By Chayanika Saxena
Inheriting one of America’s longest, and almost inconclusive war, the rise of Donald Trump to power was ostensibly on a promise to put an end to the draining of men, material, money and time in Afghanistan. The things, as they stand today, appear to be running in the reverse direction.
After months of contemplative silence that shrouded US policy towards Afghanistan, Trump administration has done away with the naysayers to tell the world that it will stay the existing course in this conflict-ridden nation. While the details of this ‘staying-put’ strategy have not been disclosed – potentially to spook the spooky insurgents – it is clear the US is indeed interested in not letting Afghanistan to stay as a haven for terrorists, and it is here that lies the major change. In his speech Trump made it clear that the American forces will not be in Afghanistan for nation-building but for killing terrorists.
This decision, coming close on the heels of the ouster of Steve Bannon[i] who was staunchly seeking American withdrawal from Afghanistan, is loaded with implications. At one level, the uncertainty about the way ahead and no pre-announced deadlines – at least in public – has created consternation[ii] about the money, men, material and time that this policy could potentially involve. At another level, the government in Afghanistan has been delivered a strict mandate to demonstrate performance or see the Americans leave. Also, in singling out Pakistan for the safe havens it provides many terrorist outfits and by asking India for greater economic coordination and support in Afghanistan, Trump appears to have laid his plan for Afghanistan (and South Asia) on the table.
The ‘fundamental’ pillars of the American Afghan Strategy
Outlining the ‘new’ American strategy on Afghanistan to the troops at Fort Myer, Trump observed that while his “instincts”[iii] sought withdrawal from Afghanistan, the decisions he took from the Oval Office could not reflect his personal choices alone. That he has decided to keep the forces and even enhance America’s military engagement in Afghanistan is because the absence of any would result in disastrous consequences for the American nation as it once had in September 2001.
Emerging from seven-month long deliberations that were punctuated with ousters, lobbying, and not to forget, the dropping of the ‘mother of all bomb’ in Afghanistan, Trump maintained that his strategy for Afghanistan was to serve the core American interests; a claim that could be seen as a rephrasing of his poll clamor, ‘America first’. As per his speech, there are two vital interests[iv] this Afghan strategy of his would serve to:
Provide an opportunity for an “honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives” and avoid “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable…as a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists” can exploit to US’ disadvantage.[v]
Focusing American energy on “killing the terrorists”[vi], Trump particularly observed that the involvement of US in Afghanistan is not aimed at nation-building anymore. Holding the Afghan government and the country’s political classes responsible to address “their own complex issues”[vii], Trump emphasized the necessity to make the process of social and political reconciliation essentially “Afghan-led and Afghan owned”[viii].
Trump also delineated fundamental pillars of his Afghan strategy as he spoke. These pillars, however, had little new to offer and could be seen as improvisation over the existing American template on Afghanistan. The first pillar of the Trump policy has explicitly given a big no to deadlines. While there is nothing new about this conditions-based approach – Obama had done [ix] the same – not putting an expiration date to the American commitments is a fundamental departure from the earlier strategy. The element of surprise incorporated into the new American strategy has been summed up by Trump this way: “America’s enemies must never know our plans, or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will”[x].
Once again, while there is nothing new about this intent and the actions that would follow, Trump’s explicit mention of the American strategy as not a “nation-building”[xii] process but as a counter-terrorism offensive looks strikingly different from what the mandate looked like in 2004. Interestingly, it was not Obama[xiii] and but the Republican George W. Bush who had begun talking about Afghanistan in tangential terms.
Dealing with Pakistan[xiv] makes up the third fundamental pillar of the Trump strategy. Upping the ante against Pakistan, Trump was vocal in his speech about how despite providing “billions and billions of dollars”[xv] in the fight against terrorism, it continues to “house the very terrorists we (US) has been fighting”[xvi]. Overall, Trump called upon Pakistan to “demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace”[xvii] by becoming a “valued partner”[xviii] of the US once again. As for India, which according to Trump “makes billions of dollars in trade with the US”[xix], he sought greater cooperation from it especially in the areas of “economic assistance and development”.
