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Donald Trump’s Afghanistan strategy deserves a fair chance

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-08-2017 Kunal Singh

The Monday speech of Donald Trump in Arlington, Virginia brought the global focus back to America’s ongoing and yet forgotten war in Afghanistan.

In the speech outlining his administration’s future strategy in Afghanistan, Trump concluded that the US needs “an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made” over the course of last 16 years.

Trump rightly observed that such an outcome will not be achieved by a hasty withdrawal which would possibly bring about an Iraq-style disastrous ending.

Everyone recognizes that there is no good strategy in Afghanistan. The American populace is weary of war but withdrawal will certainly leave the field open for terror groups like Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Status quo or any of its variants are both expensive and do not guarantee light at the end of the tunnel. The laziest thing to do in such a situation is to criticise Trump’s strategy without suggesting an alternative. A better way to go about is to identify the pros and cons in Trump’s strategy and the challenges he would face in executing it. In this regard, six points can be made.

One, Trump’s idea of doing away with Barack Obama-era timetables and troop numbers is a welcome step. In order to win points with a battle-weary citizenry, Obama would announce exact timetables for the withdrawal of US troops well in advance. This would make Taliban and Pakistan simply follow a wait-it-out strategy.

And then Obama had to relax his timelines when he realized that the reality on the ground was too obstinate to obey his King Canute-type commands. Trump’s strategy of doing away with timelines altogether is reinforced by a greater freedom to the forces on the ground. This would give greater latitude to the commanders who have felt hamstrung by Obama’s restrictive approach.

Two, Trump’s Monday speech was notable for its clarity on Pakistan. The US President’s plainspeak on the duplicitous role the Pakistani state has played was refreshing to hear. Trump has more than hinted at pursuing a hardline approach with Pakistan. It is true that this is easier said than done. The US still relies on Pakistan for its lines of communication to Afghanistan.

Moreover, at tactical levels, the US army and intelligence agencies gain substantially from a counter-terrorism partnership with Pakistan. But most of the arguments being made about further worsening of Pakistani behaviour if Trump chooses to use sticks more than carrots with Islamabad are clearly exaggerated.

For example, one analyst even suggested that Pakistan could offer “extended deterrence guarantees to Saudi Arabia or resume the [illicit] transfer of ballistic missile or nuclear weapons technology.” This is plain scaremongering and nothing else.

On a more serious level, it has also been argued that China will come to Islamabad’s rescue if the US goes ahead with cuts in its military assistance and other aid to Pakistan. This will depend on the severity of sanctions that the Trump administration applies, if it does, on Pakistan, its terrorist organizations, its financial institutions, and its civilian and military leaders.

At more severe levels—like the one seen in Iran—even China’s ability to help Pakistan will be tested.

And China is definitely not going to risk its deep economic links with the US for its client state, Pakistan. Moreover, such views completely discount the American influence with organizations like International Monetary Fund which the Pakistani state needs from time to time to bail out its bankrupt economy. What is actually hilarious is that such analysis in passed off as ‘realism’ in the American academia.

Third, Trump has called for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan “especially in the area of economic assistance and development”. It should be noted that even the Obama administration was coming round to allowing a greater Indian role in Afghanistan by the end of its tenure. For much of its tenure, Obama was unwelcoming of India’s role in deference to Pakistani wishes. Even the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also pursued this approach initially in his tenure.

But over time, all sane actors have realized the futility of excluding India because Pakistan would still not deliver on its promises of acting against Taliban and other terror groups that find safe haven with its territorial confines. The Trump administration must be commended for learning from history and reaching to a sensible conclusion right at the beginning of its term. (As an aside, many Indians are justifiably disappointed in how Trump prefaced his call for New Delhi’s involvement with a mention of trade surplus that India enjoys vis-à-vis the US. But that is expected from a US President who has a pure mercantilist view of international trade.)

Four, while Trump has expressed the hope that NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) will provide adequate support to his new strategy, it is the role of regional powers that will have a greater impact on the outcome. And it is on this front—even more than silly timetable business—that Obama’s legacy is particularly toxic. Post-9/11 environment against terrorism had created a rare scenario where diverse actors such as the US, Russia, China, India and (broadly speaking) even Iran came together to work on Afghanistan.

There were distractions elsewhere—like the US invasion of Iraq and the Russian annexation of Crimea—with attendant negative fallouts on the Afghanistan mission. But, more or less, Afghanistan saw a rare confluence of positive energies from different regional powers for several years on a trot.

But that golden opportunity has now been squandered. Obama’s insistence on withdrawal with a ticking clock by his side created a sense of vacuum which resulted in regional powers pulling in different directions. Today, the Russians and the Iranians hobnob with—and also possibly supply weapons to—the Taliban leadership. After showing some promise, China has returned to assume what Andrew Small calls “a second tier role” in Afghanistan. Trump may increase the strength of US troops on the ground but unless the change in numbers is dramatic, military balance will not alter by much and definitely not if Taliban continues to find oxygen for survival from neighbouring countries.

As of now, getting the region to focus back on eliminating Taliban seems an insurmountable challenge for Trump. The much expected US-Russia rapprochement out of Trump’s election has fallen flat in the face of obstacles placed by the US domestic politics.

On Iran, Trump has himself to blame. The nuclear deal with Iran was genuinely a great achievement of Obama administration which Trump has needlessly and ceaselessly criticised. One of the reasons why the US depends so much on Pakistan is that it does not have alternative routes to Afghanistan—a situation which could change if the US-Iran relations improve. But going by Trump’s shrill anti-Iran rhetoric, that is an absolute non-starter.

Five, Trump’s unpredictability means that the path ahead is far from certain. It will be interesting to see how he responds to tough days which Afghanistan will inevitably throw up as it has in the past. At the moment, as the US defence secretary James Mattis himself acknowledged, the US is definitely not winning the war in Afghanistan.

While Trump may have given a clarion call for victory on Monday, the most realistic assessment is that the US strategy will be to stave off a defeat in the near term and create a stalemate in the medium term good enough for some elements of Taliban to come back to the negotiation table. As long as the insurgents are on ascendancy, there is nothing to be gained from a dialogue process—a counter-insurgency 101 lesson that somehow eluded Obama administration.

Six, Monday’s speech showed a rare glimpse of mature leadership from Trump. He admitted that his initial instinct was to pull out from Afghanistan.

He further added that he generally listens to his instinct—and we know this from his decision to pull the US out of Paris Climate Accord which he took, reportedly, going against the advice of even his daughter.

There is no point of being too optimistic with Trump—he can return back to his reckless ways quite seamlessly—but this instance does show that Trump is actually capable of engaging with difficult policy issues and come to reasoned conclusions. Only if he wants to.

There is no flawless solution in Afghanistan. The mishandling by Obama means that Trump has almost no honourable exit option left. His strategy is flawed as would be any other strategy that can be conceived right now for Afghanistan.

The critics of Trump’s Afghanistan strategy would be more helpful if they could simultaneously point to other, less flawed, strategies. If they have none, it is perhaps fair to say that Trump’s strategy deserves a chance.

The author tweets @d_extrovert

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