Afghanistan: Trump has changed the big picture

Columnist  | Indranil Banerjie

Opinion, Columnists

Mr Trump‘s announcement failed to elicit a highly positive response in the United States and India, where it should have.

It’s fashionable as well as politically correct to trash whatever policy announcement US President Donald Trump makes. No surprises then that his latest Afghanistan strategy declaration evoked similar titters and sighs. It is assumed his new Afghan strategy, like everything else about him, will be a damp squib if not an outright disaster.

Nothing could be further from the truth. President Trump’s policy view on the unending Afghan war is perhaps the sanest that has come from the White House in a long time. The details might take a little doing but the big targets are spot-on. His new Afghan policy is also good news for Asia.

There are two or three pivotal points of his Afghan policy that must be seen for what they are. The main thrust is that the United States isn’t planning to quit Afghanistan militarily anytime soon. That’s the pivotal point on which the dynamics of Afghanistan and its neighbourhood rest.

The big question isn’t how many additional troops President Trump will send to Afghanistan or how much he is prepared to spend; it is about commitment. Will it continue or not? That has been answered, and it will affect the course of events in Afghanistan, and Asian politics in general.

The second pivot is the unambiguous recognition that Pakistan is the key obstacle to a victory against the fanatic Taliban. Prior to this, while many Americans admitted Pakistan was helping the Taliban, Islamabad was not targeted.

The US and allied troops kept getting hammered in Afghanistan by an enemy armed and abetted by Pakistan’s generals, but Washington felt it could or should do nothing. The assumption till now has been that the US has too much of a strategic stake in Pakistan for it to become hostage to the Afghan war.

Mr Trump‘s announcement failed to elicit a highly positive response in the United States and India, where it should have. Only Islamabad saw it for what it was: an outright assault on the age-old strategic relationship.

The Pakistani reaction was blunt and bitter. Pakistan PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi declared the US “military strategy in Afghanistan hasn’t worked and it will not work”. The real solution, he felt, was “inclusive” dialogue and a “political settlement”, meaning if Washington wanted peace it should cut a deal with the Taliban.

Islamabad subsequently prepared a formal note to protest President Trump’s pronouncements and in a speech to Pakistan’s Senate, foreign minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif said his government rejected allegations of harbouring the Taliban. “The Afghan war cannot be fought in Pakistan,” he reiterated. “To scapegoat Pakistan will not help in stabilising Afghanistan.”

A few days later he said Islamabad had suspended talks and bilateral visits with Washington in protest over Mr Trump’s anti-Pakistan Afghan strategy.

The fury spilled over into Pakistani streets in anti-US demonstrations and furious op-ed pieces targeting President Trump. In Afghanistan, it was more serious business: Taliban terrorists set off an explosion at a Kabul bank, killing five innocent Afghans and shaking the window panes of the nearby US embassy.

Clearly, President Trump’s strategy is changing geopolitical equations. Islamabad senses it and is scurrying for help to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, three cynical powers who are all prepared to deal with the Taliban for their own perceived interests.

The third significant point in President Trump’s strategy is affirmation of India’s role in Afghanistan. So far, US politicians and diplomats have been derisive about India’s involvement in Afghanistan, including the construction of the strategic Dularam-Zaranj Highway at considerable cost in southwestern Afghanistan.

The Delaram–Zaranj Highway, known as Route 606, links Afghanistan’s ring road to Chabahar in Iran. This alternate economic route to the heart of Afghanistan, bypassing troubled Pakistan, has failed to take off due to several reasons, one being tacit US disapproval.

Indian commentators responding to President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy have cautioned New Delhi, claiming there is lack of clarity on what India’s role should be. But Mr Trump has been very clear on this, emphasising an economic, not military role for India. Washington’s overt support for New Delhi’s numerous Afghan projects should make things easier for India, though Islamabad is furious at the legitimacy given to the Indian presence in that country.

The bomb blasts near the US embassy were just a prelude to what US secretary of state Rex Tillerson says is a dramatic shift in US strategy towards Afghanistan. From now on the Pentagon, not the White House, will determine the level of US military deployment in Afghanistan. “We’re shifting from a time-based military strategy that had very clear troop ceiling levels to now, as he (Trump) indicated, a conditions-based strategy, which means it will be dictated by conditions on the ground, informed by battlefield commanders,” explained Mr Tillerson.

The danger is that Rawalpindi has too many friends in Washington, old Pakistan hands, retired foreign service and military officers who have grown up believing they were dealing with an ally. The Pakistan Army has looked after many of them over the years and old loyalties die hard.

There will therefore be a concerted lobby in Washington against Mr Trump’s Afghan strategy. There will be every attempt to undermine, dilute and ultimately overturn it. That would indeed be an outright disaster.