Trump’s Afghanistan policy significantly different from Obama’s thinking

Jatin Desai
Sunday, 27 August 2017

The  president of United States Donald Trump announced his administration’s Afghanistan policy recently. Cut through his language and pomposity, the policy is abundantly clear: send more American troops to Afghanistan, put ‘extreme’ pressure on Pakistan and, to accomplish this, seek India’s help. 

The  president of United States Donald Trump announced his administration’s Afghanistan policy recently. Cut through his language and pomposity, the policy is abundantly clear: send more American troops to Afghanistan, put ‘extreme’ pressure on Pakistan and, to accomplish this, seek India’s help. 

In the process, what is apparent is that President Trump has significantly changed his thinking on conflict-ravaged Afghanistan. When in the presidential race last year and even before that, Trump’s position was that the US is wasting money in Afghanistan and troops must be withdrawn. He was derisive and critical of former president Barack Obama’s Afghanistan or Af-Pak policy.

Now, as President, Trump has committed to sending more troops. An additional 3,900 soldiers are expected to head to Afghanistan to deliver the current administration’s policy. For the region’s peace and security, it would be necessary for US to keep its engagement in Afghanistan.

Most of the rural and mountainous Afghanistan is under the control of Taliban and other militant groups. The dreaded Islamic State (IS) has a sizable presence in Nangarhar province on the Eastern side. The attacks on the military, police and civilians are on the rise. In April, US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb better known by its nickname, the ‘mother of all bombs’ in Achin district of Nangarhar province. The Eastern border of the country bordering Pakistan has turned most volatile. Both the countries are blaming each other of sheltering militants and aiding them to attack other countries.

In this background, Trump has used tough language against Pakistan. He blamed Pakistan for trouble in Afghanistan and said it provides ‘safe havens’ to Taliban. He said, “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars; at the same time they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting.” 

He added, “In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies... But Pakistan has also sheltered the same organisations that try every single day to kill our people.” He stopped short of cutting military aid to Pakistan.

The writing on the wall was clear for Pakistan the day Trump won the Presidential election. Pakistan rejected Trump’s allegations of insincerity and duplicity in the fight against terrorism. Pakistan also expressed reservations about the role the US wants India to play in its new regional policy.
Trump categorically said that their lone priority is ‘killing terrorists’ and they would not focus on nation-building. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US would not tell the Afghan government how to rebuild the country.

The new policy is significantly different from Obama’s regime. Obama withdrew US troops in a big number from Afghanistan. It was less than 9,000 at the end of his regime. They are mostly training and advising Afghan troops. In 2010, there were around 1,00,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump spoke of ‘fight to win’ in Afghanistan. There are about 8,400 American troops now serving in Afghanistan.

India is Afghanistan’s biggest regional donor. Shaida Abdali, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, said recently, “India is the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan and fifth largest donor globally with over $3 billion in assistance”. While appreciating India’s contribution in the development and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, Trump at the same time said, ”But India makes billions of dollars in trade from the United States and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” 

He should not link cooperation of India in Afghanistan with trade imbalance. Such kind of statement was unnecessary and it should not go well with India. The issue is not whether India is making ‘billions of dollars’ from the trade. The issue is India’s independent foreign policy since India became independent in 1947. The independent foreign policy was first PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision. The US may want India to send soldiers in Afghanistan but India should not succumb to Trump’s pressure. India should continue to help Afghanistan in its developmental programmes like the construction of roads, dams, hospitals, etc.
Pakistan has taken Trump’s accusations seriously. Pakistan government and military slammed US accusations of harbouring terrorist groups saying they are fighting militants seriously.

China is Pakistan’s all weather friend. Immediately after Trump’s policy announcement, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “On President Trump’s remarks on Pakistan, I should say that Pakistan is at the frontline of fighting terrorism, has made sacrifices in fighting 
terrorism.” 

The statement is not completely untrue. Pakistan may also move closer to Russia. Under Jarb e Azb campaign, Pakistan has killed hundreds of militants of various groups. But, according to a couple of South Asian experts, Pakistan has not seriously taken action against Haqqani Network based in North Waziristan. As the network is originally from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military thinks it can be used in Afghanistan as ‘strategic depth’ against India.

Afghanistan and Pakistan need to sit together and find a way to free the region from militancy. There is nothing like ‘good terrorists’. Rather than going into the details of who played what kind of role, it is necessary that there should not be ‘safe havens’ for militants.

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