Written By: Zarrar Khuhro
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
Dispensing with the hyperbole, let’s take a close look at what Donald Trump’s new Afghan policy means for the region in general and Pakistan in particular. To begin with, calling it ‘new’ would be something of a misnomer as, in broad strokes, it is a continuation of past policies and the results are likely to be no different than what we have seen thus far – a continuation of the spiral of war, destabilization and recrimination. Even the difference in the rhetoric – which has gone from ‘do more’ to ‘no more’ – is in fact the logical culmination of existing trends in Washington’s approach towards Pakistan, which has seen a steady hardening over the years. The U.S. assertion that it can and will target terrorists regardless of where they are based is also nothing new, as this has been standard U.S. policy for some time now.
So even if we ignore Trumps’ typical hardline language, the ‘new’ stance has been on the cards for some time now. However, it is important to note that while the Trump doctrine can indeed be considered as ‘more of the same’, it will in fact be a ramped up version of past practice.
Another central flaw in the ‘new’ Afghan strategy is that it ignores that the South Asia of 2017 is not the South Asia of 2001, or even of 2015: there are more players in Afghanistan now, and they all have their own interests and agendas. Even if Pakistan were to completely disassociate itself from Afghanistan, the Taliban problem will not go away
While in the past we have seen Washington taking a ‘good cop, bad cop’ approach… with defence and intelligence officials lambasting Pakistan and the State Department then taking a more conciliatory line, this time it’s more like ‘bad cop, worse cop,’ with the accusations being harsher and the State Department (already short-staffed to the point of dysfunction) not quite performing its traditionally diplomatic role.
What then can we expect to happen? For one thing, an increase in drone strikes is highly likely to be on the cards, especially when you consider that Trump has already overseen on average one drone strike per day during his first 74 days in office (contrast that with Obama ordering a strike every 4-5 days while in office). It also cannot be ruled out that such strikes, or some other type of military action, may also target few other locations, and a hint of this was found in General John Nicholson’s recent interview to Afghan media.
Another likelihood is that of actual ground incursions as occurred in Angoor Adda in September 2008, and this possibility becomes greater as soon as it becomes evident that the surge in troops in Afghanistan – reportedly to be no more than 4-5000 – will make little difference.
Writing in the Washington Post, an Afghan war veteran, Stephen Carlson writes: “Anyone who has been to Kunar or Helmand provinces knows that the equivalent of a badly understrength brigade is not a drop in a bucket so much as spit in a sieve.”
As U.S. frustration then increases, so do the chances of action on Pakistani territory. That the surge will not succeed is a foregone conclusion: the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan saw the Taliban crumble in the face of overwhelming U.S. airpower combined with the ground troops of the Northern Alliance. The war was considered won, prompting the U.S. to invade Iraq, which provided the Taliban with the chance to regroup and by mid-2008, George W. Bush sent in additional troops, taking the total deployment to 48,500. It didn’t work and the next year Obama was forced to continue the policy taking U.S. troop strength to around 68,000 – their highest level ever. This didn’t work either, and though the U.S. announced the end of combat operations in 2014, the sudden and swift Taliban assault on Kunduz the next year showed that the war was still very much a reality. For an investment of close to a trillion dollars (ironically the same sum that China plans to spend on the OBOR project) America has barely gained any dividends.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration sent a clear message of what its approach would be when it detonated a MOAB on Daesh positions in Afghanistan. This was an indication that the Trump doctrine would be more of the same, but with even less restraint than has been shown in the past. Much like Obama, Trump also initially opposed extending the war in Afghanistan, and like his predecessor, seems to have decided that the cost of complete withdrawal would be greater than the cost of remaining in the game.
Even the reasoning given mirrors that of Obama’s, that a withdrawal will create a vacuum that terrorists will fill.
The threat of sanctions and financial punishment being inflicted on Pakistan is a real one, and while this has been hinted at in the past, this time around National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton has categorically said that the U.S. could impose sanctions on Pakistani officials “who are tied to these kinds of groups, you know, in ways that they shouldn’t be.”
But this too is an amplification of past policy: As pointed out by Nadia Naviwala in a recent column in Dawn newspaper, “Then senator Carl Levin took the first step (towards cutting off aid) in 2015 when he successfully amended the law, requiring the United States to hold back military aid if Pakistan failed to take “sufficient action against the Haqqani network”, Amendments like this usually come from the house and go nowhere. If passed into law, they are neutered: the president can waive the requirement rather than make a determination. The Pressler Amendment fell in this category. It was waived year after year. But Levin Amendment cannot be waived. For Levin, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to take a hard line and succeed signalled that even sound minds in Washington are reaching for sticks instead of carrots.”
Naviwala also points out: “A few hundred million dollars isn’t much of a stick anymore. The China-Pakistan relationship is now worth $110 bn, with around $4 bn expected this year. And those billions come easy.” Nonetheless, the impact of U.S. pressure on international financial institutions cannot be dismissed lightly.
There are certain ground realities that cannot be altered, however. Talking in terms of logistical support for U.S. forces, Afghan expert and former U.S. official Barnett Rubin notes: “No matter how great President Donald Trump makes America, he cannot win the war on geography.” While the Northern Distribution Network (which re-supplied Afghanistan through the Central Asian Republics) was set up as an alternate resupply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that route has now been closed, in some part due to U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine. This leaves little alternative to using the Pakistani route, making a complete breakdown in relations unlikely.
Another central flaw in the ‘new’ Afghan strategy is that it ignores that the South Asia of 2017 is not the South Asia of 2001, or even of 2015: there are more players in Afghanistan now, and they all have their own interests and agendas. Even if Pakistan were to completely disassociate itself from Afghanistan, the Taliban problem will not go away.
