By Ajai Sahni*
There has been a tremendous and polarizing response to US President Donald Trump’s announcement of a “new integrated strategy for the U.S. approach to South Asia”, in particular, his approach to the Afghanistan-Pakistan conundrum. However, most commentary, other than that of Trump’s committed partisans, has been dismissive of this new approach, abruptly writing it off as ‘old wine in new bottles’; pointing to its commonalities with past and demonstrably failed strategies – particularly including those of the precedent administration of President Barack Obama; criticizing it for its excessive reliance on use of force, when ‘history’ has apparently demonstrated that ‘military solutions don’t work’, and so forth.
But Trump’s strategy deserves close attention because it does, in fact, contain radically original elements, and also because, irrespective of its actual implementation and eventual probabilities of success, it will – indeed, has already begun to – dramatically alter the geo-strategic environment of South Asia and the wider Asian region.
Broad-stroke counter-terrorism options with regard to the AfPak region are, of course, limited. Simply put, they are exhausted by the choice between reliance on use of force, on the one hand, and negotiated settlements, on the other. Both have been tried fitfully – or have been indiscriminately mixed in – over the past decades, and it is not just the ‘military solution’ that has been unsuccessful; negotiations have gone nowhere as well.
Behind the sweeping generalizations on use of force and negotiations, however, are an infinity of graded options and priorities, and it is here that Trump – or, more likely, to borrow a currently popular phrase, the ‘adults in his administration’ – breaks sharply with the past. It is useful to examine some of the innovations of this new approach.
First, it must be enormously emphasized, Trump’s AfPak (he does not call it so, but it is a useful contraction) is by no means a simple repackaging of Obama’s AfPak, though he also proposes an increase (surge) in US armed presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, for those who study these issues with any measure of seriousness and non-partisan commitment, the inevitable failure of Obama’s AfPak policy was evident from the very moment of its announcement. Among its many disastrous elements, the most self-destructive was the announcement of a predetermined draw-down schedule. Indeed, the underlying logic of the ‘surge’ – the pivot of Obama’s AfPak policy – was the puerile argument that, since adding 30,000 troops in Iraq had ‘succeeded’, this magical number would also prevail in Afghanistan within an arbitrary and publicly announced timeframe, presenting Pakistan and its proxies in Afghanistan with a promise of preordained victory if they could simply outlast the deadline.
The new strategy explicitly recognizes the folly of offering a determined adversary with, as Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson expressed it in a Press Statement released on August 21, 2017, “artificial calendar-based deadlines”. Instead, he declared, “We are making clear to the Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield… ”
Announcing his South Asia Policy on the same date, President Trump reiterated,
A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options. We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground – not arbitrary timetables – will guide our strategy from now on. 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.
Trump had, in his election campaigns, clearly advocated an exit from Afghanistan – something President Obama also sought, but failed to achieve in full measure – but has recognized the error of this perspective, noting, “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory… the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable… A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill…”
The Obama and preceding George W. Bush administrations had both recognized Pakistan’s dubious role in the troubles in Afghanistan, but always sought to tread softly or, after a particularly harsh statement (for instance, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark in Islamabad, “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours”; or, earlier, then Secretary of State, Richard Armitage’s alleged threat, confirmed by then President Pervez Musharraf, to ‘bomb Pakistan back into the stone age’), to quickly mollify Pakistan with aid and generous praise of its ‘great sacrifices’ and role in the ‘war on terror’.
Trump is far less compromising: “Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world… Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” Trump then commits himself “to stripping terrorists of their territory, cutting off their funding, and exposing the false allure of their evil ideology.”
Significantly, US funding to Pakistan has been gradually drying up, and committed resources were recently blocked by Congress because the Secretary of Defence refused to certify that Islamabad had ‘done enough’ against terrorist formations – particularly the Haqqani Network – operating from its soil into Afghanistan. Several terrorist formations – proxies of Pakistani state entities – operating in Afghanistan and in India, have also been put on to the US proscribed terrorist organizations’ list by successive US administrations, the latest being the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen, headquartered at Muzaffarabad in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Nevertheless, effective and concrete actions against most of these groupings and sanctions against their state sponsors are yet to be seen. The language of Trump’s ‘new strategy’, however, clearly puts Islamabad on notice. The President describes as a “pillar of our new strategy”, the change of approach on “how to deal with Pakistan”:
We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan… has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists… Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. 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. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.
Crucially, Trump redefines, with absolute clarity, the US engagement in Afghanistan:
We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists… That’s why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide; that no place is beyond the reach of American might and Americans arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful… From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.
This is what troubles the liberal mind most. The notion that military campaigns with an explicit emphasis on ‘killing’ are posited as the critical element in a counter-terrorism strategy; no ‘addressing root causes’; no ‘negotiated settlements’; no ‘political’ and ‘diplomatic’ initiatives.
