Trump’s “Kill the Terrorists” Speech Shows Holes in US-Afghan Policy
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By Chayanika Saxena

Trump’s “Kill the Terrorists” Speech Shows Holes in US-Afghan Policy

Nov. 21, 2017  |     |  0 comments

It’s been three months since US President Donald Trump made his country’s intent clear that it will stay put in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to “kill the terrorists” there. However, the American policy is far from showing signs of coherence and consistency in thoughts and actions. While much of what the US proposed to do, including a (minimal) troop surge and a “conditions-based” approach (a continuation of earlier American approaches), there are apparent differences in how things pan out in planning and practice.


At almost all levels, the “new” American policy towards Afghanistan inspires little confidence. To begin with, the decision to stay put in Afghanistan runs contrary to the electoral promises Trump made. Considering that an “expeditionary counterinsurgency” —  what the US is up to in Afghanistan — is subject to the mood of the nation leading the supposed crusade, it is likely that the waning sympathy for the war in Afghanistan will have an impact on troop morale, as well as the Trump administration’s decision to continue the task there.


The various branches within the US administration apparently lack coordination, and even liking, for one another. Trump, overall, doesn’t cut it as an encouraging figure: his approval ratings are at an all-time low. If news reports from the now-bitter Steve Bannon-run Breitbart are to be believed, Trump has already managed to upset his constituency with his decision on Afghanistan. Thus, cracks are appearing in the base that voted him into power.


In addition, the shrill and chest-thumping rhetoric in his speech on Afghanistan give other reasons for concern for US administration. Putting Pakistan in a tight spot as he spoke from Fort Meyer, President Trump called the country out for “continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.” What could potentially have been an embarrassment for Pakistan was given a starker geo-political turn as Trump went on to commend the role India has played in Afghanistan. In fact, he called upon India to contribute more since it is earning “billions from trade with the US.”


Also, the larger picture Trump paints appears to be self-fulfilling, naïve, and even misinformed. Winning in Afghanistan, which according to him is what the American forces are bound to achieve, appears to be too headstrong for what the situation could demand. The fact that he decided to leave nation-building to Afghans and embark on what is a counter-terrorism operation is anachronistic. At a time when it is known that a clear military victory is not possible in Afghanistan, to have signaled a reduction in American operations to “killing terrorists” alone is flawed.


Geo-Political and Domestic Troubles Galore


Not only did calling out Pakistan’s evident bluff in such a straightforward manner created much concern for Pakistan, but also invited reactions from Russia and China in support of Pakistan, thereby undermining the American impact.


Knowing the stakes involved and how the two countries are largely poised against US preponderance, this support meant two things. First, it softened the blow for Pakistan, which can now use the Russia-China card to tell the US that it is not alone. Second, in speaking out against the high-pitched American speech, Russia and China have conveyed to the US that it can no longer wind the key in Afghanistan by itself. By coming together, motivated by their own objectives, the troika — Russia, Pakistan, and China — have ensured that the US-led initiative in Afghanistan never becomes an all-in-all solution for the problems faced there.


Domestically, the dissonance within the Trump administration is evident. The almost-certain-of-a-win rhetoric that Trump’s speech was brimming with — not out of some childish optimism, but stubborn political ignorance — was “undercut” in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech that followed the next day, who apparently also called the President a “moron.”


Tillerson talked about how difficult it would be to have every battlefield victory. He contended that one might have to be content with the fact that the other side, i.e. the Taliban, was not winning either. If for Trump, winning looked like an absolute walkover by the American forces in Afghanistan, winning for Tillerson was more like not losing to the Taliban. There was, thus, an evident difference in imagination of what the course ahead in Afghanistan may look like.


Counter-intuitive, Flippant, and Counter-productive


That being said, there have been two fronts on which Tillerson and Trump appear to converge, but there is little to celebrate as these converging points offer almost nothing. In fact, they have been counter-intuitive, flippant, and counter-productive. Regarding the counter-intuitive first, let’s begin with some good news: both Tillerson and Trump see the urgency of getting the Taliban to talk: while the latter is unsure if and when this will happen, the former has talked about the “moderate Taliban” serving in the Afghan government.