The Washington Post made exactly this point when, following Trumps’ speech, it ran a story titled: “Three countries undermining Afghanistan progress that President Trump didn’t call out,” and pointing to the involvement of Iran, Russia and China.
While Iran has traditionally been opposed to the hardline Taliban, even nearly going to war against them in 1998, the changing strategic calculus has also caused a change in Iranian policy towards the Taliban. The Taliban, looking to gain support from any quarter, have also proved responsive and both parties seem to have decided that there is room for cooperation against the U.S., at least in the short-term. These links, while often alluded to by Afghanistan watchers, came to the fore after the death of Mullah Mansour in a drone strike near Noshki, when a passport belonging to Mullah Mansour (issued in the name of Wali Muhammad) was found to contain immigration stamps showing it had been used to enter Iran some months prior, and also that he returned via the border crossing of Taftan. Carlotta Gall, among others, has published detailed stories highlighting Iran’s growing Taliban links, and the above referred story makes for interesting reading indeed. Gall quotes several Afghan officials who allege that the October 2016 Taliban assault of the western Farah province had Iranian backing, and was guided by Iranian military personnel. Afghan intelligence officials alleged that the Taliban who assaulted Farah were trained and recruited in Iran and that the dead and wounded were taken back across the border.
Muhamad Arif Shah Jehan, a senior intelligence official who recently took over as the governor of Farah province told the New York Times, “The regional politics have changed… the strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.” Their support to the Taliban does not seem to be focused on achieving their victory, but is more of an attempt to keep Kabul destabilized, maintain a proxy force, stymie U.S. interests in the region, maintain a check on Saudi influence and also to curb the advances of Daesh. What is certain, though, is that the regional situation points towards more, and not less, such interference in this theatre.
Similarly, Russia – which was recently accused by Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson of providing arms to the Taliban – also has growing stakes in Afghanistan though one can argue that the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is in fact an advantage for Russia, which thus avoids direct entanglement with a country that it has had a bitter past experience in.
China, for its part, does not maintain a military presence in Afghanistan as such, but has increasing economic stakes in the country, which it is matching with diplomatic outreach. For China’s One Belt, One Road project to succeed regional peace is required and the U.S. policy in Afghanistan does not seem a step towards ensuring that peace.
And that is because the strategy makes no mention of the concerns of neighbouring states and is not (as yet) matched by any kind of complementary diplomatic outreach. Indeed, it seems to be a step towards pitting South Asian states into a strategic competition, as is evidenced by the appeal to India to take a larger role in Afghanistan. While this can be seen as a threat aimed at making Pakistan fall in line, the likely effect is to feed Pakistan’s strategic anxieties, achieving an entirely opposite result. Given the state of relations between India and China – strategic rivalry at best and confrontation at worst – the appeal to India is also being seen as a challenge by Beijing in the constant flanking movement it is engaged in with its Asian neighbour.
Interestingly, this call has not caused the expected paroxysms of joy in New Delhi and perhaps one reason for the relative caution being displayed is the wording of Trumps’ appeal to India: “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States – and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”
This mirrors the kind of language Trump has used with others, far older American allies. In March this year, the U.S. president arrived in Brussels and lambasted NATO allies for “not paying what they should be paying and what they're supposed to be paying for their defence." Similar language was used for Saudi Arabia, when in April this year Trump said: "Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia.”
While this sort of rhetoric is tame by Trump standards, it’s not exactly the sort of thing that translates into effective diplomacy or coalition-building.
Yet the beginnings of a coalition can be seen, although this is more of nations opposed to U.S. policy in the region and beyond. This is evidenced by the kind of statements that have come from both Russia and China on this issue, and the ways in which their own strategic interests versus those of the U.S. and its allies. Thus far, Pakistan’s response has been uncharacteristically robust, with both civilian and military leadership being found on the near-mythic ‘same page’. Diplomatically, postponing the visit of Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, acts as a public rebuke but cannot be the basis for sound policy. If it is grandstanding, it must also be matched with tangible contacts with the Trump administration and the various branches of American polity. However, one is not optimistic about the dividends this will bring, given the chaotic nature of the Trump administration and the antipathy towards Pakistan in Washington policy circles.
Instead, the single greatest impact of the Trump doctrine will be to speed up the formation of already emerging networks of alliances and groupings: apart from having the obvious result of pushing Pakistan even further into the China camp, it also sets the stage for a wider clash between Chinese and Indian interests, should the latter take Trumps’ bait. While Russia is playing a balancing game on the sidelines, its general strategic policy is not at all aligned with that of the U.S.
The importance of these two nations to the Pakistani position was highlighted when it was announced that Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif would visit China and Russia prior to visiting the U.S., and one hopes that this kind of strategic outreach is maintained proactively and that Pakistan’s foreign policy does not fall back into the anemic and reactive patterns of the past.
I would argue that a similar, if less high-profile outreach is also needed with Iran though this will naturally have to be balanced against our relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States which are engaged in a confrontation with Tehran in the greater Middle East. Nevertheless, this may be something that the good offices of Turkey can be useful in, given the recent visit to Ankara of the Iranian military chief. Foreign relations are all about flexibility, and this is a lesson we ignore at our peril.
The Trump speech, while not actualized into policy just yet, is certainly a threat but also an opportunity to set our house in order. Flaws in foreign policy must be addressed to the best of our ability. Finally, Pakistani policy-making can and must be made inclusive and as broad-based as possible to be able to adapt to the multi-dimensional needs of the world we live in.
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV Channel.
No other country has more interest for peace in Afghanistan than Pakistan. More than financial or material assistance, we seek acknowledgement of our contributions and sacrifices, and understanding of our challenges.