United States President Donald Trump’s much-awaited policy speech on the way forward in Afghanistan was disappointing. It neither fulfilled his campaign pledge to end the 17-year war nor amounted to a significant departure from his predecessor Barack Obama’s strategy. In reality, it was largely old wine in a new bottle.
For a start, let us recapitulate the key templates of Obama’s strategy:
- Establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan.
- Drawdown but not total withdrawal of American troops.
- Periodical review of troop levels.
- Rejection of outright Taliban takeover.
- Willingness to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban but from a position of advantage.
- Aversion toward “nation-building”.
- Termination of the combat mission but with flexible terms of engagement to meet emergent security challenges.
- Incremental reliance on the Afghan forces.
- Training and capacity-building of the Afghan forces.
- Pressure on Pakistan to shut down “safe havens” and crack down on the Haqqani Network.
- Robust support to the Afghan National Unity Government.
Trump’s strategy basically rests on these templates. On two key aspects that have got much traction lately – timeline for the US deployment and troop levels – Trump shied away from being specific. He put the onus on the military to win by giving it the freedom to conduct the war. It is a smart move politically.
Trump, thus, gave himself wriggle room if things don’t turn out well. He is probably right in blaming Obama for having tried to “micromanage” the war – left to him, he wouldn’t share Obama’s high sense of accountability.
Ironically, Trump made his speech near Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place for many Americans who have died in the war. Obama had chosen for his speech of December 2, 2009 – in which he went back on his campaign pledge to end the war and ordered the “surge” – the setting of the Military Academy at West Point.
It is instructive to watch videos of the two presidents speaking on the same topic in broadly comparable situations. Obama had fire in his belly, confidently promising to win the war, leading upfront as the commander-in-chief. Trump was listless and uncharacteristically subdued, as if lacking conviction in what he was saying.
It is possible that Trump has a Plan B. After all, towards the end of his speech, he said obliquely that he won’t hesitate to call it quits if the situation warrants it. Trump said he was not giving a “blank cheque” to the Afghan government, but expected “real reforms, real progress and real results. “Our patience is not unlimited,” he warned. “We will keep our eyes wide open.” Trump called it “principled realism.” And not without reason given the relative certainty that the Afghan government would eventually fail.
The key template in Trump’s speech was the so-called South Asia strategy, outlining the approach towards Pakistan. He virtually threatened Pakistan with retribution unless it “immediately” shut down safe havens for terrorists. He warned that the US “can no longer be silent” and Pakistan has “much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists”.
Would the US military expand its counterterrorism operations to Pakistani territory? If that happens, a stormy parting of ways between the estranged partners becomes unavoidable, and the consequences will be hard to predict. Both have the capacity to wound each other lethally. This may seem an asymmetrical confrontation, but Pakistan knows precisely where the US and the Afghan government’s weaknesses lie, and they will be most vulnerable.
Pakistan cannot be unaware that Trump would have an entirely different political compass in a year’s time as his campaign for a second term as president takes off. At any rate, Trump’s approach is not different substantively from what the US has already tried unsuccessfully under the past two presidents in so far as its success is still heavily predicated on Pakistan’s cooperation.
The Afghan forces are far too weak to succeed. The Afghan government controls just half the country. There’s a long haul ahead, for sure, for Trump’s generals. And it is wide open how far the US’ Nato allies are willing to step up.
In the line of fire?
Most important, Trump’s reference to a strategic partnership with India holds profound implications for Pakistan. This war now assumes existential overtones for Pakistan. Simply put, Pakistan cannot afford to succumb to Trump’s threats.
Pakistan’s preferred option will be to dip into all the rich experience in its repertoire to string the US along. In the meantime, Pakistan will explore its strategic options in the contemporary regional and global setting. It does have such options. The point is that the US is no longer a consequential donor and Trump’s capacity to leverage the Pakistani policies is very limited.
This probably explains why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hastily issued a separate “Statement on the United States’ Engagement in Afghanistan” in which he rounded off in measured diplomatic idiom the rough edges of Trump’s rhetoric against Pakistan. The statement reverted to Obama’s focus on the centrality of an Afghan peace process:
“The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war. We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions. We look to the international community, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbors, to join us in supporting an Afghan peace process.”
“Pakistan has suffered greatly from terrorism and can be an important partner in our shared goals of peace and stability in the region. We look to Pakistan to take decisive action against militant groups based in Pakistan that are a threat to the region. It is vital to U.S. interests that Afghanistan and Pakistan prevent terrorist sanctuaries.”
Tillerson acknowledged the Pakistani grievance about the existence of terrorist sanctuaries on Afghan soil. Indeed, it is difficult at this point to assess how far Trump actually meant his rhetoric against Pakistan. He was addressing the nation and he spoke with the domestic opinion in mind.
Therefore, the Narendra Modi government’s delight over Trump’s rhetoric against Pakistan is premature. Equally, on closer look, Trump said some strange things about India’s role in Afghanistan. He commended India’s constructive role in Afghanistan’s development. But then he didn’t invite India to participate in the war.
Instead, curiously, Trump recalled the US’ $24 billion trade deficit with India and taunted that India should, therefore, “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” This is a strange kind of South Asia strategy for a superpower.
The thought of “America First” was never far from Trump’s mind. His priorities have not changed. Trump said he expected the US’ Nato allies to support his strategy with both additional troops and “funding increases in line with our own”. Elsewhere, he has disclosed that even as the war goes on, the US will also explore economic opportunities in Afghanistan, which would “help defray the cost of this war to us”. Trump said the Afghan prime minister (President Ashraf Ghani?) has made promises to this effect.
This is going to be an extraordinary war. The generals will fight the war with a free hand to “act in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy”. But the commander-in-chief will not specify the number of troops that would be committed or even define the conditions by which the success of the war will be measured. He will be mostly in the counting house, counting out his money.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey.