The latest Afghan policy announced by US President Trump looks a lot like the policy pitched by former VP Joe Biden (as an alternate) in 2009. It stresses counterterrorism instead of the counter-insurgency strategy which was adopted by Obama. It has a smaller footprint and focuses on killing terrorists (and on nothing else).
In order to understand this policy more, one must first reflect on the conditions in the White House. The Trump White House is known for leaks, indiscipline, firings and finger-pointing by President Trump against fired personnel. This White House is filled with ex-generals (one of whom has lost a son in combat in Afghanistan.)
In the last few months, Trump has delegated the decision on troop numbers to one of these ex-generals. The increase in troop numbers calculated by this team of ex-generals (4000) is also not a secret. However, it seems, the ex-generals have chosen not to use their delegated powers for fear of back-tracking by Trump, followed by finger pointing and public shaming – as has happened on other issues.
The ex-generals have instead forced Trump to publicly demonstrate his ownership of this Afghan policy (on prime time television) before proceeding. And, of all the different issues under discussion in this White House, this is the only one that has not been prematurely leaked and the only one on which Trump himself has stayed exactly on course; not straying even a word away from the text before him.
I state all this only to underscore the seriousness of the American establishment regarding this policy.
The new policy has the following major components:
-- It is open ended. This is a departure from previous policies and this reverses the strict controls that earlier commanders were under.
-- Leaving Afghanistan is not an option. This moves the Taliban’s goal posts of withdrawal into an undetermined future. This should also change our calculus.
-- The Afghan army, which is losing dozens of soldiers every day, will continue as front-line troops supported by key US personnel very close to the combat but not on the front lines ala Mosul in Iraq.
-- US Special Ops personnel will engage high-value targets, eliminating jihadi leadership – wherever they are found – with a lower regard for collateral damage.
-- Any negotiations with the Taliban will only be made after sustained fighting. These negotiations will be made not by the US but by the Afghan government.
-- Pakistan has a choice to be a part of “civilisation and order” or face the consequences which are not iterated but left to our imagination. It seems the way to join “civilisation and order” is by eliminating terrorist sanctuaries on our soil.
-- Relatively low levels of troop movement aim to reduce the leverage Pakistan enjoys as Afghanistan’s logistics corridor.
A minor component of this policy is the invitation to India to participate in economic development of Afghanistan. From the eyes of Pakistani planners, this last bit crosses a red line since any sentence with the word India in it is a red line in this part of the world.
Our reaction is accordingly in red type. We deny all allegations and reject all calls to join “civilisation and order”. Instead, we have asked the US to do more.
I like this response primarily because it is a joint response from the two pillars which represent Pakistani thought. The people we have chosen to represent us together with the people who have chosen to represent us have jointly penned this response so this must be the best response there could have been.
But as we sit and wait for the next round in this game of high-stakes bluff – where both nations have called each others’ bluff – one thing makes me worried. And that is the issue of trust. No one trusts us. The COAS has rightly asked the US for “trust”. Trust is a central issue. Obama had called Pakistan “dysfunctional” and now Trump accuses us of harbouring “agents of chaos”. And the US is our ally! There is something wrong here. We have fought for the last forty years in a graveyard of empires – for the world – not for us. And the recompense of this fight is that the world does not trust us. Why? This is the real question that must be answered - between us - before we go back to the world.
If someone in authority knows the answer to this question, the time to speak is now. Square with us. Let us know. If there are secrets that the world knows but we do not, tell them. If there are mistakes that have been made, tell us. We will understand. And we will forgive. And we will unite – not in empty bluster but in solid and fruitful action. We will mend whatever trust has been broken. We will stand with you. We will explain your position to the world. But tell us, the people, the truth and take this first step towards trust.
Instead of brokering deals with Russia and China and Iran, broker a deal with us, the people of Pakistan. Look not for strength without. You will find this strength within. Tell us the truth. Pray tell us and we will help you find a way out.
The writer is the author of A Hundred Journeys – Stories of my Fatherland.