Trump’s South Asia policy must create space for Afghan govt and institutions | opinion | Hindustan Times
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Trump’s South Asia policy must create space for Afghan govt and institutions

Donald Trump has decided to stay the course, but, contrary to Barack Obama, give the US military some leverage in adding to numbers and in taking operational decisions in Afghanistan

opinion Updated: Sep 05, 2017 13:25 IST
An Afghan National Army soldier keeps watch at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 22, 2017
An Afghan National Army soldier keeps watch at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 22, 2017(REUTERS)

United States President Donald Trump’s August 21 speech, outlining his administration’s much-awaited strategies and goals in Afghanistan, had, from India’s perspective, some welcome new elements and emphases, including on India’s role in Afghanistan, the unfortunate resurrection of some unproductive approaches especially on India- Pakistan issues, and the continued lack of clarity on the end game.

Trump had, for years, described the continued involvement in Afghanistan as wasteful, and the Obama strategy as flawed. There was, therefore, relief in the US strategic community and in India that he has decided for now to support a “conditions based” engagement, seek to “achieve an honorable and enduring outcome”, and was sharply critical of Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups.

A decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan would have been popular with his base. But a collapse of Afghan government, or a Taliban takeover post the pullout, would be seen as a US defeat, for which he would be held responsible. Similarly, any major terrorist incident on US soil, from a safe haven in Afghanistan, would be blamed on his decision. So, he has decided to stay the course, but, contrary to Obama, give the military some leverage in adding to numbers and in taking operational decisions. He has also not set any end date for involvement or transitioning from one strategy to another.

Driven by his personal and political compulsions, Trump has sought to project his strategy as different. He claimed that he would plan for victory, while earlier US was fighting a war without victory. But Obama had also declared on March 27, 2009, while outlining his administration’s first major policy pronouncement on Afghanistan, that: “to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is…we will defeat you”.

Trump, energising his base by the slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’, has said US will have a narrower focus on pursuing its own security interests, rather than doing nation-building abroad. Obama had also said on December 1, 2009, during his second major policy pronouncement on Afghanistan, that it is the Afghan government and people who would be “ultimately responsible for their own country”.

There are essential similarities and tonal differences in articulations on Pakistan and India.

Obama had come a long way since telling Time magazine in October 2008 about working with Pakistan and India to resolve the “Kashmir crisis in a serious way”, and devoting “serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there”. Seeing the intensely negative reactions in India, he did not pursue this, and kept India out of Richard Holbrooke’s Af-Pak mandate. But, he did say in the March 2009 speech that “to lessen tensions between two nuclear armed nations that too often teeter on edge of escalation and confrontation, we must pursue constructive diplomacy with both India and Pakistan”.

Trump has gone a step ahead and specifically described his strategy as laying the path forward in “Afghanistan and South Asia”, and made comments similar to Obama about nuclear arms, tensions and potential for conflict between India and Pakistan. Talking to the press on August 22, secretary of state Rex W Tillerson went even further, and talked about India taking steps of rapprochement and removing “some of the reasons why (Pakistan) deal(s) with these (terrorist) elements”, turning on its head the US position that there can be no justification for terrorism.

Comments on Pakistan and its negative role are this time harsher, at the level of president. There is growing frustration in US at their inability to change Pakistan’s behaviour either through incentives or coercion. In December 2009, Obama had said that success in Afghanistan was inextricably linked to partnership with Pakistan, but that “we cannot tolerate safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear”.

US first sought to incentivise Pakistan through the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill of $1.5 billion annual aid commitment. Relations deteriorated when Osama bin Laden was located in Pakistan and taken out in 2011. In June 2011, Obama had said: “our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan”. Chairman joint chiefs of staff Admiral Michael Mullen had, in a Congressional testimony in September 2011 described the Haqqani network as a “veritable strategic arm of the ISI”. Trump now said: “no partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists”.

US recognition and welcome for India’s role in Afghanistan was this time upfront. Earlier US had been more mindful of Pakistan’s sensitivities, and in the early post Taliban period even attempted to slow down our involvement.

India will no doubt build on its economic assistance effort, in partnership with the Afghans. A greater effort needs to be made for capacity and State building in Afghanistan, and reconciling the various elements that are already a part of the post-Taliban structure.

The US will need to ensure that its new effort creates sufficient space for the Afghan government and institutions to consolidate themselves in an “enduring” way. That will be the only “honorable” outcome befitting the efforts over decades by the Afghans and their international partners.

Arun K Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to the United States

The views expressed are personal