External Affairs

While India, Afghanistan Hail Trump’s South Asia Strategy, Questions Remain on What It Really Means

Indian officials have expressed their satisfaction at US President Donald Trump calling Pakistan a “safe haven” for “agents of chaos”.

US President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, US, August 21, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

US President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, US, August 21, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

New Delhi: Even as there is quiet elation in the Indian and Afghan establishments over US President Donald Trump’s speech on South Asia in which he lambasted Pakistan for providing a “safe haven” for “agents of chaos”, there are continuing questions over what his vague articulations will entail on the ground.

Over seven years after Barack Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional US troops in Afghanistan, Trump has not just adopted US’s longest war as his own but also committed to an indefinite US presence in the embattled nation. This is a big turn-around for a president whose campaign speeches made little or no reference to Afghanistan and whose instinct had been to immediately remove US soldiers from a war which he considered un-winnable.

In his 2009 West Point speech, Obama had also announced a pull-out by 2014. Trump, however, refused to announce dates or troops levels, stating that this would be “counter-productive”. This was a shift from a “time-based approach to one based on conditions,” he asserted.

There was, however, an inadvertent echoing of some of his predecessor’s language. In 2009, Obama had asserted that the “days of providing a blank check are over”. Mirroring those words, Trump said on Monday night in Washington, “However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check”.

Trump’s speech came at the end of a eight-month policy review process, which stretched out due to internal divisions within the White House over the question of an increase in troop levels.

“Conditions on the ground – not arbitrary timetables – will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will,” Trump asserted.

US media reported that Trump has sanctioned 4,000 more troops to join the 8,400 soldiers already stationed in Afghanistan.

Indian officials had been expecting to hear some strong words against Pakistan – and they were not disappointed. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars; at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately,” said Trump.

He did acknowledge the “sacrifices” made by the Pakistani military and people, but added that “no partnership can survive a country’s harbouring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials”.

Pakistan’s culpability was unmistakable, Trump implied. “Today, 20 US-designated foreign terrorist organisations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world. For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror”.

He said that the threat is worse because tense relations between “nuclear-armed” Pakistan and India could spiral into conflict. “And that could happen,” Trump asserted, ominously.

In his 4,600-word speech, Obama had made no mention of India. After Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, Trump devoted a substantial paragraph to India, saying he wants New Delhi to step up its development assistance to Afghanistan.

Describing India as a “critical part of the South Asia strategy”, Trump said that India has to increase its assistance to Afghanistan. “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region,” he added.

‘Positive for India’

There was overwhelming consensus among Indian sources – both government and outside – that Trump’s policy speech was positive for New Delhi.

This was reflected in the official Indian response, which highlighted the fact that Trump had repeatedly mentioned the need to dismantle safe havens in Pakistan.

“We welcome President Trump’s determination to enhance efforts to overcome the challenges facing Afghanistan and confronting issues of safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists. India shares these concerns and objectives,” said MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar.

On Trump’s call for India to do more, Kumar pointed out that India was already helping Afghanistan due to its “traditional friendship” and these efforts would continue. “We have been steadfast in extending reconstruction and development assistance to Afghanistan in keeping with our traditional friendship with its people. We will continue these efforts, including in partnership with other countries,” he said.

The message to Pakistan was “very clear”, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and former MEA secretary (economic relations) Amar Sinha asserted. While similar statements about Pakistan needing to crack down on terror safe havens have been made before, Sinha believes that there is “more sense of urgency” in Trump’s remarks.

This was also pointed out by another Indian official, who said that Pakistan was asked to “change immediately” and that the “partnership” could not survive the harbouring of terrorists who targeted US soldiers and officials.

Military personnel watch as US President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, US, August 21, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Military personnel watch as US President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, US, August 21, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Afghanistan’s reactions

There was universal positive reception from the Afghan leadership to Trump’s comments. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the “enduring commitment” through the new strategy which he indicated “increases capacity in the Resolute Support Mission”.

With a clear reference to Trump’s pillorying of Pakistan, Ghani said this strategy provides “a clear pathway for regional countries to end support for non-state actors”.

