Trump’s Afghan Policy

Spearhead Analysis – 19.09.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Trump Afghan PolicyAfter more than six months of review and consultation, President Trump’s speech at the Fort Myer military base finally laid out the long-awaited US military plans for Afghanistan. At the same time, it attempted to clarify the existing American narrative on Pakistan—a country Trump censured for benefiting from US aid while undermining US interests in the region. Trump stated: “Pakistan often gives safe havens to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” Not surprisingly the adopted tone and break from convention in dealing with Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict was well received in New Delhi and Kabul.

Trump affirmed that the US will continue supporting the Afghan government, bringing necessary reforms and assisting the country in tackling corruption head-on.

Dealing with Pakistan was supposed to be the harder question. Logistically speaking, Pakistan’s position in the Afghan conflict is undeniably significant. The previous US administration viewed Pakistan as having converging objectives with the US in the conflict and considered both Afghanistan and Pakistan as victims of terrorism.

But Trump is different. In his speech Trump deemed Pakistan as part of the problem rather than a solution to the Afghan conflict. This shook Islamabad, which was hoping for a possible change in Trump’s tough approach.

It is commonly believed in the US that Pakistan plays a duplicitous game.

The Haqqani Network has been integrated into the Taliban leadership. The Jamaat ud-Dawa, banned by the UN, the US and even Pakistan, entered the political sphere in Pakistan by launching the Milli Muslim League last month, and fielding a candidate to contest a parliamentary seat previously held by the former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif.

The US and Afghanistan, it seems will no longer overlook such developments.

Even though Trump endorsed a larger Indian role in Afghanistan, Trump also maintained the infamous stance from his campaigning days in 2016, where he asserted that US allies have to be doing more of the “heavy lifting” to push forward issues of common interest. Trump made a statement where he claimed since India benefits from “billions of dollars” of trade with the US, India should be doing more. This was alarming for Indian policymakers considering India is the fifth-largest aid provider to Afghanistan. Moreover, India has trained Afghan National Army personnel and the country’s national police. Recently India delivered Mi-25 attack helicopters to the Afghan air force.

Where India’s national security managers need to gear up for Pakistan’s retort to India’s expanding role in Afghanistan, they should also be wary of Trump’s eccentricities.

For Pakistan the problem of the uncertainty engendered by US policies on Afghanistan remains unchanged. Pakistan must factor in the clear message from the US that all its strategic bets are on India in its South Asia Policy. From the US perspective, perhaps the new administration believes the best strategy is for the US to pressure Pakistan while trusting India to lead peace in the region. This is highly risky. For Pakistan India is not, and will never be the leading power in the region. Rather, Pakistan views India as an instigator of violence. Pakistan is already paranoid of India’s growing influence. Irrespective of India’s superior economic prowess and growth, Pakistan seeks to be treated as an equal. Expanding India’s role in Afghanistan will be the same as pitting the two against each other—all due to a flawed understanding of the two nations’ long and bloody history.

It should also be noted that for India the strategic relationship with the US has become critically important and will be maintained at all costs and used to expand ties with US allies like Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Viet Nam, Australia, Malaysia and nearer home with Afghanistan. The knee jerk response of ministerial visits to Russia and China should not be considered a policy shift by Pakistan because the relationship with the US is also important for Pakistan. There is a need for Pakistan to take the long view and very carefully reset foreign policy.

Moreover, it must be considered that Trump’s speech left a lot unanswered as well. It failed to account for a backup policy with respect to costs Pakistan would incur in case it refuses to comply with US demands and ways in which the US would ensure communication lines with Pakistan are open, considering Pakistan has previously too blocked communication with the US as a response to policies that do not agree with Pakistan’s interests. The number of troops the US administration is going to deploy was left ambiguous. The larger aim in terms of desired outcome and aims and objectives in the Afghan struggle are also not clarified beyond the stress on fighting to win.

Trump’s speech seems promising on first glance. How far this can work in terms of practical application is nonetheless still questionable, given the administration’s many domestic challenges and the possibility of a resulting Indo-Pak conflict.