While it remains to be seen how this so-called “moderate” Taliban differs conceptually from the erstwhile “good” Taliban — a dyad that did little good — Trump appears to be in the mood to put a halt to the potential political ice-breaking. It has been reported that he has been pushing for the permanent dismantling of the Taliban political office in Qatar. Although much of what has existed after 2013, when the Doha office was told to shed its embassy-like get up, has been an informal channel for humanitarian communication, it has also been an important meeting point nevertheless. To ask for its shut-down would certainly close one vital door of communication with the Taliban, and more so because of the ongoing conflict between the Gulf States. Furthermore, it could also make the Taliban fall back on Pakistan even more, making the latter more notorious than before. 

The Taliban has promised that it would make the US regret its decision to stay in Afghanistan by making the country a “graveyard” for American soldiers. 

As a stark instance, or rather a reminder of the US’ flippant attitude, having chided Pakistan for being an “agent of chaos,” it was believed that President Trump would stick to his harsh tone with the country. However, it was not carried forward. In what looks like an attempt to assuage an angered Pakistan supported by American rivals, it took Trump less than three months to do a somersault. Following the (highly questionable) successful rescue of a North American couple who were in the confinement of the Haqqani Network for five years by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, he commended Pakistan on Twitter: “starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts,” and thus went from condemnation to commendation in less than three months.


India, on its part, could be said to have anticipated such a change in stance, and thus was not wholly pumped up with the (qualified) pat on the back it had received in Trump’s Afghanistan speech. Having received the short end of the stick in the past, India recognized that American gestures towards it are both short-lived and subject to American calculations. The fact that Trump’s America could switch between good and bad Pakistan so quickly reflected that the American policy on Afghanistan will probably not stick to the narrated course. Its reliance on Pakistan for strategic routes into Afghanistan are all too crucial for it to give up on or to pressurize beyond a point.


Since its inauguration, the American policy in Afghanistan has not reaped much. In fact, Afghanistan has seen heightened militant and terrorist activities in the country which have targeted ordinary civilians, military personnel, and those in power alike. While it would be unwise to draw a direct, causative link between the American decision to stay put and the bombings that have rattled Afghanistan in the last two months, it would not be inappropriate to say that the American policies have not done much to control the rampage. Rather, on the contrary, the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, caused in part by the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS), was expected to follow. The people of Afghanistan had anticipated a rise in violence and they have been proven right.


The Taliban, on its part, has promised that it would make the US regret its decision to stay in Afghanistan by making the country a “graveyard” for American soldiers. And a graveyard it indeed has become, if not for the American soldiers but those belonging to the Afghan National Army and police. In one of the deadliest attacks to have taken place on the Afghan security establishment, almost an entire army camp was destroyed in a twin suicide bombing attack in Kandahar on October 19. Just a day before, the northern province of Balkh saw the Taliban kill six people serving in the police.


The ordinary people of Afghanistan have also been exposed to further threat in the form of IS which attacked the Imam Zaman Mosque — a Shia place of worship — on October 20 in Kabul. This attack claimed the lives of 30 people and left more than 40 wounded. Infighting between the various militia factions within Afghanistan has also been rampant, often resulting in the death of civilians across the country. On the same day as the Kabul attack, a rival militia to the one led by Abdul Ahed attacked a Sunni Mosque he was visiting, killing him and 30 ordinary worshippers in the province of Ghor. In all, in the week that spanned between October 16 and 23, the South, South East, and North of Afghanistan were rattled by a series of attacks that left almost 130 dead.


What little confidence that the “new” American policy on Afghanistan may have inspired has faded with Tillerson holding talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Bagram Air Base instead of Kabul. The decision to hold talks in this fortified compound could have been a result of the rocket attacks that were launched close to Kabul airport after US Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Afghanistan, and it betrayed America’s lack of faith in not only the existing security situation in the country but also its own admission that its “new” policy has not changed much on the ground.


Tillerson’s back-to-back visits to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India could be seen as an attempt to get all three countries on board. Riled with each other for their own reasons — the India-Pakistan rivalry, Pakistan’s apprehension of India’s involvement in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan’s boundary and other disputes with Pakistan — these will have a compounding effect on how the situation in Afghanistan will unfold. While the US is struggling to string these three countries together, its policies and actions have not significantly advanced its objective. In fact, the American policy concerning Afghanistan has been counter-intuitive, flippant, and even counter-productive when measured against its promised stance.


The Trump administration is a divided house and its actions has dented its international credibility. The US has also stirred up greater geo-political rivalry in the region with its Rambo-outlook. Although the importance of American involvement in managing and minimizing the mess in Afghanistan is beyond doubt, Trump’s approach has created chaos domestically, internationally, and also for Afghanistan.

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