Afghan strategy analyst Ahmad Shuja said that the Afghan president “would be happy with the thrust of the strategy: more troops, more time and more support for his government in exchange for unspecific “results” from “reforms”.”

On the domestic front, Shuja said that it would be crucial to observe the reaction of Hezb-I-Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who signed a peace deal with Ghani in May this year. “We will have to watch the effect of a greater number of US troops in an open-ended timeline on President Ghani’s deal with Hekmatyar, whose well-known opposition to the US troop presence was a prominent factor in the settlement he inked with Ghani,” he said.

Ghani would certainly be satisfied with the “unequivocally tough language” on Pakistan, with Shuja adding that the Afghan president had accused Islamabad of waging an “undeclared war”.

However, he wasn’t very confident – just like several other Afghan commentators – of what the additional pressure on Pakistan would entail.

“Trump used very tough language with respect to Pakistan, asking the country to do more even as he made friendly overtures towards India, a source of perennial anxiety for the military establishment in Pakistan. But Trump didn’t outline much by way of the specific deliverables he wants from Pakistan and what consequences he would invoke if Pakistan failed to follow through,” he said.

Informed sources claimed that even though Pakistan has tried to project China as its main aid supplier, Washington still has enough levers to push in the South Asian country. There was even discussion that top Pakistan military establishment could be targeted quietly, especially since most of them have personal US connections, they added.

Anger in Pakistan

In his own statement supplementing the president’s speech, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was more conciliatory towards Islamabad. “Pakistan has suffered greatly from terrorism and can be an important partner in our shared goals of peace and stability in the region. We look to Pakistan to take decisive action against militant groups based in Pakistan that are a threat to the region. It is vital to US interests that Afghanistan and Pakistan prevent terrorist sanctuaries,” he said.

https://twitter.com/statedeptspox/status/899731338907058183

There was no official statement from Pakistan during the day, but there was universal concern from Pakistani politicians and experts over the blame being put on Islamabad, as well as India’s expanding presence in Afghanistan.

Opposite party leader Imran Khan urged the government to “reject” the burden of being blamed for US policy failure in Afghanistan, drawing a parallel to India accusing Islamabad for its troubles in Kashmir.

https://twitter.com/ImranKhanPTI/status/899898847509467136

Similarly, Pakistan People’s Party vice chairman Sherry Rehman asserted that Pakistan had done its share in Afghanistan.

https://twitter.com/sherryrehman/status/899946351907229696

US Central Command’s commander General Joseph L. Votel was in Pakistan last Friday, where he met with the leadership, including army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. The press release issued by the Inter-Services Press Wing quoted Bajwa as saying that Pakistan had taken action against terrorists of “all hue and colour” and wanted acknowledgement for Pakistani sacrifices.

https://twitter.com/OfficialDGISPR/status/898608784813297664

Later in the day, the Pakistan foreign office issued a press release saying US ambassador David Hale had met with foreign minister Asif Khwaja and briefed him about the new strategy. “The foreign minister reiterated Pakistan’s perspective and desire for peace and stability in Afghanistan. Highlighting Pakistan’s immense sacrifices in the enduring fight against terrorism, the Foreign Minister underlined Pakistan’s continued desire to work with the international community to eliminate the menace of terrorism,” said the official communique, which added that Khwaja would be meeting Tillerson for “early interactions”.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi apparently lauded Pakistan for “great sacrifices” in the fight against terrorism, adding that “the international community should full recognise these efforts”. He conveyed this to visiting Pakistani foreign secretary Tehmima Janjua in their meeting on Tuesday. The Pakistani foreign ministry press note stated both sides “agreed to continue close consultations on efforts for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan and underscored the importance of the trilateral Afghanistan-China-Pakistan foreign minister’s meeting”. There was, however, no reference to Trump’s speech in the press release.

China has taken on a more dominant role in Afghan peacemaking process in recent years, with the US ceding some space to Beijing mainly to persuade Pakistan to get the Taliban to the table, according to analysts.

