In President Trump’s speech at Fort Myer, where he talked to the many soldiers and members of cabinet, he outlined his ‘New Strategy’ in Afghanistan and South Asia.
Sixteen years into the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, nothing has really changed from former President George W Bush, to Obama, and now Donald Trump. President Trump outlined three main pillars to his strategy in his speech.
First is to provide an enduring outcome where we can save American lives. Second, was the backlash of pulling out of Afghanistan quickly, which could create a vacuum for terrorist groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network. And lastly, to protect U.S security interests in the region. In fact, in his speech, President Trump pointed out that around “20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”i
U.S interests are vital for Afghanistan and South Asia. In the speech, President Trump outlined U.S interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan; “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”ii Instead of withdrawing troops, the United States will re-energize its commitment to Afghanistan to prevent the spread of terrorism.
Deepening the U.S Involvement in Afghanistan
President Trump outlined three pillars for his South Asia strategy in confronting the Taliban and other terrorist groups. The first and core pillar is a time-based approach to set goals for when troops will pull back from the area, and create new ideas for further military operations. The second pillar is to show that the United States is committed to supporting the Afghan military and government in its confrontation with the Taliban. And finally, the United States must use all the tools it has to carry out diplomatic solutions with its allies, and all the major players in the region for a positive outcome to the conflict. One of those regional players is Pakistan, who has evidently granted safe havens to terrorist organizations and other groups who threaten U.S and regional interests.
Given the context of President Trump’s speech, it seems like he is tweaking Obama’s policies in Afghanistan. This was a man who was elected to lessen the entanglement of U.S involvement in far-off nations that the U.S knows nothing about and are impoverished. However, the rhetoric on the campaign trail is different from sitting in the Oval office, and the situation in Afghanistan is far more complicating than Trump expected. The Taliban has made some gains on government controlled areas near the border with Pakistan and in the hills of the northwestern part of the country. The president also highlighted that he won’t know how many troops will be deployed to Afghanistan and how long this war will continue.
The most important aspect President Trump got right in the speech was the fact that the situation in Afghanistan is much worse. The Taliban along with the twenty other terrorist networks in the country have gained ground over the government forces and have become more aggressive and ruthless of threatening U.S interests and operating on the ground. The one thing we have learned from the 9/11 attacks is that we cannot allow terrorist networks to roam around foreign grounds unchallenged because we know their intentions, and this could possibly drive President Trump to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Turning the Screws on Pakistan
The president took a very aggressive approach on an important U.S ally, Pakistan. He made it clear in his speech that Pakistan has provided “safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists… We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”iii
These comments have not been warmly received very well in Pakistan. The country is still ruled by military elites, and Pakistan has also been a victim of terrorism that has made many sacrifices as a critical front for combating terrorism in South Asia. The unstable border with Afghanistan has made it easier for terrorist networks to move freely in the region and the movement of weapons across borders has made the situation a lot worse for the security of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani government has done more on the terrorism front than it did from 2002-2005, but it needs to rethink its policies of funding groups like the Taliban.
Pakistan does have some options on what direction they are willing to take on Afghanistan. Both the civil and military elites would like to review and maintain their relationship with the United States since Pakistan is one of the largest countries in the world who receives U.S foreign aid. However, their options are constrained because of the India factor and President Trump did add that India must do more in Afghanistan.
This worries Pakistan because the Pakistani perspective sees the Afghanistan issue as something that could be dominated by India. Over many decades, one of Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan was also to reduce Indian influence on its western borders. Another thing Pakistan is worried about is President Trump asking India to intervene because this could increasingly escalate India-Pakistan relations. The United States sees India as a formidable partner in the fight against terrorism even though Pakistan is still in China’s orbit of influence.
The Roadmap to Negotiations
Sixteen years into the War on Terrorism, the U.S strategy in Afghanistan remains severely flawed. President Trump needs to face the hard truth in Afghanistan and that hard truth is that even if he sends more troops, these troops still cannot defeat the Taliban, and the United States has failed to defeat this organization for sixteen years.
Adding more troops in Afghanistan could also be a containment strategy for the U.S and this does not really sound like a winning strategy coming from the Trump Administration. We do not like to hear the word ‘nation-building’ especially after what happened after the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it needs to play some role in a diplomatic solution that allows the Afghans themselves to conduct home-grown nation-building that cures corruption within the government and there also needs to be a united front in Afghan society to defeat the Taliban.
If there has been any recurring theme in the history of Afghanistan, it has been the inability of any foreign power to occupy it. The British failed to do it, the Soviets created their own ‘Vietnam’ in 1979, where they sustained thousands of casualties, and the United States has failed for sixteen years with their difficulties as well. President Trump reiterated in his speech that the United States is not looking to occupy Afghanistan, but it is looking to protect the American people from another 9/11, and to bring peace and stability to the Afghan government, and its people.
i. “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” August 21, 2016 White House https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/21/remarks-president-trump-strategy-afghanistan-and-south-asia
ii. “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” August 21, 2016 White House https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/21/remarks-president-trump-strategy-afghanistan-and-south-asia
iii. “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” August 21, 2016 White House https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/21/remarks-president-trump-strategy-afghanistan-and-south-asia