By Saad Mohseni
It took US President Donald Trump months to finally decide on his policy for Afghanistan, America’s longest war. Trump’s reluctance to immediately acquiesce to his military’s demands did result, though, in the most careful study of various Afghanistan options undertaken by any US administration – and one that also holds out the promise of transforming South Asia’s dynamics for the better.
President Trump did well in his speech to justify continued US engagement in Afghanistan, and key to that was the open-ended commitment of troops and the decision not to specify troop numbers. The US military and their civilian counterparts have never had the time horizon to effectively implement measures that could have strengthened the Afghan state or weakened terrorist organisations that continue to maintain region-wide support networks. Afghan security forces have fought bravely but lack adequate air power, leadership, retention rates and coalition support to stem the tide of a resurgent Taliban, which now controls more ground than at any point since 2001. The new, open-ended commitment will also boost the morale of the Afghan security forces, who are engaged in more than two dozen battles against the Taliban across the country.
Just as importantly, by approaching the Afghan strategy as a South Asian one, Washington is recognising again that this is a regional challenge. For the US to have withdrawn from Afghanistan would have prompted the collapse of the state and most likely resulted in greater factional violence. India, Pakistan, Iran and others would have been forced to increase support to their chosen sides in the conflict, exacerbating regional tensions and perhaps setting the scene for a disastrous showdown in the region. Pakistan and its 120 nuclear warheads would have become more vulnerable. Already Iran, Russia and China have been looking to exert greater influence in Afghanistan given Washington’s silence (perceived as absence) thus far.
President Trump’s decision to specifically mention India in his speech reflects New Delhi’s deep ties to Afghanistan. India remains Afghanistan’s most important regional partner, contributing to the construction of key dams, roads, power infrastructure and even the Afghan parliament building; committing $200mm in small development projects; and providing food aid, educational scholarships and other in-kind support. Its Afghanistan-friendly tariffs have transformed India into one of Afghanistan’s primary export markets.
At the same time, his mention of Pakistan lays much of the blame on Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour. The Afghans and international partners cannot prevail unless the Taliban’s support networks, training camps and safe havens in Pakistan are dealt with. But Washington now needs to match its words with deeds. Through specific publicly and privately communicated conditions – and through delivering on promised consequences – Washington should this time aim to change Pakistan’s behaviour rather than just its public statements. At the same time, it will have to communicate to Pakistan why, and how, playing a positive role in Afghanistan will not be a threat to Pakistan’s own national interest.
Taken together, this renewed commitment to Afghanistan and increased engagement of India and Pakistan could have the side benefit – but an enormous one -- of fostering improved relations across the region. If Afghanistan can be used as a cause for all three countries to rally around, there is a real possibility that that cooperation could ease broader tensions between them and potentially result in closer ties.
There are of course other key elements to Trump’s strategy. The floundering and deeply unpopular National Unity Government in Afghanistan needs to deal with corruption, broaden its base and earn its legitimacy, as ultimately it relies for its survival on the support of the Afghan people. Trump was right to demand that the Afghans need to do much of the heavy lifting and that US support will not come in the form of a blank cheque. He was also right to not insist on peace talks with the Taliban; their intransigence and continued terrorist attacks reflect their unwillingness to talk. Only a strong government in Kabul coupled with gains in the battlefield will prompt them to seriously consider a settlement.
As announced on Monday, the ultimate goal of US strategy will continue to be the prevention of terrorist groups from using Afghan territory for launching or planning attacks against the US. However, as the President mentioned, this cannot happen in isolation. There are many moving parts to this reset involving the Afghan government, the US and Nato allies. Just as importantly, for the greater good of the region, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan should work together in unison for Afghanistan’s future.
Hindustan Times, August 23, 2017