President Trump’s address on Afghanistan delivered last night in front of the US service personnel in Fort Meyer, Virginia curiously coincided with the long full solar eclipse in the United States for over 99 years. Whether it is a good omen for the US and a bad omen for the Taliban we will know in about five years which is the normal time to see the results of a major policy initiative and also a good time to discuss the achievements of the President’s first term in office. The morning after, President Trump’s speech made major headlines, especially in countries directly concerned with the peace and stability of Afghanistan.
President Trump’s core campaign supporters, those belonging to the Steve Bannon camp were expecting him to announce a troop withdrawal in line with his campaign criticism of Obama’s policy of wasting America’s resources in fighting other nations’ wars. On the other hand, political and military observers who have access to official documents expected President Trump to announce an increase in US troops serving in Afghanistan. But he surprised both by siding with the current status quo and by not telling the exact US strategy to win this long drawn war in a country that is still far from stability despite millions of dollars spent by Washington on training Afghan security personnel and eliminating the Taliban threat to the US, not to mention an increase in their attacks on the politically fragile and highly corrupt and incompetent government members in Afghanistan.
The US President’s speech cannot be simply dismissed as Trump talk because it is, frankly speaking, the product of seven months of hard deliberations in the new US Administration, involving both civilian and military advisers. It is the 2017 policy statement of the President of the United States on Afghanistan. The US has made the right move by announcing that it has no intention of withdrawing from Afghanistan. A withdrawal would have created a vacuum which would have intensified the proxy war between India and Pakistan and encouraged Taliban and other local warlords to fill in the breach and reverse all the gains which have been made so far in eliminating terrorism from Afghanistan.
However a new twist in the fresh US Afghan policy is to rely more on Afghanistan, US’ NATO allies and the regional powers to pursue the scorched earth policy against Taliban in Afghanistan. But a greater reliance on India instead of Pakistan with a view to reducing the US liability of funding the stability and development of Afghanistan is the red herring in Mr Trump’s new jar of jellybeans. The US Administration earlier tried a military surge with the support of NATO led ISAF but did not succeed. It earlier tried to strengthen the Afghan security forces against the Taliban through training and capacity building but did not succeed. It earlier gave millions of Dollars to Pakistan in military and economic aid in the hope that Pakistan will eliminate the Taliban but it did not succeed. Now the US aims to play the India card to see if New Delhi can help bring stability to Afghanistan by using India’s economic muscle.
But unfortunately the US Administration will fail in its new approach because of four key factors. 1) India is not yet used to pumping millions of Dollars into economic aid of other countries like China and Russia and whatever development it will carry out in Afghanistan will be too small to make any substantial change in the lives of the poor Afghans and buy their loyalties. 2) the US will be ignoring the local militants who are not Taliban but their sympathisers for a host of other reasons. They will feel left out and will take to the hills again to join Taliban and continue to destabilise Afghanistan as they have done for the past many years. Theirs is a low maintenance militancy which requires modest means and is far less costly compared to the US servicemen and other foreign armed personnel deployed in Afghanistan. Russia and China will be only too pleased to see the Americans continue to drain their resources by remaining militarily preoccupied in Afghanistan. 3) The Taliban know that the US is completely stretched out in Iraq and Syria and has identified ISIS, Iran and DPRK as greater threats to global peace and stability. Its capacity to commit more resources in Afghanistan is much reduced; and 4), the US is making a strategic mistake by undermining the sacrifices of a key ally Pakistan in the Afghan equation.
The key to solving the problem of Taliban is with Pakistan and not with New Delhi. The US can use its aid muscle to obtain this key but it won’t be able to do so because of other choices available to Islamabad. As a BBC correspondent in Islamabad has noted, “Pakistan has grown increasingly closer to China, and has also experienced millions of Dollars withheld by the US for allegedly not taking enough action against the Taliban-allied Haqqani network”. The relationship is already sour and can’t be made worse by brow beating and finger pointing. Without Pakistan, neither the US nor India can make any progress in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government, besides cheering the US for its support is woefully inefficient and unable to govern a multi-ethnic and communally pluralistic Afghanistan. On its own it cannot keep all its ethnic communities united and satisfied. Pashtun Afghans from where the Taliban are largely drawn need to be made stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future decisions. Moreover, the people-to-people contacts on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan are deep and unbreakable. External pressure, whether exerted through a carrot and stick approach or applied through direct military action led by drones and airborne strikes can hardly bring positive results. If anything, by pursuing an aggressive do more agenda, the US will draw Pakistan closer to China and Russia and erode its influence in Islamabad which it enjoys to this date, thanks to a pro-US bureaucracy and the military whether it be the product of their Western training or the result of the millions of Dollars of aid, which President Trump has mentioned as the fee America has paid to Islamabad for receiving its services in the past years. Islamabad’s reply to this kind of rhetoric is: “you gave us the money and we rounded up all the bad Arabs and gave them to you. Period.”
So where do we go from here. Will the US be able to persuade India to play a greater economic role in Afghanistan? Will Pakistan be happy to see the US ignore it in Afghanistan at the cost of India? Will Russia and China let the US bring peace in Afghanistan and keep their hands off from a country which offers so much business prospects in economic rebuilding and infrastructure development in the future? Will Taliban give up arms and become absorbed in the Afghan melting pot if they are not all blown off in Tora Bora mountains or lured with huge sums of money to change loyalties? The US Administration must have thought-through these scenarios before the speech was finalised and delivered yesterday but President Trump did not speculate anything in his speech for a good reason. He does not want the US to show its pack of cards on Afghanistan. He did say however: “The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress, and real results. Our patience is not unlimited”. But as far as speeches go, it was a brilliant piece of speech the President delivered yesterday. Thank you sir.
London 22 August 2017