Trump’s New Afghan Strategy

By Misbah Azam

US President Donald Trump’s announcement of a so-called new policy about Afghanistan is getting mixed reactions from all over the world.  He, without mincing words, declared that Taliban resurgence is only possible because of Pakistan, while conveniently forgetting the role of Russia, Iran and China who are helping Taliban to tackle the ISIS.

Trump’s tone was not very different from that of President Bush’s when the latter gave his “axis of evil” speech in 2001. Some analysts and retired generals in Pakistan insist that Trump needed to find a scapegoat for American failure in Afghanistan, and so he chose Pakistan.

The speech raises several questions: Is there something new in the policy announced by President Trump? Is Pakistan really a solution to Afghan problems? What message is given to India and the Afghanistan? Why only Pakistan was blamed for all the failures in Afghanistan? How much this policy would affect Pakistan?  What the US can do to force Pakistan to deliver? Does this policy constitute a declaration of war against Pakistan with India’s assistance?  Finally, can one see the speech as — in Dr. Graham Allison’s words — the “Thucydides trap”?

Although the Trump administration insists that his speech is a “new Afghan policy”, in 2009 President Obama remarked something very similar when he put forward his ‘New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan’.  President Obama said: “So let me be clear. Al Qaeda and its allies – the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks – are in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He further said, “Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe-haven in Pakistan”.

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Successive US administrations and Washington-based think tanks have been divided on the policy towards Pakistan. Some believe that Pakistan’s threat perception towards India is real and Pakistan would not relinquish its support for the Taliban until its security paranoia is addressed. So if the US would help settle their issue vis-à-vis India by pressuring India for a dialogue with Pakistan, on Kashmir and other issues, Pakistan would come out in open support of the US.  This argument was elaborated in detail by Stephen Hadley, former US National Security Advisor, in one of his articles. The article was co-authored by Dr. Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President South Asia Program at US Institute of Peace.

However, there is another group that believes Pakistan’s threat perception about India is exaggerated and if US would simply twist Pakistan’s arms, it would deliver. Dr. Moeed Yusuf and Ejaz Haider, a journalist and public intellectual based in Pakistan, argue that it is Pakistan, and not US or any other country, which should decide its threat perceptions – just like India had its security paranoia before 1971 when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan.

Both President Obama and President Trump side with the latter school of thought.  One reason is that due to larger weight of India, its market and economy, the US is reluctant to pressure India, a country ready to assist US in its policy of containing China.

The viewpoint about Pakistan is further strengthened when the situation on the ground is observed.  Initially, Pakistan denied the existence of Taliban and Al-Qaida leaders on its soil.  However, it turned out that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Umar died in a Pakistani hospital; Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden was found hiding in Abbottabad; Mullah Akhter Mansur, the new Emir of Afghan Taliban was killed in a US drone attack inside Pakistan.

Pakistan’s security establishment – which controls its foreign and defense policies– agrees that top Taliban leaders are living in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan.  They insist that they have leverage over Taliban and can make them engage in peace talks with Afghanistan’s elected government.  When Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke in the US Institute of Peace in October 2016, he said that Pakistan cannot deliver the peace dialogue if the world continues to insist on Pakistan fighting and eliminating the Taliban leadership currently hiding in Pakistan.

However, after Pakistan was able to get some junior Taliban leaders to sit with Afghan government to initiate the peace process, the dialogue broke after the first meeting when the death of Mullah Umar was leaked by the Afghan Intelligence. Now, the policy makers in US question that if Pakistan cannot get the Afghan Taliban to engage in constructive dialogue with Afghan government, what is the significance of Pakistan in the war, and that attitude of Pakistan simply makes Pakistan a part of problem instead of part of solution.

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India and Afghanistan have a long history of bilateral relations. Only during the Taliban regime (1996-2001), these relations were left dormant. However, India helped the US-led coalition forces in overthrowing the Taliban regime and became the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan.

Indians are working in various construction projects, as part of India’s rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Mr. Shaida Mohammad Abdali, recently pointed out that India is “the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan and fifth largest donor globally with over $3 billion in assistance. India has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsored over a 1,000 scholarships, hosted over 16,000 Afghan students.”

President Trump announced that India has a role to play, and asked it to pledge more money in the development of Afghanistan. President Trump also announced that the US engagement in Afghanistan will be limited to “killing terrorists” and training Afghan troops, not the nation building.

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Political analysts and commentators in Pakistan are raising the question that why only Pakistan was blamed when it is well known that Russia and Iran are supporting Taliban and even arming them.  Also, does this snub of Pakistan and praise for India constitute a declaration of war against Pakistan?

According to US media, Iran and Russia have stepped up their efforts to challenge US in Afghanistan.  General John Nicholson, a general in charge of US forces in Afghanistan, confirmed that Russia is sending weapons to the Taliban.  General Nicholson confessed that the Russian intervention would further complicate the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan and the Russia’s relations with the United States. “We continue to get reports of this assistance,” Nicholson said, speaking to reporters alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis. “We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process. But arming the belligerents [Taliban], who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif, is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.”

Some analysts attach another question about the definition of victory.  What can 20,000 troops achieve which 100,000 troops couldn’t in 16 years?

One answer could be that the US administration would like to find a scape goat for its failure in Afghanistan. But then why blame Pakistan only? Why not Russia, Iran or even China?  Is it because Pakistan’s Achilles Heel – military control over civilian institutions and Judiciary– is exposed and Pakistan can easily be pushed? Or is it because the real goal is not victory in Afghanistan but containment of China, which is expanding its fleet and creating access to Arabian Sea at the gateway of Hurmuz?

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Thucydides, an Athenian historian and military general in the 5th century BC, wrote the history of Peloponnesian wars. In his book History of the Peloponnesian War, he writes, “By all means, keep anyone else from having a fleet if possible. Otherwise, pick a strongest as your friend”.

The US administration is using Afghanistan as an excuse to send its drones deep inside Pakistan and monitor the activities of China inside Pakistan. After President Trump’s speech, Chinese government twice defended Pakistan’s position and warned US to accept all the sacrifices by Pakistan.  That shows China’s nervousness on this new US policy.  The US administration believes that India should have a significant role in assisting US in ensuring that China is not able to achieve its goals in the region.

Now, would the US pressure force Pakistan to move away from the status quo? The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the US funding for Pakistan could be cut if the government doesn’t cooperate with the President’s new strategy for Afghanistan. The question is: would all these threats by the US administration influence Pakistan?

The history of the last decade shows that the US leverage on Pakistan was severely eroded during Obama administration. The US assistance to Pakistan comes in three categories: economic aid, security aid and funding to help the country pay for the cost of counter-terrorism operations. In 2011, the total aid had peaked to $3.5 billion but during Obama administration, the Congress steadily cut it down and by 2016, it is now less than a billion dollar annually. In July 2016, the Trump administration suspended another $300 million in aid, originally meant to reimburse Pakistan for counterterrorism operations near the Afghan border.

The US has leverage on Pakistan because it can influence the international financial institutions like International Monitory Fund (IMF) and the Western investors, which Pakistan is trying its best to engage.  However, so far the investments from West are barely contributing Pakistan’s economy significantly.

Is the new policy a declaration of war? What is the definition of victory and how President Trump would define success? Is it the intellectual bankruptcy of Trump admiration where the State Department has vacant positions and there is no special envoy to deal with Afghanistan? What the US would achieve with less than 20,000 troops that it could not achieve with over 100,000 troops? Coming days and months would answer these questions.