Trump’s War: What Does Victory Look Like in Afghanistan?
By Monish Tourangbam
South Asia watchers had been keeping a close eye on the Trump administration’s review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. After oscillating between increasing troop numbers and completing withdrawal, the United States has decided to stay the course in Afghanistan, with a troop surge. While outlining his new Afghanistan strategy, Trump called himself a problem solver, and said, “[…]in the end, we will win.” But did he define what victory looks like for the United States in Afghanistan, and how does he intend to get there? What is the troop surge for? His speech on the new Afghanistan strategy seemed to focus on U.S. counterterrorism objectives in the country. In such a case, is the troop surge required? What happens to the reconciliation talks with the Taliban? Going by Trump’s speech, it has been pushed to the background, sometime after “an effective military effort.” The influence of the military generals in the new strategy is quite visible, while the diminutive role of the State Department is too conspicuous to be missed, despite Trump calling the strategy an “integration of all instruments of American power.”
Unlike Obama’s “surge and exit” strategy, Trump does not want to make troop numbers public and prefers a strategy based not on timelines, but on ground conditions. But, it is unclear how exactly an open-ended campaign would win the game of patience in Afghanistan. The Taliban, on home ground, is better situated to wait out U.S. forces. The new strategy has called out Pakistan for providing “safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” But, operationalizing this pressure remains a challenge. How is this administration going to change Islamabad or rather Rawalpindi’s calculations of its Afghan gambit? What is the alternative to Pakistan’s geostrategic relevance to American logistics and transport requirements? What is the answer to Pakistan’s ability to destabilize Afghanistan when its interests are perceived to be threatened?
While Trump praised India’s support for stability in Afghanistan, the transactional nature of his presidency was also evident. Instead of focussing on what the United States and India can do together in Afghanistan, the focus was on what Washington expects India to do in Afghanistan, in return for its trade turnovers with the United States. Moreover, India’s role seems to be have been circumscribed to the domain of development and economic assistance. The strategy, or at least the speech, also seems to be oblivious to how players like China, Iran, and Russia are involved in Afghanistan, and what this means for future U.S. strategy in the region.
In June, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis had conceded that “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now” and pledged that “we will correct this as soon as possible.” Has the new strategy spelled out how that will be done, or rather what that win looks like? Or is it that the Trump team, as David Ignatius observed, is redefining what victory means in Afghanistan by trying not to lose and calling it a win?
There are more questions than answers.
Trump’s Plan for Afghanistan: Win or Loss for Kabul?
By Ahmad Shah Angar
The United States’ new Afghanistan strategy has both good news and bad news for Kabul.
First, the good news. The new strategy does not include rigid timelines for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and contains clear commitment regarding training and equipping Afghan forces. The current Afghan government is weak and faces many internal political challenges, while day by day the Taliban and the Islamic State are becoming stronger. Also, a recent clash between former warlords belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami raised concerns that the civil war of the 1990s may not be just a thing of the past. However, the new commitment by the United States has generated optimism among Afghans.
Additionally, for the first time, the United States clearly and forcefully called on Pakistan to stop interference in Afghanistan and cease support for the insurgency in the country, something Kabul has been demanding for a long time. Though it remains to be seen if U.S. coercion finally causes Pakistan to act, the gesture was welcomed in Afghanistan.
However, the new strategy is bad news for the Afghan peace process, which hardly found mention in President Trump’s speech. The experience of the last 16 years shows that solely military efforts will not end the conflict in Afghanistan. The international community led by the United States should focus on achieving peace through negotiations.
Another problematic aspect of the new strategy is that it seems to be giving more delegation and power to U.S. troops to conduct operations against insurgents. However, experience has shown that arbitrary U.S. raids have had more negative consequences than positive in the past, in terms of generating support for U.S. strategy among the populace—consider the controversial night raids, for example. Such tactics may stoke anti-American sentiment and increase support for the Taliban.
Lastly, the new strategy does not mention China or Russia, both important regional players with a stake in Afghanistan. U.S. strategy to access Central Asia’s hydrocarbon resources and its presence in Afghanistan are seen by Russia and China as antithetical to their interests in the region. This omission of their role further complicates the situation. Additionally, the new strategy asks India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan, which will not be seen favorably by China. These factors may embolden the triangular alliance of Pakistan, China, and Russia in a destabilizing way for the region.
Whether the new U.S. strategy will be a win or loss for Kabul remains to be seen. Though, one thing, unfortunately, is clear—war in Afghanistan will go on.
Trump’s New Demands: Islamabad’s Perspective
By Umair Jamal
In his speech about his new Afghanistan strategy, U.S. President Donald J. Trump called Pakistan out on “safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
While Pakistan continues to state that it has taken action against all militant groups without making any distinctions, policymakers in Washington argue that Islamabad still supports different factions of insurgent groups in Afghanistan that have undermined U.S. reconciliation and counterterrorism efforts in the country.
Trump’s declaration to Pakistan is clear: either give up support for militant proxies or face action. But Washington’s new threats and demands have only reinforced Pakistan’s long-held view that the United States is not a reliable partner.
Policymakers in Pakistan, particularly the military establishment, are not going to adhere to Trump’s counterterrorism demands, irrespective of the nature of punishments that Washington might impose. This is because there is a deep divergence of interests between the United States and Pakistan when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States continues to ignore Pakistan’s strategic security concerns vis-a-vis Afghanistan, which also include growing Indian presence and influence in Kabul. But Trump has offered India a greater presence in Afghanistan and has also snubbed Pakistan’s efforts in the Afghan peace process. These actions will only push Pakistan to double down on its policy of keeping links with the Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups.
It is important to note that Pakistan does not keep links with insurgent groups because it is an ideological state; rather, the state does it because it considers non-state actors an important part of its regional security assessment to counteract India’s presence. If the Trump administration wants to change Pakistan’s policy behavior, then it should try addressing Islamabad’s security concerns in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Chest thumping or acting tough is not going to bring any results.
In the short term, the challenge for Islamabad will be convincing Trump’s South Asia team that the country has taken credible action against the Haqqani network. If Trump’s speech is any indication, the United States would likely adopt a more aggressive counterterrorism approach inside and outside of Afghanistan that could potentially result in more U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and perhaps, ground operations as well.