The Disarrayed House: American Policy on Afghanistan Inspires Little Confidence
It’s been three months since the President of USA, Donald Trump, made his country’s intent clear that it would stay put in Afghanistan for as long as it took to “kill the terrorists” there. However, the American policy is far from showing signs of coherence and consistency in thought and action. While much of what USA has proposed to do, including a (minimal) troop surge and the ‘conditions-based’ approach, is a continuation of the earlier American approaches, differences seem apparent in how the things are panning out both in plan 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 poll promises made by President Trump. Considering that an ‘expeditionary counter insurgency’ – which is what USA is up to in Afghanistan – is subject to the mood of the nation leading the supposed crusade, it is quite likely that the waning sympathy for the war in Afghanistan will have an impact on troop morale as well as the administrative decision to continue the task there.
There is also an apparent lack of coordination and even liking between the various branches within the US administration, for each other. Trump, overall, doesn’t cut an encouraging figure. His approval ratings are at an all time low. If news reports emanating from the now – bitter Steve Bannon’s run Breitbart are to be believed, Trump has already managed to upset his constituency with his decision on Afghanistan. Cracks are appearing in the base that had once voted him into power.
The rhetorical shrill and chest-thumping in his speech on Afghanistan became other reasons for worry and concern for the US administration. Putting Pakistan in a tight spot as he spoke from Fort Meyer, President Trump called the country out for “continuing to harbor criminal and terrorists”. However, the rhetoric did not stop here. What could potentially have been an embarrassment for Pakistan was given a starker geo – political turn as Trump went onto commend the role India has played in Afghanistan. He, in fact, called upon India to contribute more since it is earning much ‘in billions from trade with US’ anyway.
The larger picture painted by Trump too appeared to be self – fulfilling, naïve and even misinformed in many ways. Winning in Afghanistan, which as per him is what the American forces are bound to achieve, appeared 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 was a counter – terrorism operation sounded every bit 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 was every bit flawed.
Thesetwo qualitative aspects in Trump’s speech resulted created separate reactions. The first was within the international orbit, inviting disapprobation of China and Russia and their show of support for Pakistan. The second was witnessed domestically in terms of how the policy’s larger intent has been imagined. Collectively, these reactions have come to demonstrate that the American policy not only suffers from internal dissonance, but that its actions vis-à-vis Afghanistan are counter-intuitive, flippant and, counter-productive too.
Geo-Political and Domestic Troubles Galore
Calling out Pakistan’s evident bluff in such a straightforward manner created much concern not only there but it 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, Russia and China’s support for Pakistan means two things. One, it softened the blow for Pakistan which can now use the Russia – China card to tell US that it is not alone. Two, in speaking out against the American high – pitched rhetoric, 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, China – have made it clear that the US – led initiative in Afghanistan never becomes an all-in-all solution for the problems faced there.
Domestically, the dissonance within the US 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 also ‘undercut’ in the speech that followed the next day. This came from the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who has apparently 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 (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 is, thus, an evident difference in imagination of what the course ahead in Afghanistan can 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 hold on, there is little to celebrate about as these converging points have offered almost nothing. In fact, they have been counter – intuitive, flippant and counter-productive to say the least.
Talking about counter – intuitive first, let’s begin with some good news. For better of course, both Tillerson and Trump see the imperativeness of getting the Taliban to talk. While the latter is unsure of if and when this happens, the former has talked about the ‘moderate Taliban’ serving in the Afghan government.
While it remains to be seen how the so – called ‘moderate’ Taliban is conceptually any different from the erstwhile ‘good’ Taliban – a dyad that had done 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 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 been an important meeting point nevertheless. To ask it to be shut, and more so because of the ongoing conflict between the Gulf States, would certainly close one vital door of communication with Taliban. It could also make Taliban fall back on Pakistan even more, making the latter more notorious than before.
This is where the counter – intuitive ends and a stark instance, or rather a reminder of US’ flippant attitude begins. Having chided Pakistan for being an “agent of chaos”, President Trump, it was believed would stick to its harsher tone with this country. But it was not carried forward for long.
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, President Trump took to Twitter to commend Pakistan. He tweeted : “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 the full circle 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 all 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 the American gestures towards it were both short – lived and subject to American calculations. The fact that Trump’s America could switch between good Pakistan and bad Pakistan mode with such agility reflected 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 it or pressurize it 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 and 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 be not be inappropriate to say that American policies have not done much to control the rampage either. Rather, to the contrary, the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, caused in part by Taliban and Islamic State (IS), was expected to follow. People of Afghanistan had anticipated rise in violence in the country and they have been proven right.
Taliban, on its part, has promised the US that it would make it regret its decision to stay back 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 wiped off 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.
Ordinary people of Afghanistan have also been exposed to further threat in the form of IS which attacked the Imam Zaman Mosque – a Shia worshipping place – on October 20 in Kabul. This attack claimed lives of 30 people and left more than 40 wounded. In fighting between the various militia factions within Afghanistan has also been rampant, resulting more often in the death of civilians across the country. On the same day as the Kabul attack, a militia, rival 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, the week that spanned between 16 and 23 October, the South, South East and North of Afghanistan was rattled by a series of attacks that left almost 130 dead.
What little confidence that the ‘new’ American policy on Afghanistan inspired too faded with Tillerson holding talks with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Bagram Air Base instead of Kabul. Where the decision to hold talks in this fortified compound could have been a result of the rocket attacks that were launched close to the Kabul airport after Mattis’ arrival in Afghanistan, it did betray 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 visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India could be seen as an attempt to get all the 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 have got a compounding effect on how the situation in Afghanistan unfolds. Where the US is struggling to string these three countries together, its policies and actions have not significantly advanced its objective. In fact, for all that it has come to be, the American policy concerning Afghanistan has been counter – intuitive, flippant, and even counter – productive when measured against its promised stance. The American administration in itself is a divided house and which has dented the credibility of its actions across shores. 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, the reactions to Trump’s all – in – all and win – it – all approach has created chaos domestically, internationally, and for Afghanistan.