Undoing what Obama stood for is one thing that US President Trump has been on course to accomplish – whether it is on the domestic front, foreign policy affairs or climate change.
Trump’s new Afghan policy is perhaps the only element of the new administration that has been largely endorsed within the US. Even media outlets that have criticised him seem to view it the right approach.
After eight months in office, Trump has not accomplished much. He is at war with the media through his tweets on healthcare, climate change and, more recently, the surge in white supremacist violence. His ‘wisdom and values’ are not just being questioned but are also being challenged. People like him, when let loose on the domestic front, launch wars, create crises and seek political gains.
The US has already spent $1 trillion over the past 16 years in Afghanistan and there is no end to it. According to a report by The New York Times, “the Department of Veterans Affairs has more than to 350,000 employees since 2001. And its budget has swelled to more than $185 billion a year, up from about $60 billion in 2001”. The Obama administration had requested more than $44 billion for fiscal year 2017 for the Afghan war – a figure that is to likely increase with the presence of US troops, which Trump is expected to boost by about 4,000. Experts in Washington believe that 4,000 additional troops might raise the cost of the Afghan war from $2 billion to $4 billion a year.
The Afghan occupation has cost the lives of more than 2,300 US soldiers and $828 billion has been already spent. The US government has reached the debt ceiling, with five percent chances of default, and the treasury will soon be unable to pay salaries if the debt ceiling is not raised. This is a US president who is caught in the worst domestic opposition in the first year of his term that no other American president in modern history has found himself in.
American newspapers are flooded with policy prescriptions on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last month, a commentator termed Afghanistan “a disease” and not a country. This was a disgusting and derogatory statement rather than an analysis that was published by a leading newspaper. Afghanistan under the Shah’s rule and Najib’s takeover was a far more stable and educated country until the US, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan threw it back into the stone age.
Trump’s new policy has clearly abandoned the peace talks agenda with the Afghan Taliban. A few indirect rounds of talks were aimed at buying more time to weaken the Taliban, depriving them of their military might and forcing them to accept the current Afghan parliamentary democracy and become part of the government. Talks with the Taliban were never on their agenda. Instead, making them accept democracy, disarm and participate in the political process is nothing less than what Washington expects. So do reconciliation talks have any future? Clearly not.
Washington cannot give up its support to a political system in Kabul that it has built over the past 16 years at a huge cost to financial resources and human lives. The Trump administration has shown a willingness to invest more resources in Afghanistan to disarm the Taliban and sustain the current political order. A withdrawal from the country anytime soon will create a space which the Taliban, Isis and other forces that are hostile to the US will occupy. Trump’s remaining term in power won’t allow this to happen. The American course in Afghanistan is, therefore, pretty much clear.
Pakistan must outline its own course of action on Afghanistan by keeping in view the fact that Washington’s boots will continue to be grounded in Kabul. The failed myth of strategic depth no longer holds utility. The Indo-US nexus in Afghanistan means that the country will remain neutral in case of any military hostility between India and Pakistan.
Pakistan is left with tough policy choices in the current situation. It is up to the Pakistani leadership, both military and civil, to opt for a choice that ensures sustainable economic and political stability in country. Any external shock would be hard to handle. When Trump says Pakistan has much to lose, it immediately means that if the country requires another IMF bailout, loans would be hard to obtain without an American node.
Since the 1980s, Islamabad’s dependence on foreign flows (financial injections) has increased. An annual $13 billion worth of debt-servicing could be disturbed if there is a change in loans required and the sustainability of remittances. Our alliances, whether it is China or Russia, do not have a history of providing cash loans to economies like ours. CPEC involves funding for infrastructure, expenditure on the labour force and equipment to be imported from China and not all the pledged money will land in Pakistan.
Islamabad’s strategic experts have experience of dealing with a hostile India. But they are not equipped to deal with a superpower that has the capability of striking in different parts of our country and the ground forces of our Western neighbour with Nato allies. Securing our own security and economic interests should be the top priority. We won’t achieve this by escalating the current blame game as both countries know very well how they view each other.
Postponing diplomatic interaction is unwise on the part of Pakistan. The new foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, is inexperienced in the art of diplomacy. His first reaction to Trump’s speech was uncalled for. Whoever may have provided the policy draft, it does not matter. The much-awaited policy review came to the surface only after an intra-agency review. Don’t we know what the Pentagon wants in Afghanistan and from us?
Keeping the communication channels open is in our best interest. If there is anything for us to gain, it is through talks with Washington. Eight months after Trump was voted into office, the US State Department extended an invitation to the foreign minister for the first time. However, the opportunity is lost. Diplomacy and foreign policy are not a form of constituency-based politics as the stakes are high and of a lasting nature.
Like Washington, Pakistan also needs an Afghan policy review. This review should include politicians as it is important to listen to them because they are more experienced than the pundits. It is in Pakistan’s interest to engage Washington in a dialogue. Our Afghan policy is not helping us. It has not even enabled us to secure our own country. Armed non-state actors are nowhere considered to be a source of stability and strength.