So the much awaited Trump policy on Afghanistan and South Asia is out, as reported by the American press, the address at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia was the most significant national security speech of Trump’s presidency to-date and reflects the outcome of months of internal administration deliberations to decide the scope of the ongoing military, financial and diplomatic commitment to the longest-running war in US history. It was the President’s latest attempt to offer an unequivocally unifying message to the country in the wake of his botched response to the incidents in Charlottesville sparked by a white supremacist rally.
Key takeaways include: The fact that rapid withdrawal was not possible from Afghanistan; this can be interpreted as a graduated withdrawal being possible after creating conditions for peace and stability. While acknowledging Pakistan’s efforts and sacrifices in the War on Terror as a US ally, Trump said that Pakistan has “much to gain” from partnering with the US, but also warned “it has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists.” Indian involvement in Afghanistan economic development was acknowledged which assures the Afghan government and conveys a message to Pakistan. While the US support to Afghanistan was a firm commitment, it was not an open cheque. From now on, the US will not aim at nation-building of foreign states but just pursue her national security objectives to serve her national interests.
We were glancing at a July 11, 2016 Aljazeera report on Obama’s policy on Afghanistan, and it had so much common with Trump’s latest speech. Obama said, the US must challenge Pakistan’s duplicity on Afghanistan, instead of prolonging the war in Afghanistan, US and NATO must tackle the root of the problem – in Pakistan.
However, the State Department came up with a much more practical and diplomatic statement: Rex W Tillerson, Secretary of State highlighted key elements of the Trump’s policy: A new integrated strategy for the US approach to South Asia will require diplomatically engaging Pakistan, Afghanistan and India to create conditions for stability in the region. It signals clear support for the Afghan people and government and security forces in their fight against terrorists and prevents the reestablishment of safe havens in the country. The new strategy breaks from previous approaches that set artificial calendar-based deadlines with a message to the Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield. The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war. The US will support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions and looks to the international community, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, to join us in supporting an Afghan peace process. Pakistan has suffered greatly from terrorism and can be an important partner in the shared goals of peace and stability in the region. The US looks to Pakistan to take decisive action against militant groups based in Pakistan that are a threat to the region. It is vital to US interests that Afghanistan and Pakistan prevent terrorist sanctuaries. India will be an important partner in the effort to ensure peace and stability in the region, and we welcome its role in supporting Afghanistan’s political and economic modernisation.
The signals emanating from White House, Capitol Hill and mainstream media on ‘US policy on Afghanistan’ point to a rather frustrated and confused mindset.
Capitol Hill remains divided; the recent visit to Pakistan by US Senate Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee members led by Senator John McCain has come up with a mixed policy of stick and carrot on Pakistan. The main aspects and policy recommendation, highlighted in a recent report in American Press indicate growing frustration.
Fareed Zakaria’s assessment was much more balanced, in a CNN broadcast on August 22, he said that the fundamental challenge was diplomatic; how do you construct some settlement that would last when you leave, that needs the Pakistanis, Indians, Iranians, and the Russians getting involved, as none of them are buying into US war, and they are all undermining it in one way or the other (less the Indians), what will 4000 additional troops do that 140000 could not do? This strategy has been tried out by Obama in the past and has failed. Zakaria concluded that the speech was full of contradictions; it was in many ways confusing.
A major factor in the internal strategic environment of Afghanistan is the Taliban. As of today, TTA has been able to take direct and indirect control of 60% of Afghanistan; the reduced strength of US-led forces in Afghanistan cannot help ebb the tide of the Taliban offensive. US military has been looking for a stalemate even if reinforced.
Recent terror attacks in Balochistan on the eve of Independence Day underscore the need for taking effective safeguards against terror emanating from Afghanistan. As stated by ISPR, the successful launching of Operation Khyber-4 under Radd-ul-Fasaad (RuF) was aimed at “wiping out terrorists” in the Rajgal Valley area of Khyber Agency. It seeks to target terrorist hideouts in what the DG ISPR called “the most critical area in the FATA”. Khyber-4 has also conveyed a strong message to terrorists and the Afghan government as well as the US military that Pak Army was doing its best to dismantle the terror network on Pakistan’s soil, and it was up to the Afghan army to take advantage and exploit the environment for a meaningful military thrust on their side of the border if they wished.
Pakistani media should also come forward to support Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan, unfortunately some quarters would remain biased and play the tunes of their foreign sponsors; there is a need to build a strong national narrative and convey to the international community that Pakistan should not be treated as a scapegoat and whipping boy for failure of the US policy in Afghanistan.
The international community should also ponder on the prolonged Afghan conflict; If the US-led military alliance of 46 countries could not stem the tide of insurgency after spending almost one trillion dollars over a period of 16 years, what do they expect from Pakistan? On its part, Pakistan Army has done a tremendous job by successfully fighting against terrorist on home soil. The time has come to appreciate the strategic environment in Afghanistan and find a political solution to the imbroglio by taking all stakeholders on board, there is no other way.
Pakistan needs to put her own house in order, as a post-Panama decision polarised polity has not augured well for foreign policy on Afghanistan. After getting a full-fledged Foreign Minister, Pakistan needs to go in full gear to promulgate her case on Afghanistan.