Skepticism in the US

With Islamabad having deflected Washington’s pressure in the past, US-based commentators were more sceptical about Trump’s remarks on Pakistan being novel or doable. “I have no reason to think Pakistan will change its ways, regardless of the punishment or threat wielded by Washington. But then again, if Trump seeks to do something that’s never been done, or hasn’t been done for a while, then maybe the US will enjoy some success. But we don’t know yet. And at any rate I’m not holding my breath,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme and South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center.

Barnett Rubin, who was senior advisor to US’s special envoy on Afghanistan-Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke, said that the new strategy on Pakistan was essentially similar. “No new approach. It’s the same, except no effort to limit Pakistan-India competition in Afghanistan but rather to promote it,” he told The Wire. He was referring to Trump calling upon India to do more in Afghanistan.

Kugelman pointed out that linking the US trade deficit to Indian assistance to Afghanistan “seems like a very counterproductive policy”.

“Given the sharp convergence of interests between these two countries in Afghanistan, and given the strong incentives for cooperation, why ruin the mood with this point about the trade deficit? I imagine it won’t go down well with New Delhi,” he said.

Echoing these views, Yale University’s Jason Lyall also felt that it was “a mistake”. “It needlessly antagonises India at a time when it can play only a modest role in Afghanistan. Asking it to assume a greater financial burden may not be realistic, at least in the short term, and it will certainly antagonise Pakistan, creating incentives to double-down on its support of the Taliban,” said Lyall, associate professor and director of the university’s Political vVolence FieldLab.

https://twitter.com/VJS_Policy/status/899860767431774208

Can India really ramp up assistance?

Among Indian officials, however, there was not much appetite for dwelling on the ‘quirks’ in the statement. Rather, they point out that Trump had “carefully” asked India to provide only economic and development assistance – that is already ongoing, rather than military aid. “That is very sensible and does not add fuel to fire,” said a senior government official, asking not to be identified.

In South Block, there was satisfaction over the speech, with one senior official describing the new strategy as being on the “right track”. The “positive terms” used for India, officials explained, eclipsed the questionable reference made by Trump on India making “billions of dollars in trade with the United States”, which prefaced his call for New Delhi to pitch in more in Afghanistan

When asked how India could step up further assistance, a well-informed source suggested that India could provide direct budgetary assistance to the Afghan government, which is facing a severe revenue shortfall. In the early years of the Hamid Karzai administration, India used to directly provide budgetary funds, but it was later stopped in favour of developing infrastructure projects.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Credit: PTI/Files

However, India’s capacity to improve execution is directly linked to North Block opening the cash spigot. Due to the bureaucratic process of decision making, the release of adequate funds is not guaranteed. Further, officials point out that Afghanistan’s unique environment also makes the execution of projects much slower than the norm.

India has already given $2 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan. Last year, the prime minister announced a fresh $1 billion worth of aid, but it had no time limit on spending. This year, India has allotted Rs 350 crore in its budget for 2017-18.

Discussions are still on over how to spend the $1-billion aid, which includes the construction of the $250-million Shahtoot dam outside Kabul.

‘No clarity’ in Trump’s words

Meanwhile, there was criticism of Trump’s speech outside Pakistan too – but mainly for its lack of transparency.

“Well, as an Afghan what I understood from the announcement by President Trump is the unfortunate continuation of war and the suffering of the Afghan people,” said Aimal Faizi, who was spokesperson for Karzai during his presidency and is now his close aide.

He admitted that there was “some clarity” on Pakistan after a long time, “but there is no clarity on dealing with the Taliban”.

“He said “obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda” but when he came on Taliban, he said “preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan”. These three verbs or wording have different weights,” noted Faizi

He argued that it meant that the Taliban will continue to be “actors on the ground”. “One thing which has not changed is that Taliban are not the enemy for the US”.

Faizi was also critical of Trump lifting restrictions on authorisations for operations. “A free hand or authority to the Pentagon and the CIA will widen the war. This means more nasty activities to counter Russia, Iran, China… under the name of a war on terror. And Afghanistan will be just the playing ground for this great game. So Afghans will differently suffer from it,” he said.

Karzai had been at loggerheads with the US over its military operations and had restricted their activities, including nighttime raids – which were restored after Ghani came to power.

