The widespread opinion is that the way forward in Afghanistan as outlined by the US President Donald Trump last Monday is doomed to fail, since it is basically old wine in a new bottle – a rehash of strategies that were tried and discarded by previous US administrations.
Nonetheless, a week since Trump spoke, in the light of further remarks by top US officials – notably, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the National Security Advisor HR McMaster – explaining the import of what their president’s strategy meant, we get a mixed picture.
Trump had multiple audiences in mind when he spoke, and it was not possible to please everyone alike. Naturally, he gave primacy to the audience that mattered most to him – namely, the US domestic opinion in general and his «core constituency» in American politics today. His commitment to spare no efforts to safeguard ‘homeland security; to give a free hand to the military (which still feels it can win the war); to vanquish international terrorism; to cut out wasteful ‘nation-building’ activities in foreign countries with alien cultures; stop the drain on US resources; and, to be firm on Pakistan – all these conveyed an important signal to his American audience.
Transparency has never been a feature of the US’ approach to the 17-year old war in Afghanistan. There has always been a ‘hidden agenda’. What emerges is that, one, Trump’s threats of retribution against Pakistan need not be taken at face value. Tillerson went to great length to explain that the US prefers to constructively engage Pakistan rather than put «tough pressure», which might altogether destabilise that country. The Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif is heading for Washington at Tillerson’s invitation to discuss the terms of a new phase of constructive engagement.
Two, alongside the military surge, Washington will also undertake diplomatic and political efforts to reach a settlement with the Taliban. Tillerson disclosed that the appointment of a new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is imminent. Three, the US hopes to involve China to leverage Pakistani policies. Tillerson discussed Trump’s strategy with China’s State Councilor Yag Jiechi. Notably, China has refrained from any criticism of Trump’s strategy and instead keeps harping on the importance of a political solution to the Afghan problem.
Four, the US hopes that India will normalize relations with Pakistan so that Afghanistan will not be a theatre of power rivalry. Tillerson voiced cautious optimism that India will constructively engage with Pakistan. Five, the US has no pre-conditions anymore for Taliban’s integration. McMaster said in remarks on Friday at a White House press conference that the US can learn to live with an Afghanistan that simply «does not threaten the safety and security of the American people». He seemed to imply that the original criteria set by Washington (and approved by the UN Security Council) for reconciliation with the Taliban are flexible.
Finally, Trump put on record that the US will seek economic and business opportunities in Afghanistan. On the basis of briefings by Pentagon officials, Trump has discussed with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani the prospects for extraction of the country’s reserves of strategic minerals and Trump’s aides in turn have had interaction with American mining companies with the relevant expertise. Conceivably, the Pentagon’s military contractors could provide security for the American companies to operate.
Quite obviously, while the overt projection of the military strategy will be consistent with Trump’s self-projection as a decisive forceful leader and would placate the Pentagon and its supporters in the US political establishment, the president’s overriding consideration will be how this war might look as the high noon of the campaign for the presidential election in 2020 approaches. Trump cannot but be aware of the high risk of waging a bloody war while making his bid for another term as president. Make no mistake, Trump concluded his speech by forewarning that his «patience is not unlimited» – implying that there could be Plan B if things do not work out as his generals outlined.
Without doubt, there are so many variables in the US strategy. Above all, Pakistan’s cooperation becomes critically important, but Pakistan has its own calculus, too. Pakistan regards as «red line» Trump’s characterization of arch-rival India as a critical part of his South Asia strategy and as big-time player in Afghanistan. Trump ignored Pakistan’s concerns about India’s role in Afghanistan. Why should Pakistan take a leap of faith and give up its «strategic assets»? This is one thing.
On the other hand, the chances of the present Indian government mentored by Hindu nationalist groups adopting conciliatory policies toward Pakistan are virtually zero. The turmoil in the state of Jammu & Kashmir has upended dialogue with Pakistan. On Saturday, eight Indian security personal were killed in a terrorist attack on a district police complex in J&K.
Again, ironically, although the road to an Afghan settlement lies through India-Pakistan normalization, the US will not want to pressure India, which is a crucial partner in the power dynamic in the Asia-Pacific. The Modi government has all but identified with the US strategies in the Asia-Pacific.
Having said that, the US strategy is also predicated on China putting pressure on Pakistan to change course on Afghanistan. But then, India-China relations also have become tense lately with a military standoff that is over 2 months old threatening to erupt into war. The Indian army chief said in the weekend that the current military standoff with China will be the ‘new normal’ and «such kind of incidents are likely to increase in the future.»
The likelihood, therefore, is that China’s attitude toward India can only harden further in the period ahead in regard of India’s role in Afghanistan and in regional politics. In sum, India’s tensions with Pakistan and China threaten to undermine the US’ Afghan strategy – and, yet, Washington is unable or unwilling to address the issue.
Meanwhile, New Delhi is the only regional capital to «welcome» Trump’s speech. However, if India is risking regional isolation, the Modi government doesn’t seem perturbed on that score. The heart of the matter is that India is not a pushover in the power play in Kabul. It is on the same page as powerful sections of the Afghan elite who are unwilling to share power with the Taliban, who also happen to be in the good books of the Americans.