In a historic address on August 21, 2017 at Fort Myer (Virginia), US President Donald Trump outlined his long-awaited South Asia policy. There are three pillars which are given prominent place in his South Asian policy: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Trump’s policy has seemingly moved in a diametrically opposite direction from his pre-presidential stances. In the new South Asia policy, India has been asked to do more, while on the other hand, Pakistan has been rebuked for aiding and abetting terrorists by providing safe havens in its territory. Against this backdrop, it is anticipated that these will lead to India’s regional isolation.
In the current context, the central pillar of Trump’s South Asian policy is Afghanistan. The most important decision in this regard is the undertaking to send more troops without giving a specific time or number. But whatever decisions are taken in the context of Afghanistan, these without an iota of doubt are diametrically opposite to Trump’s pre-presidential stances. Trump’s new policy has been called old wine in a new bottle, and it has irked his friends who have described his policy as “flip-flopping.” Despite putting over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan (2001-2014), and about 12000 troops after 2014, these not only failed to rebuild, reform and reinvigorate Afghanistan, but instead resulted in the resurgence of the terror attacks. The troops neither helped to reconstruct the nation nor eradicated terrorist factions. Now, the question is, how will the small numbers of additional troops control the explosive situation in Afghanistan?
Before becoming president, Trump was very allergic to Afghanistan, and he won the presidential election on the policy of reduced strategic engagements in conflict zones in general and Afghanistan in particular. He used to abuse previous presidents, particularly Obama for their policies. On August 21, 2012 (7:05 AM), Trump tweeted: “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!” Then in March 2013, he tweeted that the US “should leave Afghanistan immediately.” On November 21, 2013 (5:12 AM) he tweeted: “do not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024—with all costs by USA. MAKE AMERICA GREAT!” Why has Afghanistan become so essential and integral to Trump’s South Asia policy? When his “original instinct” was to pull out, why has the Oval Office forced him to take the opposite decision which is against his instincts?
In his speech on August 21, 2017, Trump out-rightly declared that the goal of the US is not “nation-building” but rather “killing terrorists.” The important decision of the policy is to send more troops. However, the number and timing will be ultimately decided by the commanders and generals deployed in Afghanistan. Some media sources have reported the US might send nearly 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan to buttress Afghan forces. There is no question of pulling out, as it would create a “vacuum” as happened in Iraq. Trump said: “We cannot repeat the mistake in Afghanistan that our leaders made in Iraq.” It is an evident indication of adding more troops, subject to conditions rather than time.
The second pillar of Trump’s policy is Pakistan. Pakistan has remained in a pivotal position in the US’ previous South Asian policies. However, when announcing his policy, Trump scolded Pakistan for providing safe havens to the “agents of chaos” and “the very terrorists” whom the US military has been fighting in Afghanistan. He warned: “It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and peace.” Why have US suspicions persisted even though Pakistan has contributed significantly to the war on terror? No doubt, their suspicions turned into sureties when Osama bin Laden and Taliban Chief-Mullah Akhtar Mansoor were killed in Pakistan. Trump’s statements caused a political tsunami in Pakistan, with the leadership and common Pakistanis left feeling deceived and defeated. Pakistan subsequently snubbed the US, with its first step being the postponement of the visit of the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, to Islamabad “until a mutually convenient time.”
Beyond doubt, India has remained off the US administration’s Afghanistan policy despite its cordial relations and constructive role in the latter. Particularly, when the question comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Bush Administration drew a red line for India. The same line was followed by the Obama Administration, given the proposition that the Af-Pak crisis might be sorted out with a resolution of Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. However, this policy invited a lot of criticism and intensive diplomacy on the part of India to ward off these offensive initiatives.
Seeing the divided opinion over the new strategy, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, stated that Trump’s Afghanistan policy would further destabilize South Asia, and could alter the geopolitical balance in the volatile region.
In the current situation, the geostrategic importance of India has been realized by the Trump Administration. Taking a u-turn over the Indian role in Afghanistan, Trump described India as “a key security and economic partner of the United States.” In addition, institutionalizing a strategic partnership with India would be a “critical part of the South Asia strategy for America.” India has welcomed Trump’s policy. The issues raised in his speech particularly related to terrorism hold strategic importance for India. It is believed in government and private quarters that Trump’s South Asia policy will remain positive for India. The major issues of concern for Indian foreign policy is terrorism and stability and security in Afghanistan.
