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April 23, 2017

A country in the crosshairs


April 23, 2017

During the US presidential election campaign, Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine left many uncertain about his policy towards Afghanistan would be. A few random tweets provided the only indication of his stance towards the war-torn country. For instance, in one of his tweets, Trump said: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there”. It was puzzling that he would continue spending billions of dollars funding in Afghanistan or extricate the 8,800 US troops from the war-torn country.

Following Trump’s election victory, notwithstanding the pre-election rhetoric, his position on Afghanistan has changed qualitatively. In recent months, top officials in the Trump administration have signalled a policy of moderate troop surge and increased military spending to break the deadlock and subsequently explore a diplomatic solution to end the war.

On his first visit to Afghanistan, on April 16, the US National Security Adviser Lt General (r) H R McMaster promised to provide continued political, economic and military support to the embattled National Unity government (NUG) in Afghanistan.

The targeting of the IS-owned network of caves and tunnels with the Mother of All Bombs in Eastern Afghanistan preceded his arrival – an indication of the US’s more muscular military and diplomatic policy in the region. On April 17, McMaster arrived in Pakistan, where he delivered a tough message to the country’s top political and military leadership. He urged Islamabad to take indiscriminate action against all kinds of militant groups and use diplomacy to address regional issues instead of engaging in a proxy war. McMaster’s trip to the region is part of the ongoing consultation process ahead of finalising the Trump administration’s Pak-Afghan policy.

A joint reading of McMaster’s statements in Kabul and Islamabad provides a glimpse into the Trump administration’s new Pak-Afghan policy. The appointment of the Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis as the US assistant secretary of South Asia has preceded these developments. Curtis is considered to be quite close the Indian lobby in Washington DC. She co-authored a review of the US policy towards Pakistan with Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, advocating a tougher line.

Growing Russian and Chinese involvement in the Pak-Afghan region and Islamabad’s gravitation towards Moscow and Beijing has forced the Trump administration to re-think its earlier position of disengagement and maintaining a low-key policy in Afghanistan. In addition, China’s expanding economic footprint in the region – enshrined in its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project – and Russia’s Afghan initiative to explore a regional solution to the war in Afghanistan, has forced Washington work with Kabul, New Delhi and its Nato allies to reassert its position in Afghanistan.

Arguably, China is emerging as the economic competitor of the US in Pakistan and Afghanistan while Russia is rising as its geo-political rival. The US wants to retain its position as the major security guarantor, conflict stabiliser and economic benefactor in the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China are trying to undermine the preponderant position of the US on a geopolitical and geo-economic footing. These shifting geopolitical and geo-economic trends in the region have forced Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, among others, to readjust their position vis-a-vis the evolving competition.

The US has snubbed Russia’s invitation to participate in its Afghanistan meeting on April 14. Similarly, major Western powers are also skipping China’s New Sill Route Summit schedule in May. Western apprehensions about China’s broader political goals couched in the mega-economic initiative have kept them away from the summit. At the same time, the US has termed Russia’s growing ties with the Afghan Taliban and its diplomatic initiative on Afghanistan as a direct interference in US polices in the region and an attempt to undermine its interests. This hostility will further increase in the future.

The Trump administration views Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban as the main destabilising factor and the reason for the stalemate in Afghanistan. In the last six months, all congressional hearings involved in reviewing the US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan have underlined the neutralisation of Pakistan’s support (through carrots or sticks) for the Taliban, which is essential to break the deadlock in Afghanistan.

Recently, General John W Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said: “20 of the 98 US-designated terrorist groups in the world were in the Af-Pak region (13 in Afghanistan and seven in Pakistan), making it the highest concentration of the terrorists groups anywhere in the world”.

Going by McMaster’s statement in Islamabad, the US will adopt a tougher policy on Pakistan, urging it to take indiscriminate action against Pakistan-based anti-India and anti-Afghan militant groups. Most likely, the US will also ramp up drone strikes in the Pak-Afghan region. The Trump administration’s decision to return the authority of running the drone programme from the Pentagon to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after a gap of nine months points to that direction.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the role of US troops will shift from train, assist and advise to active combat. However, instead of relying on ground operations, the US will heavily rely on the air power and drone warfare. Force will be used to create conditions that are conducive for political dialogue to end the war. This is wishful thinking because the Taliban will not return to the negotiation table in the presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil. The diversification of the Taliban’s ties with Russia, China and Iran – other than Pakistan – has further emboldened their position, politically and militarily.

However, the Taliban are not in a position to win the war in Afghanistan beyond gaining tactical advantages. The US also lacks the political will or enough boots on the ground to impose a military solution. Unfortunately, the breakdown of an international consensus on Afghanistan and regional divisions will further worsen regional peace and stability. If the Trump administration fails to tackle the Taliban’s summer offensive this year, Afghanistan will become a hot spot of an international and regional power struggle.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: [email protected]

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