US, Trump, South Asia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Terrorism, Taliban

Introduction

On August 21st, 2017, President Donald Trump unveiled the new American policy for Afghanistan and South Asia after a thorough and comprehensive policy review, in front of nearly 2000 men and women of US military at Fort Myer, Virginia. The speech was received differently in the numerous capitals of the world. Some states including Afghanistan were jubilant over the announcement while other states, which includes mostly regional countries in Asia, voiced their reservations over the new US approach to the Afghan quagmire and South Asia.

President Trump’s announcement in itself stands at contrast with candidate Trump’s perspective on Afghan war and the broader US policy of military engagement overseas. President Trump himself during his speech admitted that he initially was adamant towards expanding US military engagement in Afghanistan but once he was elected to the President’s office, his mind changed after consultation with his cabinet and generals of the US military, a dilemma which was also faced by his immediate predecessors. The policy outlined by President Trump was in the making for long and there were indications that US review of its Afghan and South Asian policy may not be as favorable to some regional states as policies were previously. Therefore, rebuttals by certain states followed the announcement of the US policy, claiming that it caught them off guard. This had more to do with their own diplomatic failures than anything else.

President Trump also reversed American policy of ‘Nation-Building’ with ‘Fight to Win’ approach and cautioned Afghanistan to put their house in order by reminding it that ‘our support is not a blank check’.

President Trump’s new approach to Afghanistan and South Asia fundamentally underscores five critical policy objectives, some of which are indeed a paradigm shift as compared to the past. First, President Trump made it clear that US engagement in Afghanistan will be directly proportional to the results on the ground rather than it being guided by a time-bound approach which his predecessor, President Obama articulated. Second, President Trump announced the integration of conventional elements of American power – military, diplomatic and economics, to bring about a favorable outcome of the Afghan War. Thirdly, President Trump reads the ‘riot act’ perceived towards Pakistan’s subversive policy in Afghanistan, by application of his proxy groups from its soil. To procure its own strategic objectives at the expense of US interests. Fourth critical policy objective of President Trump was his predilection towards strengthening US-India strategic partnership and inviting India to contribute to Afghanistan’s development, particularly in the sphere of economic development. Lastly, President Trump also reversed American policy of ‘Nation-Building’ with ‘Fight to Win’ approach and cautioned Afghanistan to put their house in order by reminding it that ‘our support is not a blank check’.

Reorienting Priorities: Result-Oriented not Time-Oriented

This new approach of President Trump towards Afghanistan brings with it many unsettling realities which the US itself seemingly did not consider when reviewing its policy for reengaging in Afghan imbroglio. It is reported that under the new policy the US will send more than 3000 troops, adding to the already 11000 stationed in Afghanistan, to advice and provide logistical support to embattled Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in their struggle to retake their territory and establish the writ of the state.

Afghanistan, however, provides a peculiar combination of factors including history, regional environment and landscape, which should be taken holistically, if US strives to sustain and defend its efforts in the country and effectively props up the central government in Kabul to maintain its country’s security on its own.  If history is of any guidance then it must be known that there is ample evidence that Afghanistan is indeed a graveyard of empires, partially due to its unmerciful physical environment and partially due to the application of conventional war tactics by foreign forces to win over the country. The geomorphological factors which the Afghan environment offers are significantly different from war theaters which the US previously involved itself into. For example, in Vietnam, Iraq and Korea. Contrary to previous 2D war terrains like in Iraq and Vietnam, the terrain in Afghanistan offers a 3D war fighting environment which includes land, mountains and air. Conventional military strategies which worked quite well previously may not prove their utility in this 3D fighting terrain.

While it can be argued that foreign assistance in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Syria are also very visible, there is an underlying problem in drawing comparative analysis of Afghanistan with Iraq and Syria in context of prevalence of notion of natives fighting non-natives.

