Home inFocus Global Hotspots (Winter 2018) Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy: The Least Bad Option

Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy: The Least Bad Option

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza Winter 2018
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi meeting the President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, in Tehran on May 23, 2016.

Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia announced in August, was intended to highlight the novelty and surprise elements of a roadmap that purportedly sought little short of the decimation of terrorism. For all that, the “new” strategy, its overheated semantics and studious ambiguity notwithstanding, in reality is but a continuation of the American trial-and-error method that has kept insurgent aspirations of a victory alive these 16 years since the United States intervened in Afghanistan. After spending much blood and treasure, has the United States learned from its mistakes? Is the present strategy a break with the past? Or is it a mere continuation of a policy with no defined objectives and outcomes? India needs to consider carefully its desired terms of engagement for any serious partnership with the Americans in Afghanistan.

Ambiguities and Novelty

After all the opposition to the war in Afghanistan he unleashed over the years via social media, especially in his election campaign, when push came to shove, Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia chose the least bad option, the one which would have the least resistance and would provide room for maneuver to match domestic needs and geopolitical interests. Despite tall claims of having studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle, Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is neither new nor comprehensive. New Delhi needs to remain cautious before embracing this ambiguous strategy. Among its many ambiguities, three are especially worth considering:

Kinetic vs Non-kinetic

First, the strategy, apparently scripted by the U.S. military, is not about nation-building but kinetic operations, search-and-destroy by another name. Getting a free hand on the ground with no micro-management from Washington is a victory of sorts for the American generals in Afghanistan. Still, much confusion abounds as to whether the strategy is counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism plus, or an overt reliance on the use of military force. Moving away from the earlier time-based approach to one based on conditions is certainly appropriate. In this, Trump has addressed the error of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who in December 2009 had announced troop surge and exit at the same time. This only worked to insurgent advantage, allowing an approach of “waiting out the enemy.”

Yet there is no indication whether the intent is to convert Afghanistan into a new South Korea, where U.S. troops are indefinitely based, or something else. A conditions-based approach is preferable to the mistaken announcement of a time schedule, but there is nothing to indicate what will be done to address those conditions that are fueling extremism and violence. Further, the apparent decoupling of kinetic and non-kinetic elements of the strategy, the military and civilian components, will limit the gains achieved through kinetic operations. Claiming that all of this will be something more than smoke and mirrors is guaranteed, Trump proclaimed, by the application of will. Unlike in the prior administration, he implied, this time the United States will fight to win. To point out the sheer profligacy of such a pronouncement seems almost a waste of effort.

Regional Power Play

Second, Trump has not identified any benchmarks and targets for actions. This keeps the expectation bar low but also does not address the basic component of metrics. Neither has he expressed in any clear terms expected steps to be taken by Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, or even the United States itself. Most importantly, the role of other major regional powers such as Russia, China, Iran, UAE, and Saudi Arabia remains undefined. Afghanistan’s tragedy lies in the fact that its internal contradictions have been exploited by external powers. Without a regional strategy, the external powers will continue along this path, notably neighboring Pakistan.

Safe Haven

Third, every American president is aware of Pakistan’s role and interests in supporting the terrorist groups in Afghanistan. It is perhaps the first time that a U.S. president has stated this publicly, but it is not as though the reality has not hitherto figured into planning. Nevertheless, there it was: “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” Trump stated unambiguously. Unspecified was just what coercive instruments could be brought to play to change Pakistan’s behavior.

Trump’s critique of Pakistan is in line with New Delhi and Kabul’s position on the external support and sanctuary provided to the insurgent and terrorist groups that are the source of Afghanistan’s instability. Pakistan has been a mendacious ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, sheltering terror groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, and using them as strategic assets in Afghanistan, despite more than $33 billion in American aid being given to Pakistan in the last decade and half for the counter-terrorism cooperation.

Strategic Partnership in Afghanistan

Trump’s sudden recognition of New Delhi’s concerns has been received with caution in view of the role he wishes to assign India as a strategic ally and further develop the strategic partnership. The proof lies in the pudding. Even as Pakistan considers cozying up to China as its safety-valve, the strategy has been welcomed in Kabul and New Delhi. In spite of Trump’s awkward mentioning first of India’s substantial trade benefits from good relations with the U.S. – before elaborating on his expectations from New Delhi “to do more” – New Delhi has welcomed the strategy. It is seen as a nod to the importance of India’s economic and development assistance thus far and an acknowledgement that without India’s soft power, things could be much worse.

Counter-terrorism Cooperation

Though mentioning the fact that at least 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world, Trump’s strategy appears geared toward targeting al-Qaeda and ISIS. If the United States is still looking for a political settlement with the Taliban, New Delhi will have to make sure that this is done by the Afghan government through an open, inclusive, and accountable process.

Moreover, New Delhi needs to tell Washington that the targeting of terrorist groups cannot be selective and must include groups that are detrimental to India’s security interests, as well. Any robust counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States will need to address issues of funding, training, and support provided to these groups.

