US Policy for Afghanistan and South Asia
US President Donald Trump has unveiled an expansive new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia in his first formal address as Commander-in-chief of the US. The main takeaway in his strategy was that he has concluded that rapid exit from Afghanistan is unacceptable as it could leave a vacuum that could eventually be filled up by the terrorists. This decision is considered as a U-turn to his previous criticisms when he claimed that the 16-year-old war was a waste of time. He had also argued that the US should quickly pull out of the country.
The new strategy is not just concerned only about Afghanistan, but was a full “South Asia strategy”. It encompasses the countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It also covers the Central Asian nations and extends into Southeast Asia.
The Donald Trump administration has unveiled a new strategy for South Asia aimed at bolstering American security. The strategy will not have any timelines build in to it. In his new strategy, Trump has vowed to win the war in Afghanistan by committing more US troops and has asked NATO allies like Britain to increase troop numbers.
The new strategy will employ all aspects of American power, diplomacy, economic might, intelligence and military power in order to advance American interests. It wants to make sure the safety of the homeland and that of its allies and partners.
As per the new strategy, the US will continue to support the Afghan government and it’s military. However, Trump has warned Afghanistan should not view the support of the US as a “blank cheque”. He has urged the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future and govern their society to achieve everlasting peace. The US wants to witness real reforms and real results in Afghanistan.
The new strategy is based on three precepts:
- The US wants to seek an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the sacrifices made by it.
- The second precept is based on the fact that a rapid exit from Afghanistan would simply allow terrorists to occupy the vacuum created by the exit of the US, as witnessed in Iraq. It would help them plan attacks on the US and its allies.
- The third precept is related to the threats emanating from the region, which needs to be confronted. Around 20 U.S-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is the highest in any region across the world. The US and its allies want to defeat these terrorist groups.
Trump has named Pakistan as a major concern. Donald Trump as a part of his new strategy has issued a stern message urging Pakistan to do more to tackle terrorist “safe havens” and combat the growth of extremism in the region.
Trump has described India as a “critical part of the South Asia strategy”. He has said that India would be a key component in the expansive new strategy in the South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. While appreciating India’s contribution, the US President wants India to step up its economic assistance and targeted development in Afghanistan. The US wants India to increase its assistance to Afghanistan as it makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States.
India appears to be satisfied by the fact that the US President has labelled Pakistan as a “safe haven” for “agents of chaos”.
NATO allies like Australia and Britain has supported Trump’s new strategy and have already pledged additional troops and have increased funding.
Baloch leaders have welcomed Trump’s new Afghanistan and South Asia policy and has urged him to recognise and differentiate between the “friends and foes” in the region. Trump has warned Pakistan that it has “much to lose” by harbouring terrorists. Baloch leaders accuse Pakistan for providing safe havens for the UN and US designated terrorists like leaders of Haqqani network.
Pakistan has refuted the claim that it provides safe haven to terrorist organizations. It has said that it has taken action against all Islamist outfits including the Haqqani network, which is allied to Afghan Taliban insurgents.
Afghanistan has welcomed the new strategy. Afghanistan was also happy that Trump’s new policy has used an “unequivocally tough language” on Pakistan. It has praised that the new strategy provides for a clear pathway for regional countries to end their support for non-state actors.
The new strategy of the US towards South Asia seems to be unambiguous. Unlike in 2009, the new strategy has refused to commit dates for troop withdrawal as it would be counter-productive. In 2009, former President Obama had announced that the US would pull out its troops by 2014. The 2009 speech of president Obama had given the Taliban with a “wait-it-out strategy”. It also affected the training of Afghan forces as they were not ready to take charge when asked to. In the new strategy, the trump administration has sought to shift from a time based approach to one based on conditions.
Trump has clearly said that America trust India and distrusts Pakistan, the question is, how does Pakistan respond. In the past, the US has pressurised Pakistan but has never told Pakistan that it could look Pakistan as an adversary. This is the first time that the US is employing a more stick based approach reminding Pakistan of the likely prospect of treating it as an enemy. Trump has also scared Pakistan that he will look for more Indian involvement in Afghanistan. Historically, the US has looked upon Pakistan as an ally. Now it has started to view India as an ally and Pakistan as a problem. However, Trump has also asked India to provide only economic and development assistance rather than the military aid.
India is already involved in developmental assistance in Afghanistan. Initially, India was providing budgetary funds but it was later stopped. Now, India is providing assistance to develop infrastructure projects. However, Afghanistan is executing the projects slower than the norm. India has already provided $2 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan. Last year, $1 billion worth of aid was provided. In 2017-18, India has allotted Rs 350 crore. However, in Afghanistan, still discussions are underway for spending the $1 billion worth of aid that has been allotted for the construction of $250-million Shahtoot dam outside Kabul.
Many are sceptical about whether Trump’s remarks on Pakistan are doable. Many feel that Pakistan will not change its ways by the threat issued by the US. They feel much more actions are needed to tame Pakistan.
Also, some criticize the way the US President has linked the US trade deficit to Indian assistance to Afghanistan. According to them, given the sharp convergence of interests between the US and India, it is a very counterproductive policy to link trade deficit as it unnecessarily antagonises India at a time when it can play only a modest role in Afghanistan.
Thirdly, though the strategy provided some clarity of the policy followed by the US, it has not offered any clarity on dealing with the Taliban. Trump’s speech spoke about obliterating ISIS and crushing al Qaeda, but on Taliban it simply said that it would prevent Taliban from taking over Afghanistan. Many consider that the speech reflects that the US does not consider Taliban as its enemy.
The new strategy also supported giving a free hand or authority for carrying out operations in Afghanistan. This many have argued may be misused for nasty activities and widen the war. Under the name of a war on terror, these activities may also be used to counter countries like Russia, Iran, China etc. It is feared that Afghanistan will possibly become a playing ground for these countries.
Another shortfall is the curtailment of US diplomacy under the present administration may limit the ability to implement various initiatives. For instance, the US does not even have a US ambassador in Afghanistan. It is felt that the lack of a fully fledged and engaged State Department is a drawback for implementing these initiatives, as well as in handling countries like Pakistan and Russia.
The new outcome based approach rather than a timeline-driven policy is noble. The new approach should work towards building capacity of Afghan troops to carry on the fight and defend themselves. Till then, it would be wise for the US to support Afghanistan.
While India, Afghanistan hail Trump’s new South Asia Strategy, questions are raised about it efficacy. Analyse the recently mooted South Asia Strategy and its challenges.