The rawness of Trump’s language lends itself easily to parody and exaggeration; to a representation of the President as extremist and somehow unhinged. The strategy that Trump proposes is, however, well supported by the history of counter-insurgency successes, the most dramatic and comprehensive of which have resulted precisely from ‘killing terrorists’. However, not all terrorists are necessary or desirable targets. It is the attrition of leadership and core infrastructure that is crucial, and where these are destroyed, movements disappear. But in the present case, it is not just the Taliban or the Haqqani network leaderships that matter; the principal leadership of the insurgency/terrorism in Afghanistan lies in the Pakistan military leadership and this will require a whole new level of strategy to address. Nevertheless, the efficacy of targeting terrorist leaderships and infrastructure has been demonstrated again and again and is, indeed, currently being demonstrated in Iraq and Syria. Trump demonstrates a clear awareness of this, observing, “As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field, we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS, including the liberation of Mosul in Iraq.” If terrorist leaderships and infrastructure in AfPak can be effectively targeted and destroyed, their sponsors in Pakistan’s military will have little option but to accept defeat.
It is ironic in this context that Russia has chosen to criticize the Trump strategy, even as it has been one of the most vigorous advocates of the lethal use of force – at least on occasion with counter-productive consequences – against terrorism. Indeed, it was an aggressive Russian intervention in favour of the Syrian state that transformed the tepid and compromised Western campaigns in that country into an uncompromising and increasingly successful campaign across the Iraq-Syria theatre.
None of this is intended to suggest that the Trump approach has just one component – lethal force – and ignores all other instruments of strategic influence. Indeed, Trump speaks explicitly of the “integration of all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic, and military – toward a successful outcome.” But each component of strategy has its own time and place. It has been sheer folly in the past, to give terrorists and their state sponsors a privileged place at the negotiating table, even as they continue to escalate violence to exercise greater leverage in negotiating processes. The Trump strategy does not repudiate other instruments of influence, but recognizes clearly and correctly that, while “Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country… strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace” [emphasis added].
Crucially, while the Trump strategy does indicate that there will be a ‘surge’ of undefined proportions in US troop presence in Afghanistan, surrounding circumstances – and the character of the US-led campaigns in Iraq and Syria – suggest that overwhelming reliance is to be placed on aerial targeting of critical terrorist infrastructure and leaderships, with local Afghan Forces seizing and holding the ground after it has been ‘softened’ by targeted US air attacks. Indeed, this approach has been in place in Afghanistan even before the announcement of the new Trump strategy. United States Air Force (USAF) data indicates that airstrikes in Afghanistan rose from 705 in January to July 2016, to 1,984 in January to July 2017. These strikes have disproportionately – and very effectively – targeted the incipient Islamic State of Khorasan infrastructure in Afghanistan, but are yet to secure the scale and impact necessary to reverse the growing Taliban influence in the country.
Significantly, the US determination to “attack terrorists wherever they live” puts Pakistan clearly within the scope of future campaigns. While this would not be a radical break with the past – terrorists in Pakistan have been targeted by US Drone and Aerial strikes on many occasions, prominently including the killing of Osama bin Laden and, more recently, the then Taliban chief Mullah Mansoor, on Pakistan soil – it remains to be seen whether the scale and intensity of such campaigns will augment dramatically.
Unsurprisingly, the reaction to the announcement of the new Trump strategy in Pakistan has been alarmed and negative, with the establishment rejecting the ‘false narrative’ it imposes on the ‘complex realities’ of the conflict, and arguing, “You can’t single out one nation. There is not only one nation destabilizing Afghanistan.” Some reactions have been a little less restrained, with the Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Mian Raza Rabbani, for instance, declaring, “If President of US wants that Pakistan should be graveyard of American army, then we will welcome them (sic)”. The Pakistani narrative is, moreover, increasingly clear: create paranoia about a ‘nuclear armed state’ at the edge of the abyss, and also raise the bogey of Islamabad’s push into a rogue alliance with China, Russia and Iran, as US sanctions or punitive actions mount. Thus, Amir Rana, Director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, warned that isolating Pakistan as the ‘sole culprit’ could stymie efforts to stabilize the region and increase the influence of Russia, China and even Iran. Russian and Chinese responses to the Trump strategy have been uniformly critical.
The declaration of a new US strategy for Afghanistan – or the wider South Asian region – has immense importance, and has already triggered the beginnings of geo-strategic realignments in the region. It will, however, prove decisive only in the magnitude, quality and endurance of its implementation. Half measures and indiscriminate campaigns will both fail, but the potential for success, if appropriate scale and persistence can be attained, is unprecedented. It remains to be seen whether Trump’s policy will endure or, indeed, whether Trump would himself last out his full term – a prospect that both critics and supporters increasingly doubt.
Crucially, it is useful to remind ourselves that, despite the periodic theatrics of public and mass murders executed by Islamist terrorists, this is far from the best of times to be of this persuasion. These movements and their state sponsors are, as has been remarked earlier, on the wrong side of history, and their ideological underpinnings are based on an incorrect understanding of the nature of power.
Unfortunately, there has been a tremendous loss of confidence and of legitimacy on the part of democratic leaderships across the world, and an unwillingness to commit themselves to consistent counter-terrorism goals in an environment where petty ‘great games’ continue to define and dominate the conduct of nations.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP