Instead of reacting with injured innocence, New Delhi should undertake a clear-eyed appraisal of the situation in Afghanistan.
US President Donald Trump’s mocking comments on India’s contributions to Afghanistan have elicited sharp responses. Spokespersons of the BJP and the Congress took to Twitter, pointing out the scale, range and significance of India’s developmental assistance to the war-ravaged country. All this is true, but beside the point. Trump’s comments and the underlying stance towards Afghanistan underscore the extent to which the Modi government’s policy on Afghanistan has been based on wishful thinking. Instead of reacting with injured innocence, New Delhi should undertake a clear-eyed appraisal of the situation in Afghanistan as well as its own approach.
Such a realistic assessment should take account of the consequences that are likely to flow from Trump’s decision to reduce American military presence. First, it will intensify the jockeying for alliances and powers already underway in Afghanistan ahead of the next presidential elections. Second, faced with the dual reality of American financial cuts and a looming exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan has little incentive to cooperate in ensuring an orderly settlement. Third, as the security situation deteriorates in the wake of the American drawdown, India’s own policy of focusing on developmental assistance will be called into the question.
Trump’s Afghanistan stance
Trump’s comments came in the wake of his decision to pull-out 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan, reducing at a stroke American presence in the country by half and indicating the beginning of a complete drawdown in the months ahead. The move (along with the pull-out of troops from Syria) precipitated the resignation of Defence Secretary James Mattis. Trump has since said that he had essentially fired Mattis. “I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan”, he insisted.
Trump’s willingness to make these abrupt moves must be seen in the context of the Republican Party’s mixed performance in the recent mid-term elections. The American President is clearly pivoting towards his political base. But it is a move that accords with his political instincts. Trump has long maintained that the war in Afghanistan wasted American lives and treasure, and that the United States should get out. In a July 2017 National Security Council meeting, Bob Woodward reports in his book Fear, Trump gave a tongue-lashing to the generals around the table including Mattis and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster: “I don’t know what the hell we’re doing … How many more deaths? How many more lost limbs? How much longer are we going to be there?”
In the event, the President allowed the generals to persuade him not to follow his inclinations. Announcing his strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia in August 2017, Trump admitted that he was departing from his instincts, but he was convinced the United States faced “immense” threats from the region and the consequences of a hasty withdrawal were “both predictable and unacceptable”. Indeed, his strategy was premised on a shift from his predecessor Barack Obama’s “time-based approach”: “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.” Trump went on to identify two further pillars of his new approach. The United States would turn the heat on Pakistan for its safe havens and support to the Taliban and its affiliates. Further, a “critical part” of the strategy was to build the United States’ strategic partnership with India. In particular, Trump wanted India to play a greater role in providing economic assistance to Afghanistan.
The Trump administration’s new approach was music to Indian ears. Each component of the strategy apparently fit well with its views and desires. New Delhi had maintained all along that negotiating with the Taliban without gaining a military upper-hand on the group was a recipe for disaster. Further, the Trump administration’s willingness to forthrightly call out Pakistan’s support for terrorism and cutting its financial assistance was naturally welcomed by India.
Lastly, the prospect of a strategic partnership with India encompassing—as Trump noted—both the Indo-Pacific and South Asia was alluring to the Modi government. The Prime Minister had gone further than any of his predecessors in endorsing the United States’ stance in maritime Asia-Pacific with a view to securing pay-offs in its efforts to manage the security challenges posed by China and Pakistan. Trump’s speech suggested that the progress made in the relationship under President Obama would not be undone by Trump: on the contrary, it could touch new heights.
Not surprisingly, the ministry of external affairs promptly put out a statement welcoming 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.” Senior retired diplomats who had dealt with Afghanistan echoed the sentiment that Trump’s policy was attuned to India’s position and interests. However, this was a premature conclusion based on hope rather than evidence. It also attested to an inability on the part of New Delhi to parse the dynamics within the Trump administration or indeed the US President’s peculiar obsessions.
In his speech, Trump had said that he expected India to do more for Afghanistan’s development because “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States”. Far from offering India a bigger role in Afghanistan, the American president wanted a quid pro quo for the trade surplus that India ran with the United States. This is precisely the point he is now harping on. The issue is not what India has done or is doing in Afghanistan, but what Trump believes India should be doing given its trade surplus with the US. These linkages will continue to play out in the trade discussions between the two countries.
The bottom line is that the Modi government should forsake the hope that the United States will uphold India’s interests in Afghanistan. The US-India strategic partnership has seldom worked for India in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre. Instead of wishfully thinking that convergence in the Indo-Pacific will extend to this area, New Delhi should assess its own options—even if it holds a weak hand.
The author is Professor of International Relations & History at Ashoka University and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie India. Views are personal.
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