There is nothing in the new US policy laid out by President Donald Trump that can bring the 16-year-long Afghan war to an end. The much-awaited strategy that links Afghanistan with the US South Asia policy is likely to only deepen regional tensions. The toughening stance on Pakistan may have serious repercussions for an already troubled relationship between Islamabad and Washington.
Although Trump has said that US troops would not stay in Afghanistan for long, there is certainly no clear exit plan. As in the past, the emphasis is on the military solution that may keep the US involved in the Afghan war forever. Trump has not specified the number of additional US forces being deployed there, but he has already given the Pentagon approval for 3,900 soldiers thus bringing the total American troop presence in the country close to 10,000.
This marks a complete turnaround in Trump’s election promise to pull out US troops from Afghanistan. He seems to be getting the US more deeply engaged in what he had earlier described as a futile war. It is apparent that he has given in to the pressure from the American military establishment, though one tends to agree with him that complete military withdrawal would have disastrous consequences for regional security.
Most US defence analysts agree that a surge in troops can only help in maintaining the existing stalemate. The new American strategy has come at a time when the Afghan Taliban insurgents have expanded their influence to over 40 per cent of the country that is plagued by rising internal political discord.
There still seems to be no realisation in the Trump administration about the seriousness of the Afghan situation. It will not be easy for the US forces to contain the Taliban advance and to maintain the status quo for a longer period. What is most alarming is the spread of the insurgency even to regions in north Afghanistan that were previously considered secure.
Diplomacy and political options are clearly not a priority for the Trump administration.
It has been the bloodiest year in Afghanistan in terms of civil and military casualties since the US invasion in 2001. The rising spectre of the militant Islamic State group and daring terrorist attacks, claimed by the network, have worsened the security situation. The surge in US troops is not likely to shift the balance in the war significantly. The surge is more of a patchwork effort than a serious attempt at exploring the possibility of a political solution to the Afghan conflict.
Diplomacy and political options are clearly not a priority for the Trump administration, though there has been a fleeting mention of the administration’s willingness to begin talks with the Afghan Taliban insurgents. There is certainly no road map for peace. Like his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump has made it clear that the United States will not be engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan.
But there is also no plan to stabilise the political and economic situation in Afghanistan. The danger is that a confused and flawed policy may push the United States much deeper into the Afghan quagmire and fuel regional tensions. While assigning India a greater role, there is no plan to engage other neighbouring and surrounding countries in the effort to resolve the Afghan conflict.
Not surprisingly, Trump reserved his strongest criticism for Pakistan. While acknowledging Pakistan’s sacrifices and its efforts in fighting terrorism, he declared this country a part of the problem too. It is perhaps for the first time that a US president has, publicly, warned Pakistan of severe consequences if the country does not take effective action against the alleged terrorist sanctuaries along its borders.
It is not clear what kind of military and economic actions the US administration has been considering. But such threats would not help win Pakistan’s support unless Islamabad’s own national security concerns are addressed. Like the previous administrations, the Trump administration too believes in unquestioned cooperation, ignoring Islamabad’s interests completely.
What has made the situation for Pakistan more complicated is Trump’s policy of getting India more deeply engaged in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s concerns about India’s economic and strategic cooperation with Kabul may be exaggerated, but the previous US administrations were careful not to encourage Delhi to expand its role in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials contend that the Trump administration has crossed the red line by making India a part of its Afghan strategy, though the Indian authorities may not be too pleased by Trump’s remarks about their country getting trade benefits from the US and not sharing the burden.
Interestingly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi a few hours before Trump’s speech to convey a more nuanced message to alleviate Pakistan’s concerns. But there are still lots of questions about the new American policy of lumping South Asia with Afghanistan.
There is the implicit US threat of expanding action against the Afghan Taliban insurgents to the Pakistani border regions. There is also a possibility of drone strikes targeting alleged terrorist hideouts in the settled areas close to the tribal areas. That will surely make things difficult for Pakistani authorities to win public support for cooperation with the United States.
Indeed, one must not gloss over our own policy debacle and not getting our concerns heard in Washington, and not putting our own house in order. It is a huge foreign policy failure that during the past seven months we could not establish meaningful contacts with the Trump administration. It also shows a crisis of leadership both in civil and military spheres that we could never formulate a clear Afghan policy.
Our Afghan policy has largely been reactive and based on duplicity. We lost the opportunity to improve relations with President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul. There is still no clarity on how we intend to deal with the new challenges arising from the toughening American stance. The political instability in the country has added to our foreign policy and national security problems.
Trump has declared that the US will strive for an ‘honourable’ resolution to the Afghan war. But his strategy can neither win the war nor result in peace.