In the span of just a week, US President Donald Trump’s administration managed to flip flop on a dizzying number of top shelf foreign policy issues – Syria, Russia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Afghanistan.
The series of reversals began with an unexpected US strike on a Syrian airbase on April 6 in response to a chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian regime in a rebel-held area in the country. Then, at a press conference on April 12, Trump spoke of the crucial role that NATO could play in fighting terrorism, an intergovernmental alliance he had earlier dismissed. He explained this disconnect by saying: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.” At the same event, he also said that ties with Russia were “at an all-time low.”
And on April 13, , the US military dropped the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast, termed fthe “Mother of All Bombs” in the Achin district of Nangarhar in Afghanistan targeting ISIS hideouts in a network of caves and tunnels.
Trump hailed the bombing as “a very very successful mission.” Caught off guard by both military actions, US commentators hurriedly gave the president a stamp of approval for acting “presidential.”
Given that Candidate Trump and pre-strike President Trump were noticeably averse to ramping up involvement in Afghanistan (and Syria), these military assaults came as bolts from the blue. On Afghanistan, it reversed hundreds of tweets and statements Trump had made over the years criticising US involvement in the region and calls for his predecessor Barack Obama to pull US troops out of the South Asian country.
This prompts the question: does the latest bombing in Afghanistan signify an important shift in Trump’s thinking on US policy or is it merely grandstanding?
Is it a flip-flop?
During his election campaign, Trump had repeatedly bashed the Obama administration for “losing the war on terrorism”. Trump’s anti-terrorism invective has been mostly aimed at ISIS in the Middle East and during his campaign, he declared that as president he would “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.”
After the strike on Afghanistan last week, US officials made it clear that the Mother of All Bombs was used to directly target an ISIS stronghold in the craggy mountains of Nangarhar.
Thus the lethal attack in Nangarhar fits into Trump’s dominant anti-terrorism outlook that sees ISIS as a principle threat. Besides, it is one campaign promise he can say he is keeping, particularly as the much ballyhooed repeal of the affordable healthcare plan or Obamacare that he promised his conservative base, suffered a dramatic fall last month.
Indeed, a day after the bombing in Afghanistan, Trump’s son tweeted an emoji of a tick mark next to the phrase “bomb the hell out of ISIS.” Trump Jr also tweeted an emoji of a bomb and the hashtag #maga, (short for “make America great again”).
Breaking the Afghan ‘stalemate’
However, while all of this may go down well politically speaking, it does not say much about the new administration’s longer term strategy on Afghanistan.
In February, soon after Trump took office, the top US General in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, testified in Congress that America’s longest war was in a “stalemate”, with the Taliban controlling much of the countryside, leaving the Kabul government with just the major cities.
According to him, the National Unity Government of Afghanistan under President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah now control only 57% of all districts, down from 72%. (Interestingly, in the same sobering testimony, General Nicholson said one positive development was that the area in which ISIS operated in Afghanistan had been greatly reduced). The general complained of a shortfall in his military force and called for a “few thousand” more troops to train and advise Afghan soldiers.
At present 8,400 US troops are deployed in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 in 2010. In June 2011, a month after a US special forces raid in Pakistan’s Abottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration announced a plan for troop withdrawal, saying that US objectives in Afghanistan were being met. But in 2015, the situation in Afghanistan was deemed too fragile for a full military pullout, and plans were modified to keep some troops in the country indefinitely.
Breaking the Afghan stalemate is thus the real challenge, one that Trump seems to have given little thought to. Apart from criticising the American war in Afghanistan as a “complete waste”, Trump has expressed little on US priorities in Afghanistan or the best way to stabilise the country. Even in the aftermath of the April 13 bombing, evidence of real US policy change is hard to come by.
However, there are clues that some serious thinking may finally be taking place. National Security Advisor HR McMaster’s sudden unannounced visits to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India this week, right after the US military action, indicates quick and high-level engagement. More importantly, the reported strategic review underway of America’s Afghan policy offers a path to recalibration, if not a revamp.
Getting a workable US policy to defeat the Taliban and its continuing threat to a democratic Afghanistan ultimately means getting the Pakistan military to stop playing spoiler. McMaster’s comments in Kabul rather starkly put Pakistan on notice for its long standing double-dealing in the region. Speaking to the media, McMaster said, “As all of us have hoped for many many years, we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past and the best way to pursue their interest in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through diplomacy not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”
American frustration with Pakistan on this score is nothing new, with US-Pakistan relations hitting unprecedented lows under the Obama administration in 2011. But such statements indicate a lower tolerance.
No doubt, the Trump administration wants to demonstrate that it is going to do something different on terrorism and by extension, Afghanistan, than its predecessor. As Trump put it soon after the Nanganhar bombing, “If you compare the last eight weeks to what’s happened over the last eight years, big difference.”
So far, a big difference is that the new administration’s preferred instrument of foreign policy seems to be high decibel bombing and military shows of force. Recent American history would suggest that this hardly translates well in defeating terrorism and creating political stability.
Deepa Ollapally is Research Professor of International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.