In his first comprehensive public pronouncement on US policy in Afghanistan and South Asia, Donald Trump said that Pakistan’s support for terrorism risks allowing nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists.
The US President said Pakistan’s safe havens for terror groups must stop immediately because they could spiral into a conflict with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India. He said the consequences of a rapid exit from Afghanistan are unacceptable, and stressed the need for an honourable and enduring outcome to the 16-year war. He also called for an increased role for India in Afghanistan’s development.
What are the implications of Trump’s statements on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the subcontinent ? We ask experts.
The central change is the end of time-bound commitments and a shift to conditions-based evaluation in Afghanistan — Alyssa Ayres, Sr Fellow for India/Pakistan/South Asia, The Council on Foreign Relations, and Former State deputy assistant secretary for South Asia.
President Donald Trump’s unveiling of the new U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan and South Asia offered less of a “new” approach than his remarks suggested. It’s a relief to type these words—as recently as last Friday, press reports suggested that Eric Prince’s “Viceroy” approach, heavy on the mercenaries and short on historical memory, was garnering some attention, to my complete astonishment.
The central change will be, regardless of the troop numbers deployed—which he said he would not discuss— the end of time-bound commitments and a shift to conditions-based evaluation instead. This makes a great deal of sense, although surely many Americans will ask how long the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan should last.
Trump’s blunt message about the problem Pakistan’s terrorist safe havens poses for success in Afghanistan dispensed with all diplomatic niceties, and surely marks a phase of greater pressure on Islamabad/Rawalpindi. This was already beginning to happen, such as with former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s refusal last summer to certify that Pakistan had made “sufficient” efforts to fight the Haqqani network. That lack of certification caused the loss of one-third of Pakistan’s Coalition Support Funds. In July, we saw Secretary of Defense Mattis render the same conclusion, once again costing Pakistan access to CSF.
Of course, as everyone in India knows, saying we will get tougher with Pakistan does not magically produce different outcomes, so it will be important to keep adjusting. We saw the statement from Secretary of State Tillerson outline very clearly that the Taliban has a “path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war.”
Finally, the elevation of India to a key partner to bring about peace and stability for this region represented, to me at least, the biggest departure from previous administration’s approaches. India is the fifth largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan and an important economic and development partner. India could be involved more closely in consultations about Afghanistan, and the region’s, future. While the Obama administration created a U.S.-India-Afghanistan trilateral consultation, it did not meet with the regularity it could have. The Trump administration appears ready to take the India part of its approach to Afghanistan up a couple notches.
A focus on winning in Afghanistan may be a misplaced priority — Michael Kugelman, Deputy director Asia Program, The Wilson Center
Four thoughts jump out about Donald Trump’s new and long-awaited strategy on Afghanistan. The first is the strong emphasis on winning. If there’s one thing the last 16 years have shown us, it’s that victory is incredibly elusive. So, a focus on winning may be a misplaced priority.
The second is the lack of specifics. We were left wanting to hear more: How will the US go after the terrorists in Afghanistan? How will it get Pakistan to end its ties to terrorist groups? And above all, how will the US move closer to the victory to which Trump repeatedly referred?
The third is the strong emphasis on counterterrorism. Trump essentially couched his justification for an extended presence in Afghanistan on the need to go after terrorists that target Americans in Afghanistan—and beyond. This makes good sense. If Trump wants to sell this war to his political base, then he needs to highlight the threat posed by terrorists in Afghanistan—a threat that extends far beyond the Taliban.
The fourth thought is that Trump’s speech sounded very familiar. The focus on fending off the Taliban, engaging the Afghan government, looking toward a political reconciliation. We’ve heard this all before. How remarkable that after an eight-month strategy review, the final product was something very similar to plans of the past.
This lack of novelty points to a fundamental truth: There simply are no good options for Afghanistan—whether old or new.
Pakistan may reject the US charges and reiterate the threat posed by the nexus between Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies — Rahimullah Yusufzai, Resident Editor, The News International, Peshawar
President Donald Trump had different messages for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in his much-awaited speech, but the starkest message was delivered to Islamabad.
It wasn’t as direct as President George W. Bush’s message in which he told Pakistan to decide whether it was with or against the US in the war against terrorism. Trump told Pakistan that it has much to gain by taking action against terrorists and a lot to lose by harbouring them. He accused Pakistan of sheltering those who attack US forces in Afghanistan and providing safe havens to terrorists.
It was clear the Trump administration has refused to accept Islamabad’s plea that there are no safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network in Pakistan. The US also didn’t buy Islamabad’s argument that Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban and Baloch militants backed by the Afghan and intelligence agencies were attacking and destabilizing Pakistan.
Instead, Trump provoked Pakistan by asking India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan through economic development and by spending more than it already is. It was a negation of Pakistan’s argument that greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan would be a source of instability in the region and a hurdle in bringing the long Afghan conflict to an end.
As Trump confidently said that Pakistan’s policy would change soon in the wake of his warning, it appears that he has plans to impose economic sanctions and arm-twist Islamabad in other ways to accept his demands. His hint about the need to ensure that nuclear weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists was also aimed at Pakistan. He praised Pakistan as a valued partner in the war against terrorism rather reluctantly before reading out a charge-sheet against it and reminding it about the billions of US aid given to it.
Pakistan is expected to reject the US charges and reiterate its concerns regarding the threat posed to it by Afghanistan-based militants are a nexus between the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies. It may also highlight the futility of finding a military solution of the Afghan issue as mentioned by Trump and instead call for shared efforts by all stakeholders to search for a negotiated political settlement.
No false start on Pakistan, Right start for India —Pranab Dhal Samanta, Editor, ThePrint
In framing Pakistan as part of the problem in South Asia, US President Donald Trump successfully steered clear of the trap his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama had failed to negotiate.
And that has been the first-year practice of Presidents since 9/11, then they change tack and put the onus on Pakistan to dismantle its terror networks. Once the US bought into that logic, it also committed itself to help solve Pakistan’s problems. Which essentially meant pressure on New Delhi to accommodate Islamabad.
Both Bush and Obama pursued this approach for the first two years until they realized that billions had been sunk with no result. The Pakistan Army armed itself to the teeth with American help, setting off serious concerns in India. The two leaders had to make U-turns in their second terms as president.
Trump didn’t fall for this false hope placed on the Pakistan Army, just like he changed his mind on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. His admission that he had to go against his “instincts” after sitting “behind the desk in the Oval Office” is a revealing line of a President willing to reconsider his position.
Few things stand out, which further validate India’s assessment like deadlines have been set on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. India always felt that by doing so in the past, US just ended up providing a timeline to the ISI and terror groups to rebuild.
There was no talk of having Indian troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but a clear call for more Indian civil assistance. This is a clear signal to Pakistan to “kill terrorists” and not to blame India or attack Indian consulates. He has called on India to do more of what they are already doing.
There’s a change in US policy on the Afghan reconciliation process built around accommodating the Taliban politically — Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary.
From India’s point of view Trump’s review of America’s Afghanistan policy has several positive elements. He has decided not to end America’s involvement in the Afghan war, contrary to his election campaign statements. This is in line with the Indian thinking. He has made US withdrawal contingent on conditions on the ground, without setting time-tables. America’s position on the Taliban has become clearer. The US will not allow a Taliban take-over of Afghanistan and will fight these forces.
This implies a change in US policy on the Afghan reconciliation process built around accommodating the Taliban politically. He has not mentioned the reconciliation process in his speech and has put the accent on military means to stabilise Afghanistan.
He has taken cognisance of Pakistan’s duplicity in combating terrorism by sending clear warning signals to it to immediately cease providing safe havens to terrorists who kill US soldiers.
The contrast between his language on Pakistan and India is stark. By stating that the US intends to strengthen its strategic ties with India whom he identifies as a key security and economic partner, he has sent a strong signal to Pakistan.
