Trump Owns the Afghan War

Spearhead Analysis – 23.08.2017

The long awaited US policy for Afghanistan and South Asia was announced in a clearly articulated and carefully delivered speech by President Trump. There was no ambiguity and no glossing over difficult and sensitive issues. The Presidents message was clear and he smoothly explained his apparent turnaround from the election campaign promise of withdrawal from Afghanistan to a new commitment for a continuation of America’s 16 year war in Afghanistan indefinitely with a modest troops surge but no timelines.

The new policy is a shift from nation building in Afghanistan to ‘killing terrorists’ and a reminder to the world that the US and NATO had gone to war against terror after the 911 attack on the US and that they  had gone into Afghanistan because it had given sanctuary and space to those who planned the 911 attack. There was commitment in the new policy to support the Afghan government if it remained committed to rooting out corruption and fighting the terrorists. India was invited to support the US and join in the economic and political development of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s alliance with the US and its fight against terror was acknowledged but it was singled out for supporting and providing sanctuary to those fighting against the US in Afghanistan in spite of ‘billions and billions of dollars’ that had been given to it by the US. A clear warning to Pakistan was that it had to change its policies and had to ‘do so immediately’.

Predictably Afghanistan welcomed the new US policy with the Afghan Ambassador in Afghanistan first off the mark followed by the Chief Executive Abdulla Abdulla and President Ashraf Ghani. The Afghan Ambassador significantly mentioned the ‘breaking of silence over Pakistan’s policies’. There is unlikely to be anything other than satisfaction over the US policy in India except perhaps a complaint that the US had not gone far enough against Pakistan.  Pakistan through a foreign office statement denied the presence of sanctuaries and stated the clearly evident fact that it had effectively cleared its western border areas. While diplomacy dialogue and reconciliation were not discernible themes in President Trumps’ address it was Rex Tillerson the US Secretary of State who followed up with softer words to tone down what really was a declaration of war by Trump not just against the Taliban and others in Afghanistan but also Pakistan. The US Secretary of State dwelt on the long US-Pakistan alliance and the potential for the relationship to recover and continue but on the clear condition that Pakistan changed its policy of supporting and providing sanctuary to the Taliban. He even offered to help Pakistan change policy and ward off its negative fallout within the country.

The US and Afghanistan, with India in the background, have repeatedly made the unilateral determination that Pakistan provides sanctuaries to terrorists. The US had also memorably determined that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction besides other similar determinations because it suited US policy objectives to do so and follow up with actions that wreaked havoc in different parts of the world. A recent Foreign Policy article pointed out that prior to changing his personal views on Afghanistan the President had been exhaustively briefed on the vast mineral treasures in Afghanistan and the need for the US to remain there. The fact that almost 50 percent of Afghan territory is under Taliban control and that other groups as well as IS have sanctuary there was not mentioned because that would have raised the question that if so much area was under Taliban control why would they need sanctuaries in Pakistan? It would have highlighted the complete failure of US policy in Afghanistan and the incompetence of the Afghan Security forces as the real reason for Afghanistan’s present predicament.

There was also no mention of Iran or Russia or China and their linkages and possible influence with the Taliban. Nor was India mentioned in the context of its declared policy of isolating Pakistan internationally and destabilizing it internally as well as its disastrous Kashmir policy and refusal to have a dialogue with Pakistan. Pakistan’s concern that India would use its presence and influence in Afghanistan to carry out covert operations in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province and create a two front threat for Pakistan was not considered. There was no recalling of the past US policy of using Pakistan against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then not only abandoning it and leaving it to deal with the debris of the struggle but even sanctioning it for trying to develop nuclear weapons. Pakistanis are thinking of all these events as they ponder over a response to US policy. They also know that the billions that President Trump mentioned are scant compensation for the services rendered by Pakistan and the cost it has paid in lives and resources. The knee jerk reaction being advocated by Pakistan’s media, policy analysts and growing public opinion is to defy the US, stand up to it and refuse to buckle under US demands. It is being said that a muscular policy by the US warrants a macho response by Pakistan.

The new US policy should not have come as a surprise to Pakistan and hopefully possible responses must have been considered. What could have come as a surprise is the US Presidents strong advocacy of India as its strategic partner in Afghanistan. If this is meant to be the US policy for South Asia then it is not going to lead to a resolution of long standing unresolved issues and it is likely to escalate India-Pakistan tensions that are the root cause of confrontation, conflict and terror. The fact that both are nuclear weapon states adds to the danger. India in Afghanistan will threaten Pakistan and never allow Pakistan-Afghanistan relations to stabilize because that is not in India’s interest and not in line with its adversarial relationship with Pakistan. The US is also drawing India into its stand-off with Russia and China and possibly Iran. India has a live border situation with China in the Doklam region and it is selling arms to Vietnam and the Phillipines where the South China Sea situation simmers. It is for India to decide its future and consider whether it wants to be used in this fashion or whether a better option for it would be to work for regional harmony and play a lead role. Pakistan has to work to ensure the success of the China Pakistan Economic Cooperation project as well as the projects that bring it into a bridge position for trade and energy flows from Central to South Asia and vice versa. It must forge good bilateral relations. After all if the US had exited Afghanistan then Iran and Pakistan would have been the main players in Afghanistan.

Changing strategic direction has to be a carefully considered and a long-term strategy drawn out if disastrous negative fall-out is to be avoided. Instead of sudden declaratory policies to appease public opinion, or gain political mileage or react to media pressures there is a need for high level consultations through visits to China, Russia and Iran. There is also a need to take stock of the US-Pakistan relationship in terms of trade, economic interests, interactions with international financial institutions and the US equipment on which the operational capacity and readiness of the Armed Forces depends and to consider alternatives if any. This can lead to briefings in the National Security Council so that debates in Parliament and Parliamentary Committees are on the basis of facts and not emotions.  The US President and more so the US Secretary of State, have left the door open for a recalibrated US-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan could take up the US on this and ask for a dialogue to consider how the relationship can be salvaged and put on track without ignoring Pakistan’s security concerns and how the US can help Pakistan achieve this goal. Pakistan has already indicated that there are no terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan and that it is willing to allay fears on this score. If even now there is no reciprocity from the US and Afghanistan then the only conclusion that Pakistan can draw is that its point of view is not going to be considered at all. That would be unfortunate.

Regardless of what policy Pakistan finally adopts the immediate action required is for Pakistan to put its house in order. Pakistan has to stop projecting itself as the most corrupt state on earth because it is not. Nor should the political leadership be paraded as inept and self-serving— there are good leaders waiting in the wings. Others may talk of withering and sham democracy but Pakistan remains one of the few Muslim countries with a functional democracy and no one should be allowed to tarnish its image by flouting the laws of the land. Regardless of what others think Pakistan has to evolve a civil-military relationship that best orchestrates national power. There is a clear trend in the military to remain out of politics and this trend will gain strength if the political institution stabilizes and asserts itself on the basis of competence and good governance. This is no time for outlandish conspiracy theories. President Trump’s declaration should lead to an inward look and action to put the country on the right track. This will be the best consolidation of the gains made through military operations and for this the government has to work in the national and not party interests and priorities have to change.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual).