Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia: What does it mean to India?

By Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza


“America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
These words, part of Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia announced on August 21, were intended to highlight the novelty and surprise elements of a roadmap that purportedly sought little short of the decimation of terrorism. After spending much blood and treasure, has the US learned from its mistakes? Is the present strategy a break with the past? Or is it a mere continuation of a policy with no defined objectives and outcomes?

For all that, the ‘new’ strategy, its overheated semantics and studious ambiguity notwithstanding, in reality, is but a continuation of the American trial and error method that has kept insurgent aspirations of a victory alive these 16 years since the US intervened in Afghanistan. After all the opposition to the war in Afghanistan Trump unleashed over the years via social media, especially in his election campaign, when push came to shove, he chose the least bad option, the one which would have the least resistance and would provide room for maneuver to match the domestic needs and geopolitical interests. Despite tall claims of having studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle, Trump strategy in Afghanistan is neither new nor comprehensive.

New Delhi needs to remain cautious before embracing this ambiguous strategy. Among its many ambiguities, three are especially worth considering:
First, the plan, apparently scripted by the US military, is not about nation building but kinetic operations, search and destroy by another name. Getting a free hand on the ground with no micromanagement from Washington is a victory of sorts for the US generals in Afghanistan. Still, much confusion abounds as to whether the strategy is counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism plus, or an overt reliance on the use of military force.
Moving away from the earlier time-based approach to one based on conditions is certainly appropriate. In this, Trump has addressed the error of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who had announced troop surge and exit at the same time. This only worked to insurgent advantage, allowing an approach of ‘waiting out the enemy.’

There is no indication whether the intent is to convert Afghanistan into a new South Korea, where US troops are indefinitely based, or something else. A conditions-based approach is preferable to the mistaken announcement of a schedule, but there is nothing to indicate what the conditions are. Further, the apparent decoupling of kinetic and nonkinetic elements of the strategy, the military, and civilian components, will limit the gains achieved through kinetic operations.

Claiming that all of this will be something more than smoke and mirrors is guaranteed, Trump proclaimed, by the application of will. Unlike Obama, he implied, this time the US will fight to win. To point out the sheer profligacy of such a pronouncement seems almost a waste of effort.
Second, Trump has not identified any benchmarks and targets for actions. This keeps the expectation bar low but also does not address the fundamental component of metrics. Neither has he expressed in any clear terms expected steps to be taken by Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, or even the US itself. Most importantly, the role of other major regional powers such as Russia, China, Iran, UAE, and Saudi Arabia remains undefined. Afghanistan’s tragedy lies, in fact, in its internal contradictions that have been exploited by external powers. Without a regional strategy, the external forces will continue along this path, notably neighboring Pakistan.

Third, every US president is aware of Pakistan’s role and interests in supporting the terrorist groups in Afghanistan. It is perhaps the first time that a US president has stated this publicly, but it is not as though the reality has not hitherto figured into planning. Nevertheless, there it was: ‘Pakistan often gives haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,’ Trump stated unambiguously. Unspecified was just what coercive instruments could be brought to play to change Pakistan’s behavior.

Even as Pakistan considers cozying up to China as its safety-valve, the strategy has been welcomed in Kabul and New Delhi. In spite of Trump’s awkward mentioning first of India’s substantial trade benefits from good relations with the US – before elaborating on his expectations from New Delhi ‘to do more – New Delhi has welcomed the strategy. It is seen as a nod to the importance of India’s economic and development assistance thus far and an acknowledgment that without India’s soft power, things could be much worse.

Trump’s critique of Pakistan is in line with New Delhi and Kabul’s position on the external support and sanctuary provided to the insurgent and terrorist groups that are the source of Afghanistan’s instability. That Pakistan has been a mendacious ally in the US-led war on terror, sheltering terror groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, and using them as strategic assets in Afghanistan, despite the aid of more than the US $33 billion being given to Pakistan in the last decade and a half for the counter-terrorism cooperation. The sudden recognition by Trump of New Delhi’s concerns needs to be received with caution given the role he wishes to assign New Delhi as a strategic ally and further develop the strategic partnership with India. The proof lies in the pudding.

Though mentioning the fact that at least 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world, Trump’s strategy appears geared towards targeting al-Qaeda and the ISIS. If the US is still looking for a political settlement with the Taliban, New Delhi will have to make sure that this is done by the Afghan government through an open, inclusive, and accountable process.

Moreover, New Delhi needs to tell Washington that the targeting of terrorist groups cannot be selective and must include groups that are detrimental to India’s security interests, as well. Any robust counter-terrorism cooperation with the US will need to address Pakistan’s role in the funding, training, arming, and supporting these groups.

India has pledged more than the US $3 billion to the various civilian capacity building, infrastructure and development projects in Afghanistan. This has brought it significant good will among the Afghans. By avoiding a security dominated approach, India is seen as a neutral partner and not a party to the conflict. It is prudent, then, for New Delhi to stay clear of involvement in the kinetic side of the equation, while simultaneously urging the US to play a more meaningful nonkinetic role in institution building and reform.

This goes against the Trump administration’s stated goal of avoiding nation-building, yet any military strategy divorced from building strong institutions of governance and service delivery is unlikely to translate kinetic gains into tangible political outcomes. A mere addition of 4,000 troops to the existing publically announced 8,400 troops would not make much impact unless there is a clarity of the mission, rules of engagement and outcome, in addition to building efficient and responsive governance institutions.

There is serious possibility that the US is looking to India to perform the non kinetic component while the US engages in what certain figures feel it does best, kinetics. This would be a thankless position for New Delhi to be in which could entail burden-sharing and risk strategic distortion as concerns its interests.
Likewise, the role of private contractors in the push to outsource the war; the continued dependence upon warlords, power-brokers and militias for support of counterinsurgency operations; the use of airpower as a surrogate for actual engagement, together with inadequate human intelligence (HUMINT) resulting in collateral damage and increase in civilian casualties, all need to be clarified. The potential for New Delhi to be caught in the blowback from Washington’s ill-considered approaches must be considered.

Skeptics are already highlighting that by lumping its Afghan with its South Asia (India and Pakistan) strategy, the Trump administration runs the danger of not only intensifying the India-Pakistan competition but also intensifying regional competition as Pakistan seeks succor from the likes of China, Russia, and Iran. The dangers of such competition, notwithstanding, Pakistan will need to compete with India in the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan which will accrue good will from the Afghans. At the moment, the popular sentiment for Pakistan remains very low.
A weak Afghanistan has been a primary objective of the Pakistani military. Leaving to the side the reality that it is not simply going to give up this quest, regardless of US positions or threats, there is the fundamental necessity for any American strategy that has any hope of success needs to engage with building a strong and stable Afghan state that will make it difficult for its predatory neighbors and its proxies to continue their subversion and assault.
This can be achieved by institution building and reforms in the following security, political, economic, and governance sectors. The Trump administration has refrained from making clear long term commitments. The time to do so is now.
In the security sector, there remains a need for better training, equipment, vetting, and policing capabilities, as well as an increase in Afghan air power capability. The latter element alone, if inadequate, seems all but to guarantee that the gains achieved through kinetic operations will be simply lost.
In the political sector, in addition to revamping the indigenous institutions for peace and reconciliation such as the High Peace Council, reconciled and reintegrated fighters will need opportunities for employment and acceptability as they transition back into society. More importantly, as Afghanistan heads to another round of presidential and much delayed parliamentary elections in 2019 and 2018, respectively, systems, procedures, and logistics need to be put in place to avoid the messy elections outcomes of previous years. These have seriously impacted the credibility and functioning of the Afghan government. Greater decentralization will help popular participation on the margins. The limits of an overly centralized form of governance of last decade and a half are evident.

A legitimate government that delivers the basic services to the people is essential to any hope of victory, however, defined. A clean, responsive and accountable governance system under the rule of law is essential to build the trust of the populace and deprive the insurgents of their support.
If this seems so much pie-in-the-sky, then there hardly seems any point in being involved. Just what the announced US strategy is to contribute to such an end-state is puzzling.

If India and the US intend to work together in denying these groups and their sponsors any space in Afghanistan, the first step will be to chalk out a comprehensive and long term plan along with the Afghan government to build a strong and stable Afghanistan that will be an antidote to these forces at play and predatory neighbors. The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by New Delhi with Kabul in October 2011, provides a good template. As the US adopts a kinetic approach towards Afghanistan, New Delhi will have to spell the conditions for any cooperation to take this strategic partnership ahead.

For New Delhi to partner with US development and aid agencies, such as USAID, there is a need for integrated planning to provide market access for the products produced, accompanied by skill-based training for small and medium enterprises for income generation and boosting domestic production. Instability has enabled neighboring countries to pour in cheap goods, thus stunting Afghanistan’s indigenous economic revival and growth.

New Delhi will have to tread carefully in the shifting sands of Afghanistan and the region. Rather than rushing into the American embrace, New Delhi’s primary objective must be to fulfill its obligations as Kabul’s strategic partner. Trump has sought an important and enduring outcome, the contours of which remain unknown. Ahead of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to New Delhi in late September, India must clarify the ambiguous strategy and outcomes and consider its desired terms of any engagement for any serious partnership with the US in Afghanistan carefully.
It also needs to use the opportunity that has been provided by the moment to tell Washington of the shortcomings of its present regional policy. The Afghans have long looked to a friendly India to play this role of serious interlocutor for the long term stabilization of their country. Thus India should not miss that opportunity now.

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1 Comment

    Pradeep Saxena
    September 13, 2017, 11:37 am

    A brilliantly articulated analysis. To my mind Afghanistan is the classic chess board where moves are made depending on scenarios prevailing then. Sometimes it’s advantage Pak and sometimes its advantage USA. India has been a mere spectator to the game. Notwithstanding that there is another undeniable reality viz, the need to have military footfalls present to ensure the security of the country from the likes of Taliban, Haqqani & Pak who can return if a void comes about militarily. Further given the dynamics of regional dynasties and related loyalties it shall take quite some time before Afghanistan has an effective security force of its own for its internal & external defence. Kinetics should therefore remain in US domain while non-kinetics (reconstruction & mil trg) in India’s. This is where we need to fine tune with Trump administration given the fact that US has invariably gone wrong in formalising a suitable strategy for the region. No Indian military footfalls beyond training elements ala IMTRAT in Afghanistan.


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