According to US own instituted watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) recent report 40 percent of Afghanistan districts are either controlled or contested by Taliban. Moreover, another report from SIGAR also puts serious questions on the ability of US trained and funded Afghan Security Forces to effectively defend the country.

Alongside this complexity of war fighting terrain, US is fighting cohorts of insurgents which arose from local populace during and in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thus, the notion of natives fighting non-natives comes into play, compounding US counter-insurgency campaign. While it can be argued that foreign assistance in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Syria are also very visible, there is an underlying problem in drawing comparative analysis of Afghanistan with Iraq and Syria in context of prevalence of notion of natives fighting non-natives.

In Iraq’s environment, three factors played a major role in eliminating this notion. First, Iraqi society is comparatively more literate than Afghan society. Second, in the aftermath of US invasion, emergence of a political dispensation biased in favor of one particular sect which is also the majority in the Iraqi populace and the third factor is that much of the war fighting was centralized in urban areas than in rural areas. Correspondingly, Syria also presents some of the similar facets. Firstly, warfighting was centralized in urban centers. Secondly, literacy factor also played a crucial role in disrupting this notion. Thirdly, US and Arab coalition participated in Syrian conflict from behind the veil by augmenting terrorists – many of whom were comprised of multi-nationals, with logistical and diplomatic support. Therefore, natives fighting non-natives falls in favor of the Syrian Army.

But the trends are drastically reversed in Afghan matrix with poor literacy rate and warfighting taking place in rural Afghanistan alongside absence of a national army and non-functioning political system. These factors put US troops in Afghanistan as non-natives while according status of natives to insurgents battling and invading forces. This situation is also propagandized in almost every of Taliban’s publications, thus reinforcing the narratives in the hearts and minds of the rural populace.

Albeit, it is true that since last few years, ground operations are led by Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) with US and NATO providing logistical support, but still the perception of natives fighting non-natives persists in Afghan societal consciousness. Moreover, paucity of sensitivity towards Afghan social, cultural, religious norms and values compounds US counter-insurgency. Evolution of US war from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency failed so far to accommodate all aspects of Afghan society and culture. Conventional capabilities of deterrence and offense cannot alone stimulate an outcome favorable to all regional and international players involved in this quagmire. This type of war and adversary warrants an unconventional capability which involves both kinetic and non-kinetics means.

As reported earlier, President Trump outsourced decision making on Afghanistan to Pentagon, eroding traditions of US policy making and therefore had the potential of escalating crises in a war-torn country. America is in its longest war which enters in its 17th year. Each one of its 16 commanders in Afghanistan so far stated that ‘they are making real progress’ while violence in Afghanistan continues to surge.

Moreover, Taliban asserts their pre-condition of US military’s exit from Afghanistan for peace talks. Even if Taliban agrees to make their pre-condition as a condition in peace talks, it still remains a non-starter for any credible peace talks because in peace talks, alongside with US exit, matters of power sharing, ethnic composition will also come under consideration which disturbs Afghan elites who have interests in Afghanistan’s war economy. So, President Trump’s objectives of guiding US policy based on conditions on ground and an assertive application of American conventional arsenal may not be as practical in bringing an end to what may be called the longest war in America’s history. Instead, it may be very likely to intensify war environment.

India, Pakistan and the Balance of Terror in Afghanistan

Since decolonization in British India as a result of which India and Pakistan emerged as two separate nation-states, Afghanistan forms one of the core element of Pakistan’s strategic culture, owning to various historical reasons. Afghanistan historically served as a buffer zone between British and Russian Empires in the Great Game. The areas which are now part of Pakistan’s territory, formed the frontier of British Empire aimed at staving off any subverting attempts from Afghanistan. Since Pakistan’s inception, Afghanistan has been an instigator in the nascent state. Afghanistan never accepted the boundary line between Pakistan and Afghanistan known as the ‘Durand Line’ and persistently attempts to undermine Pakistan’s internal security by augmenting ethno-nationalists’ movements inside Pakistan.