A few negative nuances for India have, however, crept into his speech. The reference to tensions between India and Pakistan as nuclear-armed neighbours spiralling into conflict is US old-think and suggests a role for the US in defusing them. This is also suggested indirectly by references to “South Asia” in the speech. Why Trump should believe that we have an obligation to provide more economic aid to Afghanistan because we make billions of dollars from trade with the US defies logic and is typical Trump-speak.
Trump calls for a regional strategy, but there is no regional consensus among Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia and China on outcome in Afghanistan — Bharath Gopalaswamy, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council
While I would say the devil lies in the details, here are the following takeaways from the speech:
- President Trump has called for a greater Indian role, which means this gives India an opportunity to work with the US to determine what kind of Afghanistan it wants to see, and greater Indian economic involvement. India is already involved in projects such as building dams and parliament in Afghanistan but President Trump has challenged India to take a larger role in Afghanistan than it currently plays, and pushed for India’s commitment to regional peace and stability.
- The language on Pakistan is clear and President Trump has asked the right questions. However, the United States faces difficult choices in the way that it deals with Pakistan’s duplicity. The US’ logistics depend on Pakistan and in the absence of a serious alternative, the rhetoric on Pakistan does not match the reality.
- A regional strategy: While President Trump calls for a regional strategy, there also appears to be no regional consensus. Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia and China would like to see an outcome in Afghanistan that are not totally consistent with what the US sees. So, without a consensus, how are we going to have a “successful regional strategy” on Afghanistan? A regional consensus on what victory or defeat in Afghanistan looks like is essential before formulating a regional strategy on Afghanistan.
We must assess the convergences and divergences among various stakeholders in Afghanistan and helping the US government achieve those objectives.
This starts a more realistic and focused U.S. effort to address international terrorism based in Afghanistan & Pakistan — Dhruva Jaishankar, Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution India Center
U.S. President Donald Trump’s much-anticipated speech on Afghanistan policy struck many good notes.
One, it gave a solid rationale to a U.S. audience on the need to stay engaged: sunk costs, the continuing challenge of terrorism, and potential security risks. Two, it defined U.S. objectives as a counterterrorism mission, not as a nation-building exercise. That process should be Afghan-led and owned. Three, Trump wisely refrained from specific timetables and commitments to troop levels, which was the fatal flaw in his predecessor’s early Afghan policy.
Four, in strong but measured terms, he characterised Pakistan as part of the problem, and said that its continued support for terrorist groups was unacceptable. And five, he identified India as part of the solution, one capable of providing economic assistance. These features mark a continuation of the U.S. approach to Afghanistan at the tail end of Barack Obama’s presidency, although Trump has more clearly defined and articulated this policy.
The specifics have been held back, and remain to be seen. But this could be the start of a more realistic and focused effort on the part of the United States to address international terrorism based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Chinese embrace has made it easier for Pakistan to deal with this upcoming US estrangement — Raza Ahmad Rumi, Editor, Daily Times, visiting faculty at Cornell University and Ithaca College.
President Trump’s much awaited Afghanistan strategy raised more questions than it attempted to answer. The longest war waged by the United States, it seems, will prolong and its final outcome is uncertain.
The rhetorical speech on Monday night testified to Trump’s lack of experience with foreign policy. He admitted that he wanted to pullout but imperatives of power changed his vision. Trump wants India to have a greater role in Afghanistan, admonished Pakistan for giving safe havens to terrorists and reversed the Obama doctrine by clearly indicating the US was not leaving the country anytime soon.
A point to remember is that Afghan Taliban are not designated as ‘terrorists’ by the US, rhetoric notwithstanding. The endgame remains unchanged – how to find some measure of reconciliation.
The apparent cause for continued engagement in Afghan conflict was the American experience with Iraq where a premature withdrawal from a stateless country led to anarchy and the Daesh finding a foothold. But it’s not the only reason why the US will send more troops. The US national security apparatus has prevailed and Trump has heeded their advice to not leave without a clear sign of ‘victory’.
