US President Donald Trump unveiled his new policy for Afghanistan and South Asia in a televised address on Monday, making it clear that American troops will continue to fight in what is at 17 years the longest war in US history. Trump made it a point to announce that this was not just a rejigging of Afghanistan policy. He also used the occasion to reprimand Pakistan for given safe haven to terrorists and said that the US wants India to help more in contributing to the stability of Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear,” Trump said. “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.”

He listed the factors that would make up the “dramatically” changed Afghanistan and South Asia policy over the next few years:

  • “A shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.”
    Trump, throughout his presidential campaign, criticised former US President Barack Obama for announcing a date by which American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan. He said it allowed for the Taliban and others to simply regroup and lie in wait. The new policy allows the military to look at conditions on the ground before deciding whether to attack or withdraw. While that may sound prudent, considering the longevity of the war and the tenous nature of the Afghan state, it also means US troops are likely to be in the country for years to come.
  • “The integration of all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic, and military – toward a successful outcome.”
    Trump explicitly changed the definition of “successful outcome” through his speech, insisting that America has spent too much time, money and lives in trying to rebuild countries in its own image. He acknowledged that a future political solution in Afghanistan may even include the Taliban, but it is up to the Afghan people to make that call. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” he said.
  • “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat.”
    These were Trump’s strongest remarks yet about Pakistan, a country that has ostensibly been an American ally over the decades, but has frequently been accused of milking US funds to take part in an arms race with India, instead of fighting terror organisations that were often nurtured by the Pakistani state. “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.”

Trump then turned to India, and it is worth reading his remarks here in full (emphasis added).

“Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India – the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.  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, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.  We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.”  

Trump invited India to play bigger role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. This should come as good news to New Delhi, and indeed the Ministry of External Affairs welcomed the statement. But Trump’s framing of the issue is problematic both because of how transactional it seems as well as the narrative that Afghan reconstruction is broadly an American effort.

“But India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States,” Trump said, as if to suggest this was a reason for New Delhi to do what Washington asks of it. But the US’ trade deficit with India ought not to be the reason India takes a bigger role in Afghanistan. Instead, it is India’s own interests in a stable, terror-free region that drives its willingness to partner with Kabul. Economic prodding from the US will not do any good, and also risks making it seem as if the effort is entirely American-driven. As the Hindustan Times’s Bobby Ghosh points out, “One of the strengths of India’s involvement in Afghanistan is that it is seen unambiguously as INDIAN involvement.”

The real impediment to greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan is the very real danger of further retribution from Pakistan, which has been more than willing to use its terror assets against India in the past. This is where Trump’s promise to be harsher with Islamabad is welcome.

But New Delhi would do well to see how much of that actually turns into action on the ground. American leaders in the past have vowed to be stern with Pakistan, only to cave in to demands from the country’s military. Trump has promised a “dramatically changed” approach, and made the most direct remarks from a US president regarding Pakistan yet. Now New Delhi will have to see how much of that is simply drama as opposed to actual change.