It is in 1970s and 1980s that Pakistan, in an attempt to secure its own internal environment and procure a strategic depth inside Afghanistan, in case of conventional offense by India, which was a real possibility back in the 1970s, especially in context of Indian intervention in East Pakistan now known as ‘Bangladesh’, that Pakistan strived to establish contacts within different segments of populace in Afghanistan which were intensified as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. During this period, Pakistan and India stood at odds with each other. Pakistan supported the Mujahideen and India supported the Northern Alliance. Pakistan and India waged an asymmetrical warfare against each other’s interests in Afghanistan as civil war ensued after Soviet withdrawal, which eventually culminated in Taliban gaining control of Kabul and forming a government which was supported by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Gulf States.

This background of Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan and the beliefs which are at core of its strategic depth are imperative in understanding contemporary Pakistan’s role in the Afghan matrix. When President Trump chastised Pakistan in his policy speech by incriminating it of harboring terrorists which undermines US effort in Afghanistan, it made a mockery of sacrifices of thousands of lives including citizens and security personnel of Pakistan. It also undermined the devastation of Pakistan’s economy – cost of which outruns significantly than the cost to the US reimbursed with aid support – it also conveniently neglected Pakistan’s historical concerns while betraying reality on ground.

According to US own instituted watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) recent report 40 percent of Afghanistan districts are either controlled or contested by Taliban. Moreover, another report from SIGAR also puts serious questions on the ability of US trained and funded Afghan Security Forces to effectively defend the country.

According to US own instituted watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) recent report 40 percent of Afghanistan districts are either controlled or contested by Taliban. Moreover, another report from SIGAR also puts serious questions on the ability of US trained and funded Afghan Security Forces to effectively defend the country.
It is implausible to even consider that insurgents would travel hundreds of thousands of kilometers from Afghanistan to Pakistan to seek ‘safe havens’ when there is an absolute absence of writ of the Afghan state on their 40 percent territory. Moreover, President Trump’s allegations on Pakistan of ‘protecting terrorist safe havens’ attracts even more skepticism when Pakistan itself is combatting effectively its war against terrorism and extremism and has repeatedly asked the Afghan government to curb terrorism from its own soil, orchestrated against Pakistan.

In response to President Trump’s castigation of alleged Pakistan’s role in sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan, a synergize rejoinder was expressed by Pakistan’s political and national security institutions. Pakistan conveyed clearly to the US that it does not seek its financial support but seeks its acknowledgement of the sacrifices and contributions Pakistanis have made to global security and peace, in curtailing terrorism from its soil and rejected attempts to make Pakistan a scapegoat. Pakistan also made it clear to the world that it will not let Afghan chaos and turmoil spill into Pakistan. It reiterates its support for an inclusive political settlement of the Afghan War.

Subsequently, Iran, China, and Russia – three important regional states in Afghan predicament – elucidated their rebuttals on new US policy towards Afghanistan. Significantly, these three states were also absent in the new policy which was a great mistake as Iran, China and Russia are major stakeholders in Afghan quandary. Envisioning a policy for peace and stability in Afghanistan without accommodating these states is fatal.

However, the blame for the alleged adversarial role which was accorded to Pakistan in the new Afghan policy does not fall squarely to the US changing strategic priorities and being ignorant of Pakistan’s sacrifices, but Pakistan itself also shares a significant blame for it. Pakistan apparently failed to project its case and interests in the international community by not utilizing soft power tools. It relied solely on the White House to make its case to American polity and society. It did not felt a need to operationalize its soft power investment and make inroads in Congress, media, and in academic and research institutes to make its priorities, policy objectives and core beliefs known to the wider US public and generate an environment favorable to Pakistan.

