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August 24, 2017

A recycled agenda


August 24, 2017

Amid ongoing political turmoil in Washington that has seen several White House top officials dismissed from their positions, US President Donald Trump has announced his new Afghan policy. Trump’s policy is in sharp contrast to his electoral promises of a complete disengagement from Afghanistan.

The US policy choices in Afghanistan were from bad (moderate troop surge to postpone the defeat) to worse (complete withdrawal precipitating immediate defeat) and Trump has opted for the former. While Trump’s Afghan policy is a departure from his predecessor’s approach in its boldness. But the broad parameters remain, more or less, the same. Apparently, the tone and tenor of the new policy is quite Clausewitzian as it seeks to combine the military, political and diplomatic components. However, in reality, it is only the military component that is preponderant.   

The key features of Trump’s Afghan policy operate on a condition-based approach instead of a calendar-driven policy. No more peace talks with the Taliban, holding Pakistan accountable for providing sanctuaries to the Afghan militant groups, working closely with India to stabilise Afghanistan and the deployments of an additional 4,000 US troops are the main elements of this policy. The addition of 4,000 troops will take the total number of foreign troops in Afghanistan to 15,000 (12,000 from the US and 3,000 from Nato) who will advise, assist and train the Afghan forces. Moreover, America’s open-ended commitment to Kabul will ease some pressure on the embattled National Unity Government (NUG) of Ashraf Ghani. 

The policy seems to be a compromise between Trump – who wanted a complete withdrawal – and his generals – who wanted to ramp up the war effort in Afghanistan. The policy lacks a clear articulation on how its various components will break the strategic deadlock in Afghanistan, stabilise the deteriorating security situation and improve the prospects for peace-building. It raises more questions instead of providing answers. For instance, it is not clear what outcomes the Trump administration aims to achieve in Afghanistan by implementing the new strategy. 

Despite a more assertive tone and a muscular outlook, Trump’s Afghan policy exposes Washington’s policy paralysis, lack of imagination and viable political options. It guarantees neither a decisive victory nor military gains that are significant enough to force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

President Obama, more or less, did the same during the final months of his administration. Obama’s original plan was to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 1,000 to protect the US Embassy in Kabul. But he twice modified the planned reduction on the advice of his military advisers to leave more troops in deployment.

Afghanistan needs intensified political and diplomatic efforts to explore a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Instead, Trump has further militarised the conflict, which is a recipe for endless war. From the strategic point of view, an indefinite commitment to a protracted and asymmetrical war is a poor policy choice.

A military strategy is employed to create favourable conditions, which could be exploited politically. However, it is unclear how this policy of militarisation will create a political opening. It’s not rocket science to understand that 15,000 foreign troops will not be able to achieve what 150,000 Nato/Isaf forces could not achieve, barring a few tactical victories.

Trump’s policy pronouncement is a clear indication that Washington is scaling down its commitment from stabilising Afghanistan to preventing a terrorist attack on US soil which originates from Afghanistan. The issue with this kind of muddled mindset is that preventing Afghanistan from turning into a fertile ground for terrorist groups requires nation-building, which the Trump administration is shying away from. Unfortunately, as long as the government in Kabul remains dysfunctional, the Taliban will remain a hard reality.

Ideally, an overall political strategy was required for Afghanistan that should have guided its military component, among others. Instead, Washington has outsourced the Afghan policy to Pentagon opting for a militarised policy that offers little hope for conflict resolution. At best, Trump’s new Afghan policy will deny Taliban an outright military victory. At worst, it will further harden the Taliban’s insurgent attacks and fuel fresh recruitment.

The Trump administration has taken an oversimplified, static view of a complicated, dynamic and fluid regional issue that has changed dramatically since his inauguration in January 2017. The Afghan Taliban has diversified the regional linkages, minimising their sole dependence on Pakistan.

Today, the Taliban have a working relationship with Iran and Russia and, to a lesser extent, with Beijing. Islamabad, Tehran and Moscow consider the continued US military presence in Afghanistan to be a threat to their security and detrimental to their regional interests. So, while the Trump administration has taken a tough line on Pakistan for providing sanctuaries to the Taliban, it has fallen short of pointing out the support for the latter from Russia and Iran.

Scapegoating Pakistan for its policy failures in Afghanistan will not ease the US predicament in Afghanistan. The buck certainly does not stop at Islamabad. It is rather ironic that with its less than half-hearted commitment, Washington expects Islamabad to do more while it is the former who needs to do more.

The hardline towards Pakistan is not going to change its Afghan policy. On the contrary, the increased Indian engagement in Afghanistan – as envisaged by Trump in his speech – will further strengthen Islamabad’s threat perception and add to its strategic anxiety. Consequently, Islamabad will continue to pursue a policy that aims to minimise the Indian influence in Afghanistan to avoid strategic encirclement.

Unfortunately, the endgame in Afghanistan has become more uncertain, with no end in sight to America’s longest war. With its new Afghan policy, the Trump administration can manage the conflict in Afghanistan but cannot resolve it. Consequently, the current status quo in Afghanistan is likely to persist. Notwithstanding recent battlefield gains, the Taliban will not win and Kabul will not lose, despite the breakdown of governance and the economic meltdown.

The writer is an associate researchfellow at the S Rajaratnam School ofInternational Studies, Singapore.Email: [email protected]

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