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September 15, 2019

Afghan peace delay adds to Trump re-election challenges

National

September 15, 2019

The American presidential elections 2020, which are due in November next year, opened up with ABC/Washington Post poll giving President Trump his lowest 38 percent approval rating on Sept 10. The crisis of confidence in American security establishment, economic slowdown and collapse of Afghan peace deal could not have come at a worse time.

An immediate end to the Afghan war was one of main promises of President Trump’s 2016 campaign. However, USA has spent almost USD one trillion on the Afghan war, its costliest war post 9/11. Over 250,000 lives have been lost in the Afghan war since 2001, including civil and military casualties among all parties in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Despite a massive drawdown from peak level of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010 to around 14,000 now, the presence in Afghanistan still costs over USD 50 billion per annum to USA. The budget office of American Congress estimates that the funds needed to meet the deficit between the US government income and expenses is likely to be USD one trillion in 2020. It was yet another promise of President Trump in 2016 to end high budget deficits and even pay off the American debt. Due to international commitments, trade war with China and domestic slowdown, six out of 10 Americans apprehend an economic recession in latest polls. An American president Jimmy Carter had lost badly when confronted with a recession in the election year.

President Trump rubbished the recent polls saying he has not even started his 2020 campaign. However, a consensus seems to be there about his approval ratings. The CNN poll last week gave President Trump a 39pc approval rating and the latest Gallup poll gave him the same percentage. ABC/Washington Post poll states that his average rating after assuming office remains the lowest on record for any modern president at a comparable point in his term. It’s a known fact that President Trump has never achieved majority approval while Obama and Bush both had 50pc approval ratings close to re-election.

Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc (retd), who is a former commander of US Special Operations and has served 10 tours in Afghanistan, wrote on Aug 30, 2019 about the Afghan war: “It’s time for us to leave.” General Bolduc held that Americans should never have ventured into unrealistic nation-building and social science experiment in Afghanistan after achieving the objective of routing terrorists in 2002. He added that around 60pc of Americans in credible polls held that Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been non-productive and a drain on American economy.

The latest American quarterly growth came at 2pc compared to 3.1pc in the previous quarter and is likely to further slowdown if Chinese tariff negotiations drag on and internal and foreign policy challenges persist. President Trump believes China trade concessions and IP theft cost US economy over one trillion and he is out to recover it. Since 2018, America has imposed new tariff of USD360 billion whereas China has imposed new tariffs of USD110 billion. Experts believe this trade war is likely to worsen and seriously weigh on global growth.

Trump is walking this path as economy remains the best performing indicator for him which stood at 51pc approval rating in latest polls despite a sharp fall from 65pc in last polls. With domestic growth slowing down, experts are baffled for how long and far President Trump will take it. Singapore’s ex-Permanent Representative to UN, Kishore Mahbubani, said last week that the United States ultimate goal in its trade war with China seems to prevent its emerging rival from overtaking it as the world’s greatest economic power.

The trade war with China and expected tariff round with the European Union, heavy tax cuts, too many fronts on foreign policy which impact America’s trade and investment relations are all a cause of concern for the American public going into the election year. Yet another concern as voiced by Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc (retd) in his recent article is the crisis of confidence in its foreign policy and security establishment similar to one experienced during Jimmy Carter’s era.

Taliban are playing it cool after recent postponement of talks as they continue their hold on half of Afghanistan, a claim President Ashraf Ghani denies. President Ghani remains confident of his performance and of winning another term. Analysts believe that President Ghani’s government’s real test will start once the American troops withdraw and future governance model is settled with Taliban. The Indian unilateral annexation of Kashmir has further complicated matters for stakeholders in the region, especially the Americans. The Kashmir annexation definitely has raised concern and alarm in Pakistani establishment, which will be very conscious in any future Afghan Taliban settlement due to standoff with India.

Pakistan has sacrificed over 70,000 lives and lost over USD125 billion due to spillover of Afghan war. Pakistan continues to host 1.4 million Afghans, the third largest refugee population in the world. A peaceful Afghanistan would enable these refugees to move back and also harness regional energy and goods trade and connectivity.

The latest China-Pakistan-Afghanistan foreign ministers round in Islamabad bodes well for regional cooperation and stability. The settlement of Afghan situation is in the interest of both Pakistan and America and other regional stakeholders like China and Russia. These four countries met in Beijing this July for Afghan peace settlement and another summit may help. There are likely to be tough negotiations on future Afghan political dispensation which may get violent. Afghanistan has seen many such cycles before and hopefully with their own maturity and interest and guidance of all stakeholders, middle ground will be found. Despite heavy American investment, due to the political disconnect between Kabul and rest of the country, Afghanistan continues to have one of lowest literacy rates (31%) and lowest GDP per capita (GDP of less than USD 30 billion per annum for a population of 35 million). Peace and development in Afghanistan are global challenges and all stakeholders should avoid short term gains.

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