According to Sinha, Trump had made it clear that “fighting and talking with the Taliban at same time were over”. “It means that the quadrilateral process will not happen for the time being, as that was meaningless,” he added.

In his speech, Trump had stated that there could be a political settlement with elements of the Taliban, but only “someday” after “an effective military effort”.

Not giving the number of troops drew a mixed response – understanding from Indian and Afghan observers, but sharp criticism from US experts.

An Indian official defended the lack of detail by claiming that “it was a strategy speech, not one about tactics”.

Sinha, in fact, praised this ‘key change” . “This is no more a timeline-driven policy, but rather based on outcome and conditions on the ground. This is what was needed,” he said.

Shuja stated that Obama’s timetable in his 2009 speech provided the Taliban with a “wait-it-out strategy”. “It also accelerated the US troop withdrawal and affected the training of Afghan forces who were not ready when they were asked to take charge. I think an approach where you build Afghan troops’ capacity to carry on the fight is the right one. Right now, they are under immense pressure. So a conditions-based approach – meaning condition of Afghan forces to fight, condition of degradation of Taliban’s capacity to frustrate government’s work – is logical,” he said.

This argument was also put forth by Indian official sources, who also agreed that the 2014 pull-out calendar had been beneficial for the Taliban.

US President Trump shakes hands with officers after announcing his new policy for the war in Afghanistan. Credit: Reuters

US President Trump shakes hands with officers after announcing his new policy for the war in Afghanistan. Credit: Reuters

Rubin noted that Trump’s policy of “killing terrorists” as a priority was articulated in September 2001 too. “There is a reason it changed. In any case, Trump does not make any coherent or consistent proposal. No nation building, but our presence is conditional on the Afghan government making unspecified ‘reforms’. Makes no sense,” he said.

The veteran Afghan watcher said that Trump’s capitulation to a permanent troop presence would be untenable. “Everyone in the region will interpret this as a pledge forced by the military on a reluctant president to keep troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. Therefore it gives them an incentive to make the troop presence untenable by inflicting losses that prevent ‘reform’ and cause damage to the US,” said Rubin.

Lyall felt that the lack of specifics in the policy speech raises several questions. “Does this mean that the US will no longer pursue economic reconstruction in Afghanistan? What of USAID projects? Does training and equipping the Afghan army not count as ‘nation building’?” he asked.

Kugelman said that that despite the lack of a public timeline, the Taliban still has the home advantage. “My own view is that the Taliban will still have the advantage, because eventually, one day, the US will leave. And the Taliban will still be there,” he said.

The counter-terrorist approch is “seductive” as it projects a decrease in financial aid to Afghanistan, which Lyall said, “plays well with his domestic audience”. “But it isn’t clear that a sole focus on killing insurgents wins these types of wars,” he added.

In his speech, Trump pointed out that that the “prime minister” of Afghanistan had committed to “economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us”. The business tycoon had previous opined that the US should have a share of the projected mineral wealth of Afghanistan. The war-ravaged also doesn’t have the post of prime minister at the moment. Trump was probably referring to Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive.

Even if Trump has spelled out a “strategy” after a long time, Lyall pointed out that the curtailment of US diplomacy under the current administration may limit Washington’s ability to implement his proposals.

“There’s not even a US ambassador in Afghanistan, for example. It’s not clear how many of these initiatives – getting tough with Pakistan, dealing with India, handling Russia – can be accomplished without a fully-staffed and engaged State Department,” he said.

While India and Pakistan are the only regional countries that Trump mentioned, there are other players in Afghanistan who are likely not see the need to change their current policy.

“Russia and Iran are wild cards, because like Pakistan they’re given to playing double games with Afghanistan and to both supporting Kabul and providing support to the Taliban. My sense is that they’ll be likely to double down on their double games. Even though the US will be formalising its long-term commitment to Afghanistan, they’ll stick with their same policies. At the end of day, Tehran and Moscow seek to undercut US influence, and what better way to do so than to provide support to Washington’s chief non-state nemesis in Afghanistan,” said Kugelman.