The fourth pillar, ostensibly, is the withdrawal of US administration from “micro-managing”[xx] the situation in Afghanistan. The President of US has been clear that his strategy is not about nation-building anymore but about counter-terrorism. He has, thus, decided to “expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos through Afghanistan.”[xxi]
Having laid out a strategy, or at least giving us an impression that he has one in mind, Trump’s (mature) words sound all revved-up to take the challenge head on. But the important question is how it would all play out given that Afghanistan has a formidable political crisis within and sits in the midst of global and regional rivalries that make stability an elusive goal.
Dissecting the strategy
There are various levels at which the strategy can be dissected.
Domestically, this summersault of sorts on his earlier vision on Afghanistan appears to have not gone down well with those who had voted for him – at least according to Breitbart[xxii]. In his speech, Trump took particular care in emphasizing the distinction between his role as a private citizen and as the President of USA. Trump mentioned that while he would have wanted to deliver on his poll commitments by withdrawing from Afghanistan, he was hard pressed for choices in actual since abandoning Afghanistan could have unraveled serious threats to the security of USA as it had done in the past. While the public opinion continues to remain wary and weary of increased war efforts, however, as The Atlantic[xxiii] notes, people might give Trump’s policy a kinder evaluation especially as his mature tracing of the evolution of his strategy on Afghanistan made continuous engagement there sound like the least worse off options.
For the regional powers, namely Russia and Iran, Trump’s decision to stay put in this country would yield two significant results. First, the Russian-led meetings for reconciliation in Afghanistan, which are already appearing to be stagnant, might just get derailed. The ongoing conflicts of interest between US and Russia-Iran over Syria would certainly have implications for US-Russia-Iran cooperation over Afghanistan (there hardly was any), especially in the light of American claims that implicate Russians in arming the Taliban. Iran too has the same charges[xxiv] levelled against it – of arming the Taliban and providing it an alternative base to Quetta. Furthermore, since the American President has been particularly unfavorable towards the Nuclear Deal with Iran and Iran has been largely unhappy with the enduring American presence in Afghanistan, Trump’s decision to stay put is likely to compel it to look for greater partnership with the Taliban and support its non-state outfits[xxv] in Afghanistan.
China[xxvi], on the other hand, has been accused of free-riding on US intervention in Iraq, and the same could be said for it in the case of Afghanistan. Providing minimal military support, China has been quick to capture the economic opportunities that Afghanistan provides (in the form of mineral wealth). Given its larger ambitions, which are to provide a conducive atmosphere for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Afghanistan, it is much likely that China would welcome US’ continued involvement in this country. This could very well result in the revival of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group[xxvii] which could, in the initial stages, get the various stakeholders including Taliban, on the same board.
However, it is in the singling out of Pakistan for its continuous support to anti-Afghan, anti-US elements that the weight of Trump’s speech lies. While Pakistan can conveniently survive without the American dole (China is its replacement now), it does realize that China’s impatience regarding the security of its projects – China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and BRI – will compel Pakistan to fall in line.
As for the Indian assistance that has been sought, there are two things to note. One, his seeking of economic support from India was based on what looked like a page out of a book realist relative gains. Sample this[xxviii]: “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States—and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan”. In other words, Trump could have possibly been levelling a free-riding charge on India and wants it to cough up more than what it has. Two, Trump administration was careful to seek India’s enhance support in the domain of ‘economic assistance and development’. The lack of mention of security dimension hinted at two things: US awareness of Pakistani apprehension over Indian security involvement and India’s will-sit-out attitude towards Afghanistan emanating largely from the same Pakistani apprehensions since (military) involvement in Afghanistan could create adverse scenarios for its own domestic security.
