighters of IS operating in Syria and Iraq flee that region as territory under its control comes under increasing squeeze from all directions. Its fighters will escape to other countries to expand their control and capture more territory.
Trump has refused to divulge details of number of supplementary troops that will be deployed in Afghanistan. Prudently, he has left this decision to the local commanders. It is understood that General John Nicholson Jr., the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has asked for 4,000 additional troops.
Trump has been harsh in his condemnation of Pakistan. It is for the first time that America has so openly and directly held Pakistan responsible for most of the ills that afflict Afghanistan.
Trump issued an unambiguous warning to Pakistan to stop extending support to the terrorists “immediately” or face unacceptably harsh consequences. It is a stern warning to Pakistan to mend its ways failing which it will lose all facilities and privileges it enjoys including receiving “billions and billions of dollars” from USA for fighting terrorist forces. Trump’s address was followed the next day by comments of Secretaries of State and Defense Rex Tillerson and James Mattis that Pakistan could lose its major non-NATO ally status and other benefits if it did not curtail its support to terrorism forthwith.
As was to be expected, Pakistan rejected all charges leveled by America. Pakistan Chief-of-Army staff Qamar Bajwa said that Pakistan is not looking for financial assistance or funds from the US, but wants recognition of sacrifices it has made in the fight against terrorism. Pakistan was also stung by the praise heaped by Trump on India and his invitation to India to engage itself more actively in economic development in Afghanistan. China in its comments on behalf of its “iron brother” with whom its relations are “sweeter than honey” said that “US should recognise Pakistan’s important role in Afghanistan and respect its sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.” China added that “Pakistan is in the frontline of fighting terrorism, has made sacrifices in fighting terrorism, and is making important contribution to upholding peace and stability.”
It is unlikely that these statements will have any significant impact on policy contours articulated by the US. Most senior officials of the Trump security establishment including James Mattis who heads the Pentagon, H.R. McMaster who is the National Security Advisor, Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and John Kelly, Chief of Staff, have led US troops in Afghanistan and are aware of the perfidy perpetrated by Pakistan and its support to the Taliban and Haqqani network which has resulted in loss of thousands of lives of young American men and women.
On India, Trump was effusive and warm acknowledging and appreciating the important role that India plays in promoting security, stability, development and economic growth in Afghanistan.
He invited India to do much more in the country and said that this would further promote strategic partnership between India and the US. He stated that India earns “billions of dollars” through trade with the US and so should engage more in economic development of Afghanistan. This comment is puerile and naive. India exports high quality goods and services to US and receives payments for those products. It does not receive charity or grants. While welcoming Trump’s policy directions, India has rightly refrained from commenting on this element of his statement.
Trump’s statement has been warmly welcomed by Afghanistan and India as also by a wide cross-section of the think tank, academic and security communities in the United States and India. The success of the strategy will however depend greatly on the manner in which it is implemented. The time taken by the Trump administration to arrive at this strategy gives hope that all arms of the Trump administration are on the same page and will work in unison and synergy to achieve the objectives stipulated by Trump in his address.
The last few months starting with the designation of Syed Salahuddin as a global terrorist on 25 June during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to US, of Hizbul Mujahideen as a global terrorist organisation on 16 August, along with start of a 2+2 dialogue between USA and India following President Trump’s call to Prime Minster Modi on 15 August present a vivid testimony to strengthening and deepening strategic partnership between the two countries. Declaration of the Afghan strategy and the significant role it provides to India in promoting peace and economic growth in the country will further cement bilateral ties. All these moves coming in the wake of the continuing Doklam impasse between India and China will send a clear and unambiguous message to India’s northern neighbour and the region about the rapidly expanding India-US bilateral ties under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).