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The Disarrayed House: American Policy on Afghanistan Inspires Little Confidence
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Chayanika Saxena | Date:15 Nov , 2017 0 Comments
Chayanika Saxena
is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. She can be reached at

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.


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