Written by Abdul Basit.
During the U.S. presidential election campaign, Donald Trump promised to end America’s second largest war in Afghanistan, after the Vietnam War, by extricating American troops from the war-torn country to focus on fighting Islamic radicalism in the Middle East. However, after election victory, his position on Afghanistan has changed qualitatively. In recent months, the top officials in the Trump administration have signalled a policy of moderate troop surge and increased military spending to break the deadlock of the conflict prior to exploring a diplomatic solution to end the war.
The growing Russian and Chinese involvement in the Af-Pak region and Islamabad’s gravitation towards Moscow and Beijing has forced the Trump administration to re-think its earlier position of disengagement and keeping a low-key policy in Afghanistan.
On his first visit to Afghanistan, on April 16, U.S. National Security Adviser Lt. General (Retired) H.R. McMaster promised continued political, economic and military support to the embattled Afghan National Unity Government (NUG). The targeting of Islamic State (IS)-owned network of caves and tunnels with the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) in eastern Afghanistan preceded his arrival, an indication of America’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 to use diplomacy to address regional issues instead of fighting proxy war. McMaster’s trip to the region is part of the on-going consultation process ahead of finalizing the Trump administration’s Af-Pak policy.
Following the deadly Taliban attack on an Afghan military base in northern Afghanistan’s Mazar-i -Sharif, the U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis rushed to Kabul, on April 24, in an unannounced visit to assess the war needs and reassure American support to the Afghan government and military. The Trump administration is considering sending additional troops (approx. 3,000-4,000) to Afghanistan.
A joint reading of McMaster’s statements in Kabul and Islamabad gives us a glimpse into the mind-set of the Tump administration before finalizing America’s new Af-Pak policy. The appointment of the Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis as the senior director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council has preceded these developments. Curtis is considered quite close to the Indian lobby in Washington D.C. She has co-authored a review of American policy towards Pakistan with Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S. Hussain Haqqani, advocating a tougher line.
The growing Russian and Chinese involvement in the Af-Pak region and Islamabad’s gravitation towards Moscow and Beijing has forced the Trump administration to re-think its earlier position of disengagement and keeping a low-key policy in Afghanistan. Additionally, 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 of war in Afghanistan have forced Washington work with Kabul, New Delhi and its NATO allies to reassert its position in Afghanistan.
Arguably, China is emerging as the United States’ economic competitor in Af-Pak while Russia is rising as its geo-political rival. The U.S. wants to retain its position as the major security guarantor, conflict stabilizer, and economic benefactor in the region. On the contrary, Russia and China are trying to undermine America’s preponderant position through their own geo-economic and geo-political initiatives. This repositioning of geopolitical alignments in the region has forced smaller regional states such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran et al to readjust their placement vis-à-vis the evolving great-power competition.
The U.S. snubbed Russia’s invitation to participate in its Afghanistan meeting on April 14. Similarly, major Western powers are also skipping China’s New Silk Route summit schedule in May. The 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 U.S. has termed Russia’s growing ties with the Afghan Taliban and its diplomatic initiative on Afghanistan as direct interference in America’s polices in the region and an attempt to undermine its interests. This hostility will further increase in future.
The Trump administration views Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban as the main destabilizing factor and reason for the stalemate in Afghanistan. In the last six months, all Congressional hearings involved in reviewing America’s Af-Pak policy have underlined neutralisation of Pakistan’s support (through carrots or sticks) for the Taliban as essential to break the deadlock in Afghanistan. Recently, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John W. Nicholson, said: “20 of the 98 U.S.-designated terrorist groups in the world were in the Af-Pak region (thirteen in Afghanistan and seven in Pakistan), making it the highest concentration of the terrorist groups anywhere in the world.”
Going by McMaster’s statement in Islamabad, America will probably 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 U.S. will also ramp up the drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. The Trump administration’s decision, after a gap of nine months, to return the authority of running the drone programme from Pentagon to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) points to that direction.
The U.S.-Pakistan relations for the foreseeable future will remain transactional, frosty and conflict prone. Washington’s “do more” demands of Islamabad will increase. Short of imposing a travel ban, Trump administration will make visa policy more stringent for the Pakistani nationals, increasing anti-U.S. sentiments in Pakistan.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the role of U.S. troops will shift from training, assisting and advising to active combat. However, instead of relying on ground operations, the U.S. will rely heavily on air power and drone warfare. Military force will be used to create conditions conducive for political dialogue to end the war. However, this is wishful thinking of the Trump administration because the Taliban will not return to negotiation table in the presence of foreign forces on the Afghan soil. Moreover, the diversification of the Taliban’s ties with Russia, China, Iran instead of Pakistan has further emboldened their position politically and militarily.
However, neither the Taliban are positioned to win the war in Afghanistan beyond gaining tactical advantages nor does the U.S. have the political will or troop presence to impose a military solution. Unfortunately, the breakdown of international consensus on Afghanistan and regional divisions will further worsen the 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 international and regional power struggle.
Abdul Basit is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore. Mr. Basit can be reached by email at email@example.com; he tweets at @basitresearcher. Image credit: CC by Jim Mattis/Flickr.