Trump’s new policy has been well received, adding to hopes that Indian concerns such as terrorism as well as the stability and security of Afghanistan will be achieved. As far as the cross-border terrorism is concerned, Trump has lambasted Pakistan for aiding and abetting terrorists by providing safe havens. Trump’s warning to Pakistan to do more to control cross-border support for terrorists has been hailed by the Indian government as it addresses one of their major concerns. In a statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said, “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.”
Afghanistan’s stability and security holds geopolitical, geo-strategic, and geo-economic interests for India. During the Bush and Obama administrations, India was made a pariah in the US’ Afghanistan policy. Now, the Trump administration wants India to play a major role in development of Afghanistan. Reacting to calls for economic and developmental assistance for Afghanistan, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs reciprocated positively to the decision of Trump to step up efforts to overcome the challenges faced by Afghanistan: “We are committed to helping Government and people of Afghanistan in their efforts to bring peace, security, stability and prosperity in their country.” Apart from the official line, some ex-diplomats have also received Trump’s policy positively. The Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of India on Afghanistan and Pakistan (2005-14), Satinder Lambah, opined that the principles of Indian foreign policy like non-intervention and non-interference have been well protected and supported by the Trump’s South Asia Policy.
The first day Trump’s new policy was outlined, Afghanistan and India hailed the policy, whereas it was severely criticized by Pakistan, China, and Russia, who warned the Trump administration about dire consequences. Both houses of the Pakistan Parliament passed a resolution that “termed the recent statements of Trump and his Afghan commander Gen John Nicholson as ‘hostile and threatening’ and called on the government to consider suspending cooperation with the US, particularly the provision of air and ground lines of communication.” Pakistan asked the Afghan government to close the safe havens extended to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA), and other terrorist organizations who had been using Afghan soil to carry out terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Pakistan has also asked Afghanistan, the US, and NATO to ensure that its arch-rival India did not use Afghan territory to carry out terror attacks.
To deal with this situation, a high-level meeting of Pakistan’s National Security Council was held on August 24. This meeting was attended by the ministers of defense, interior, foreign affairs, and finance, and senior civil and military officers like the Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, services chiefs, and Inter-Services Intelligence Director General, and National Security Adviser. The primary outcome of the meeting was that Pakistan has stakes in Afghanistan’s stability and security, the safety and security of its nuclear installations, and its security mechanisms along the Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan has no need of material or financial assistance from the United States but only trust, understanding, and acknowledgment of its contributions to the war on terror. The major outcome is to contact with the friendly countries like China, Russia, and Turkey to take them into confidence regarding Pakistan’s reservations over the new US policy. The Pakistani Foreign Minister visit these countries to discuss the issue.
China took an official high line to support its all-weather ally Pakistan. Actively defending Pakistan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “I should say that Pakistan is at the frontline of fighting terrorism, has made sacrifices in fighting terrorism, making an important contribution to upholding peace and stability.” China wants to see cooperation between the US and Pakistan to maintain global peace and stability in general and Afghanistan in particular on the basis of basis of mutual respect. Russia has also taken the same stand. However, the Russian leadership also believes the new strategy will not bring any significant positive changes to Afghanistan. Seeing the divided opinion over the new strategy, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, stated that Trump’s Afghanistan policy would further destabilize South Asia, and could alter the geopolitical balance in the volatile region. This argument could be substantiated with the division between India and Afghanistan on the one hand, and Pakistan, China, and Russia on the other.
Thus, it may be concluded that more military troops are not the solution to Afghanistan problem, and that it needs a holistic solution. Without regional cooperation, there is hardly any chance of success. The more important implication would be for India. There is an anticipation that Trump’s South Asia policy could further isolate India in the region. Pakistan has received active regional support against Trump’s stand by major countries like China, Russia, and Turkey. Thus, India needs to have a calibrated policy to avoid isolation as well as achievement of its geopolitical and geostrategic interests.