While current trajectory of US-Pakistan relations may not soar in immediate future, it will also not breakdown instantly. The drivers of bilateral relations between two states recognizes the importance of each other. Business as usual may not be with Pakistan but relations may continue for the moment in the present course. Pakistan, owing to the measures it undertook following the President’s speech, evidently conveyed that the US must see Afghanistan from the spectacle of Pakistan as well. However, the strategic space Pakistan left in Washington was filled by its arch-rival India. President Trump in his speech, while castigating Pakistan, praised India in the same breath for the economic contribution it is doing in Afghanistan’s development. Concurrently, he expressed his aspiration for strengthening US-India strategic partnership. Anyone familiar with regional dynamics of South Asia would attest that it is a sure recipe towards ruination to chastise one state while praising the other state. Former US Presidents were cautious of not falling into this debacle.

India, the other South Asian giant, keen on playing a significant role in regional and global politics, is incrementally developing its role in Afghanistan and strengthening its strategic partnership with US. Pakistan-India acrimony dates back to the partition in 1947. Initially, this bitter relationship had a level of decency and mutual political disagreements were to be resolved with dialogue and through multilateral forums such as the United Nations. But initial decency was ephemeral as bilateral relations descended into head on confrontation as both sides deployed measures and counter-measures in different theaters of conventional and sub-conventional warfare from Kashmir, Lahore, Bangladesh (formerly known as East Pakistan), Siachen, and Afghanistan. India has a history of infiltration into Pakistan to procure its national interests. Contrary to mainstream beliefs, Pakistan’s measures are counter-measures in nature to thwart whichever the medium of Indian threat was ranging from proxy warfare to conventional nuclear capability. Pakistan’s policy behavior was defensive not offensive.

During the East Pakistan crises, India augmented a proxy group named ‘Mukti Bahini’ for a limited war with Pakistan Army, stimulating secession of East Pakistan which later emerged as a distinct political entity named Bangladesh. This event was instrumental in instituting an urgency in Pakistan’s strategic thought to build a sub-conventional capability to deter any prospective Indian aggression. But Indian multi-front proxy warfare against Pakistan continued un-abetted which raised the stakes in this kinetic spy game between Pakistan and India.

Indian investment in Afghanistan is not a free lunch. It is not born out of genuine humanitarian concern. It is a very calculated and brilliant soft-power strategy which on one hand builds a favorable image of India in Afghan polity and society and on the other hand increases their political leverage and involvement in Afghanistan.

President Trump’s invitation to India to play a more prominent role in Afghanistan, particularly in economic development, is a red line in Pakistan’s regional strategy.  But, besides Pakistan apprehensions, there is a catch for India itself. Indian investment in Afghanistan is not a free lunch. It is not born out of genuine humanitarian concern. It is a very calculated and brilliant soft-power strategy which on one hand builds a favorable image of India in Afghan polity and society and on the other hand increases their political leverage and involvement in Afghanistan.

But Pakistan explicitly stated to the international community that it sees ‘zero’ role of India in terms of political and military in Afghanistan. Moreover, soft power alone will not guarantee India – who shares significantly nominal commonalities with Afghanistan compared to Pakistan – a seat at any potential peace talks and if the seat is not guaranteed then Indian public will surely ask its government what utility their aid is for in Afghanistan if they can not be at the high table. Hard power investment is essential for India to make its presence felt. But with military involvement comes a price as well. When coffers of Indian soldiers return to India it will generate anger and anguish within public to exit from Afghanistan at the earliest. This new policy of US to ask Indians to increase their presence in Afghanistan and to balance Chinese threat by supplementing India will exacerbate volatile regional environment.

American Strategic Shift: From Nation-Building to Fight To Win

Last policy objective which was stated in the new policy concerns a paradigm shift in the US-Afghan strategy. Both of President Trump’s predecessors, President Bush and President Obama, articulated their vision to rebuild the country, institute democracy and cultivate national institutions, necessary to make Afghanistan a modern state. But in the aftermath of the invasion, successive US leaderships found themselves in a muddle. Trump’s predecessors, in their quest to forcefully dislodge the Taliban and to install a government to facilitate their occupation brokered deal with agents of savagery and endemic corruption.