Building Non-Kinetic Capabilities

India has pledged more than $3 billion to various civilian capacity-building, infrastructure, and development projects in Afghanistan. This has brought it significant good will among the Afghans. By avoiding a narrow security-dominated approach India is seen as a neutral partner and not a party to the conflict. It is prudent, then, for New Delhi to stay clear of involvement in the kinetic side of the equation, while simultaneously urging the United States to play a more meaningful non-kinetic role in institution building and reform.

This goes against the Trump administration’s stated goal of avoiding nation-building, yet any military strategy divorced from building strong institutions of governance and service delivery is unlikely to translate kinetic gains into tangible political outcomes. The mere addition of 3,000 troops to Afghanistan, where they will bolster the approximately 11,000 American forces already there, will not make much impact unless there is a clarity of the mission, rules of engagement and outcome, in addition to building effective and responsive governance institutions.

There is a serious possibility that the United States is looking to India to perform the non-kinetic component while Washington engages in what certain figures feel it does best, war fighting. This would be a thankless position for New Delhi to be in that could entail burden-sharing and risk strategic distortion as concerns its own interests.

Long Drawn-Out War

Likewise, the role of private contractors in the push to outsource the war; the continued dependence upon warlords, power-brokers, and militias for support of counter-insurgency operations; the use of airpower as a surrogate for actual engagement, together with inadequate human intelligence (HUMINT) resulting in collateral damage and increase in civilian casualties, all need to be clarified. The potential for New Delhi to be caught in the blowback from Washington’s ill-considered approaches must be weighed.

Skeptics are already highlighting that by lumping its Afghan with its South Asia (India and Pakistan) strategy, the Trump administration runs the danger of not only intensifying the India-Pakistan competition but also intensifying regional competition as Pakistan seeks succor from the likes of China, Russia, and Iran. The dangers of such competition notwithstanding, Pakistan will need to compete with India on the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan which will accrue good will from the Afghans. At the moment, the popular sentiment for Pakistan remains very low.

A weak and unstable Afghanistan has been a primary objective of its predatory neighbors. Leaving to the side the reality that countries like Pakistan are not simply going to give up this quest, regardless of U.S. positions or threats, there is the fundamental necessity for any American strategy that has hope of success to build a strong and stable Afghan state, one which will make it difficult for its predatory neighbors and thier proxies to continue subversion and assault.

Institution Building and Reform

This can be achieved by institution building and reforms in the security, political, economic, and governance sectors. The Trump administration has refrained from making clear, long-term commitments. The time to do so is now.

In the security sector, there remains a need for better training, equipment, vetting, and policing capabilities, as well as an increase in Afghan airpower capability. The latter element alone, if inadequate, seems all but to guarantee that the gains achieved through kinetic operations will be simply lost.

In the political sector, in addition to revamping the indigenous institutions for peace and reconciliation such as the High Peace Council, reconciled and reintegrated fighters will need opportunities for employment and acceptability as they transition back into society. More importantly, as Afghanistan heads to another round of presidential and much-delayed parliamentary elections in 2019 and 2018 respectively, systems, procedures, and logistics need to be put in place to avoid the messy outcomes of previous years. These have seriously undermined the credibility and functioning of the Afghan government. Greater decentralization will help popular participation on the margins. The limits of an overly centralized form of governance of the past decade and a half are evident.

A legitimate government that delivers to basic services the people is essential to any hope of victory, however defined. A clean, responsive and accountable governance system under the rule of law is essential to build the trust of the populace and deprive the insurgents of its support. If this appears so much pie-in-the-sky, then there hardly appears any point in being involved. Just what the announced U.S. strategy is to contribute to such an end-state is puzzling.

Prospects for India-U.S. Partnership in Afghanistan

If India and the United States intend to work together in denying hostile groups and their sponsors any space in Afghanistan, the first step will be to outline a comprehensive and long-term plan along with the Afghan government to build a strong and stable Afghanistan that will be an antidote to enemy forces and predatory neighbors. The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by New Delhi with Kabul in October 2011 provides a good template. As America adopts a kinetic approach toward Afghanistan, New Delhi will have to spell out the conditions for any cooperation to take this strategic partnership ahead.

For New Delhi to partner with U.S. development and aid agencies, such as USAID, there is a need for integrated planning to provide market access for the products produced, accompanied by skill-based training for small and medium enterprises for income generation and boosting domestic production. Continuing instability has enabled neighboring countries to pour in cheap goods, thus, stunting Afghanistan’s indigenous economic revival and growth.

New Delhi will have to tread carefully in the shifting sands inside Afghanistan and the region. Rather than rushing into the American embrace, New Delhi’s primary objective must be to fulfill its obligations as Kabul’s strategic partner. President Trump has sought an honorable and enduring outcome, the contours of which remain unknown. The Afghans have long looked to a friendly India to play this role of a serious interlocutor. India should step up to the plate commensurate with its rising power status and aspirations.

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, Ph.D., is a visiting research associate at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia and Founder and President of Mantraya. This article was first published at Mantraya and republished by Eurasia Review.