Pakistan had been anticipating this but the ‘hardline’ was more rhetoric than actual strategy of how to influence the country. Pakistan’s military has received billions in aid from the US since the 1950s. In the last decade or so, the renewed assistance has been important for the country. But the Chinese embrace has made it easier for the Pakistani elites to deal with this upcoming estrangement.
Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is all about India not gaining sufficient influence over the country. In fact, with Indian involvement, this resolve and threat perception is going to increase manifold. Trump mentioned trade with India as leverage to get it more engaged. Given the increased alignment of India with US interests, this would be seen in India as another victory.
Pakistan and India are unwittingly turning into chess pawns in the Chinese and American influence peddling in the region and Asia by extension. Afghanistan’s woes are not ending any time soon; and the people of India and Pakistan will bear the brunt because the world’s largest number of hungry and out-of-school population lives in this region.
His harsh rhetoric on Pakistan could reduce the space for long-term counterterrorism cooperation — Spencer Boyer, professor at Georgetown University, former Obama administration official, and a member of APCO’s International Advisory Council
A continued American presence in Afghanistan is a major reversal for Donald Trump, who had called on the US to withdraw from Afghanistan before assuming office. Among the most noteworthy takeaways from the remarks—intentionally devoid of specifics on troop numbers or timelines—were his calls for dropping nation-building aims (and instead focusing almost exclusively on killing terrorists); integrating all instruments of American power to achieve success; and putting Pakistan on notice for harbouring militant and extremist groups. While each of these concepts sound reasonable in principle, implementation will be difficult without greater definition of terms and smarter policy choices than we have seen so far from this administration.
First, while it is easy to say “no nation-building”, the President will need to be clear about what that means in practice. It has been a feature of our military engagement for decades and is not easily decoupled from the securing the peace. Eliminating existing terrorists only gets you so far if societal dysfunction allows extremist breeding grounds to fester. Second, the concept of using all of the tools we have in our foreign policy—military, diplomatic, economic—is not new. It was a core belief of the Obama administration. In order to put this into practice, however, Trump will have to do much more to support the US Department of State, which is facing major administration-driven budget cuts and a dearth of senior leadership. Finally, while Trump is right to feel frustrated by Pakistan’s lackluster efforts to control militant organisations (as his predecessors did as well), the President’s harsh public rhetoric could reduce the space for long-term counterterrorism cooperation.
The US must achieve victory in Afghanistan, rather than simply manage the conflict — S. Paul Kapur, professor, National Security Affairs, United States Naval Postgraduate School, and author of ‘Jihad as Grand Strategy: Islamist Militancy, National Security’
President Trump would prefer to leave Afghanistan, but he’s staying anyway. As costly as it is to remain in the country, he rightly worries that withdrawal would create a power vacuum that would be even worse. Therefore, the President argues, the US must remain in Afghanistan. But it must do so in ways that depart from its inconclusive efforts of the previous 16 years.
For example, the US must achieve victory in Afghanistan, rather than simply manage the conflict until it can withdraw. The President also emphasised the need to base policy on conditions within Afghanistan, rather than on externally determined timelines. Such timelines and conflict-management approaches have been extremely counterproductive in the past, encouraging adversaries simply to wait out the US. The President expressed a general desire to get India more involved in development efforts within Afghanistan, though he offered nothing in the way of specifics. And, significantly, President Trump called out the Pakistanis. He said Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to play a double game, supporting terrorists and insurgents while accepting billions of dollars of US aid.
Whatever else comes of the President’s new policy, holding Pakistan to account is an important step in the right direction. The United States has bankrolled the Pakistanis while they supported militants who destabilised Afghanistan and the larger South Asian region. Pakistan’s militant strategy is as old as the Pakistani state, and will be difficult to change. But, at the very least, the United States should not continue to pay for it.
Get the PrintEssential to make sense of the day's key developments