Since US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the opium trade and production skyrocketed leading Afghanistan to be called a ‘Narco-state’ where public officials and warlords thrived of Afghanistan’s war economy.  US willingly chose to ignore corruption which is rotting the core of the Afghan society, with the mission to gain favors from these state and non-state actors to facilitate US short term goals in Afghanistan. This insidious deal adversely impacted US efforts in reconstructing Afghanistan. According to Transparency International Corruption Perception Index 2016, Afghanistan ranks at 169 out of 179 countries. Furthermore, absence of accountability of instituted Afghan government by US emboldened many to persist in their endemic corruption at the cost of innocent lives which are lost by acts of terror by different insurgent groups and warlords backed by US. Rampant corruption and weak central leaderships in Kabul serve as a cause to various emerging challenges to Afghanistan’s security and stability.

Attrition rate in Afghanistan National Army continues to surge while civilian deaths pile up as Afghan government pardoned Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most notorious warlord in Afghanistan who is commonly referred to as the ‘Butcher of Kabul’.

President Trump’s policy of revamping US engagement from nation-building to warfighting will only contribute adversely to this perilous situation on ground. Recently, it is reported that the Afghan government, with the support of the US and NATO, is in deliberation of a policy to cultivate a militia to take part in combat alongside regular Afghanistan forces. Militias are not new in Afghan War, nor is their history of pillage and unaccountable violence, but with the blessings of foreign sponsors and official government support, these militias will be encouraged to extend their brutality to the next level, which only serves to strengthen the Taliban insurgency against occupying forces and the Government in Kabul.

Therefore, this change of US strategy is counter-productive and myopic. It is creating an enabling environment for state and non-state actors to up the ante in terms of violence and mayhem which ultimately compromises official US policy, and aspirations of regional states, of sustainable peace and security in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

The new American policy towards Afghanistan and South Asia represents strategies, which if implemented accordingly, will have dire consequences for the entire region. American bellicosity and hubris know no bounds but President Trump is taking them to an entirely new level. Absence of mention of any regional states in the speech and paucity of the US strategy, to jointly work with regional states to formulate a regional framework to resolve Afghan quandary also manifests an implicit dimension of this new policy.

There are many strategic challenges which compound US strategy in Asia and its policy towards Indo-Pacific. Some of these challenges are Pakistan’s nuclear program, ascendant Iran in Middle East, containment of resurgent Russia and rising China especially in context of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

There are many strategic challenges which compound US strategy in Asia and its policy towards Indo-Pacific. Some of these challenges are Pakistan’s nuclear program, ascendant Iran in Middle East, containment of resurgent Russia and rising China especially in context of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. US cannot effectively deal with these challenges from the other side of the Atlantic. It is imperative for US to have a permanent military presence in the region to keep a watchful eye on these regional developments which are integral to the US strategic interests.

It is important to note that in 2011, the-then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton elucidated a policy which later came to be known as ‘Pivot to Asia’. This new US approach towards Afghanistan and South Asia can be considered as an extension of US ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. President Trump’s approach of principled realism defies long-standing American realist traditions in US foreign policy. While US announced its new policy for the region with an abrasive posture, there is an emerging new regional order of probable four states namely – China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran – which are under collective leadership, forging closer strategic ties with each other and working to build a regional framework to resolve many of the regional pressing matters including Afghanistan, wherein interests of these four states converges significantly.

These four states are also mindful of Afghanistan’s history and share a collective interest in securing peace for Afghanistan as mayhem in the war-torn country disrupts their own internal security and stability. As the global strategic alignments underwent a paradigm shift in the changing dynamics of the global order, the region of Asia holds a very significant place in the international political chessboard.

Hassan Zaheer

Hassan Zaheer

is a postgraduate in Sociology from the University of Karachi with specialization in Sociology of Religion and Politics. He is currently working as a Non-Resident Research Associate with the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR), Islamabad.

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