President Donald Trump’s speech on Monday in which he declared a new American policy towards Afghanistan and South Asia is a postmodern masterpiece – you can choose beforehand how you want to respond and find something in the address to validate your decision. The announcement was awaited with some trepidation by US and South Asia observers, accustomed by now to the 45th US president’s unceasing social and policy gaffes, but there was ultimately little need for concern at the end of the night.
The new US policy jettisons the previous administration’s phased withdrawal that was beholden to the calendar and instead replaces it with a withdrawal policy that considers local political and security conditions. This is exactly what regional observers had stressed to Washington over the years but had been disregarded by a weary Foggy Bottom that was eager to extricate itself from a war that did not seem to have any end in sight. “The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump declared, reminding everyone of the American experience in Iraq where too rapid a US withdrawal precipitated in part the resurgence of terrorism and the birth of ISIS; scheduled US withdrawal from Afghanistan had caused a similar upswing in the Taliban’s fortunes.
While the Obama administration was willing to saddle the region with America’s mess, Trump has gone back to the thinking of George W Bush: a secure, stable Afghanistan and US withdrawal were desirable but in that order. In that sense, Trump’s new direction is actually a return to an old plan that had been abandoned by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The reasoning, Trump said, was that the security threats in the region were immense and the United States sought an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the sacrifices made.
Trump’s words will be met with approval in Afghanistan and India but with frustration back home. Despite near-total support among US parliamentarians (Senate: 98 ayes, 0 nays, 2 abstentions; House: 420 ayes, 1 nay, 10 abstentions), involvement in Afghanistan has steadily lost support among ordinary Americans over the years. Now, many would rather wash their hands off and forget about the whole misadventure than see it to an unforeseeable conclusion. The fundamental premise of Trump’s strategy – the use of military force to create a favorable political situation – was felt wanting by many the last time around.
Reminiscent of the George W Bush years, Trump emphasised that the United States was not there to “dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society” but as “a partner and a friend.” Afghans would be ultimately responsible for their own future, the United States did not want to build nations but kill terrorists.
More frustrating for many analysts was the lack of detail in the president’s Monday night address. Trump did not suggest what success in Afghanistan might look like nor did he mention any other details of how his administration was going to tame Afghanistan. To Delhi’s certain chagrin, who has consistently railed against the American concept of good and bad terrorists, the US president did not close the door on a negotiated settlement with the Taliban: “Someday,” Trump said, “after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban.” India can only hope that US estimation of what “effective military effort” entails would be maximal.
Trump’s address comes in the wake of news that the United States is redeploying 4,000 additional soldiers to join the 8,400 already present in the country. This number will be seen as insufficient in some quarters and as unnecessary in others.
What has probably attracted most comments about Trump’s Afghan policy is his statements on Pakistan. Calling out Pakistan’s practice of providing safe havens for terrorist activity on its soil while taking billions in US aid, the president warned that the United States can no longer remain passive on such perfidy. The threat is worse, Trump warned, because Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and its actions cause tense relations in the neighbourhood that may well spiral into conflict. With uncharacteristic grace, Trump softened his rebuke by recollecting the Islamic republic’s contributions and sacrifices to the mission in Afghanistan.
Trump’s public rebuke to Pakistan has no doubt gladdened hearts in Afghanistan and India, where the afterbirth of Indian independence is seen as the greatest instigator of terrorism in its neighbouring realms. Peace in Afghanistan, many academics, bureaucrats, and politicians – from the United States as well as India and Afghanistan – have repeatedly stressed, can be achieved only after Pakistan has been effectively dealt with.
There is no cause for optimism, however. Trump is not the first US president to criticise Pakistan – and there have been countless other officials and analysts – for its links to terrorism and extremism and will unlikely be the last. Obama did the same – multiple times – and Bush ’43, Bill Clinton, and George HW Bush were all troubled about Islamabad’s ties to the Taliban and its support for terrorists in Kashmir. None of this concern manifested itself in any concrete manner and the United States continued to call Pakistan an ally in the global war on terror. Trump’s own flip-flop on China from campaign to presidency gives little reassurance that this time will be different.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Trump’s speech was his call upon India to do more in Afghanistan economically. In the past, the United States has usually sought a greater Indian military role in Central Asia but Trump’s call is a rare exception. Delhi’s military aloofness from Afghanistan has been criticised by many, myself included, in the past but it has been active in Afghanistan’s social and political recovery. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, India has extended over $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan, making it the fifth-largest donor to the country. Delhi has built roads, schools, hospitals, dams, and other vital infrastructure in its war-ravaged neighbour. The US president’s criticism of India in this regard is therefore puzzling.
What has jarred some observers, at least on Twitter, is Trump’s blatant and crass linking of Indian economic contributions to Afghanistan to the trade surplus it runs with the United States. The US president’s penchant of seeing the world through a prism of economic transactionality notwithstanding, it is unclear what the Trump administration’s larger economic role for India in Afghanistan specifically entails beyond the South Asian country’s already generous efforts.
What was left out of the Trump blueprint for Afghanistan is as interesting as what was said. One word the president did not mention at all is Islam, either as provocation or as platitude. The omission is striking because one of the first moves of this new US presidency was to restrict the entry of Muslims from certain countries into the United States. Although Pakistan was not in that original list, US visas have become harder to obtain even for legitimate visitors such as the Afghan robotics team in July.
A more consequential absence is China, widely accepted as Pakistan’s new godfather. Although the Trump White House is yet to publicly formulate how it intends to win Islamabad’s cooperation, it is unlikely that any coercion will succeed without some assistance from Beijing. And succour will not be coming from China, who has already proven unhelpful over North Korea, and feels threatened by Washington’s build-up of India and challenged by American proxies in the South China Sea. Although Beltway wisdom has been keen on impressing upon the president the seriousness of the Russian threat, China appears to be the one stuck in America’s craw.
Trump’s speech on Monday marks no new direction for American policy towards Afghanistan though it might still be celebrated as slightly more sensible than the earlier one to hie. As with all US presidents, it will be interesting to watch how Trump squares the Pakistani circle, especially now with China on stage. While success is doubtful, India and Afghanistan can at least hope that US policies will increase the pressure on Pakistan – a better alternative to sitting back and doing nothing.