For the government of Afghanistan[xxix], the American decision comes as a breather. Struggling on various fronts, the increased American offensive presence could mean that the government could focus more on its immediate tasks of administration and governance of the nation, therefore supplementing the American initiatives for stability in a better manner. The absence of deadline in the Trump policy can be read in two ways. One, it has reinforced American commitment to Afghanistan thereby telling those causing trouble that America is here to stay until the problem is weeded out. However, qualifying this support on performance, the American policy has also made it clear that if it ever comes to leaving Afghanistan without meeting the mandate, it would be because the Afghan government has not succeeded in playing its part of the role. No ‘blank checks’ as Trump said.
In the end, we will win?
Trump was careful to mold his decision to stay-put in Afghanistan in ‘America First’ terms. Describing his decision as the one that would ensure greater security for America among other things, Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan has not brought anything substantially new over the existing template. The difference is to be seen in practice, if at all there will be any. His silence on what the path would look like has paradoxically raised both uncertainty[xxx] and hope[xxxi] about the efficacy of American offensive in Afghanistan. Talking tough on Pakistan, seeking greater Indian support and wanting more dedication from the political class in Afghanistan, it will remain to be seen when and how the talk of retribution against those responsible for imperiling the security of Afghanistan, South Asia, US (and in fact, the whole) world would translate into action.
(The author is a Research Assistant at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
[i] On Afghanistan, It’s Bannon vs. Almost Everybody http://www.weeklystandard.com/on-afghanistan-its-bannon-vs.-almost-everybody/article/200805
[ii] There Is No Military Path to Victory in Afghanistan
[iii] Full Transcript: Donald Trump Announces His Afghanistan Policy https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/full-transcript-donald-trump-announces-his-afghanistan-policy/537552/?utm_source=twb
[ix] No, Mr. President, Obama wasn’t a ‘nation-builder’ in Afghanistan http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-trump-afghanistan-20170822-story.html
[x] Full Transcript: Donald Trump Announces His Afghanistan Policy https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/full-transcript-donald-trump-announces-his-afghanistan-policy/537552/?utm_source=twb
[xiii] No, Mr. President, Obama wasn’t a ‘nation-builder’ in Afghanistan http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-trump-afghanistan-20170822-story.html
[xiv] Full Transcript: Donald Trump Announces His Afghanistan Policy https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/full-transcript-donald-trump-announces-his-afghanistan-policy/537552/?utm_source=twb
[xxii] Trump’s ‘America First’ Base Unhappy with Flip-Flop Afghanistan Speech http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/08/21/trumps-america-first-base-unhappy-with-flip-flop-afghanistan-speech/
[xxiii] Give Trump Credit for His Afghanistan Plan https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/08/trump-afghanistan-taliban-terrorism/537567/
[xxiv] Iran Backs Taliban With Cash and Arms https://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-backs-taliban-with-cash-and-arms-1434065528
[xxv] Peace in Afghanistan: A bridge too far http://southasiamonitor.org/news/peace-in-afghanistan-a-bridge-too-far/sl/21720
[xxvi] China’s New Role in Afghanistan http://ippreview.net/index.php/Blog/single/id/497.html
[xxvii] Pakistan, Afghan leader agree to revive QCG: FO http://dailytimes.com.pk/features/10-Jun-17/pakistan-afghan-leader-agree-to-revive-qcg-fo
[xxviii] Full Transcript: Donald Trump Announces His Afghanistan Policy https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/full-transcript-donald-trump-announces-his-afghanistan-policy/537552/?utm_source=twb
[xxix] Afghan president ‘grateful’ for Trump’s commitment to fighting Taliban
[xxx] There Is No Military Path to Victory in Afghanistan http://time.com/4911492/trump-afghanistan-military-victory/
[xxxi] Give Trump Credit for His Afghanistan Plan https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/08/trump-afghanistan-taliban-terrorism/537567/