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The winners and losers in Trump's Afghan strategy

By M K Bhadrakumar
September 01, 2017 08:22 IST
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'Delhi has identified itself with Trump's Afghan strategy whereas the Chinese stance is calibrated -- observant and objective, keeping a distance,' says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

New Delhi and Beijing are the only two regional capitals that have commented on US President Donald J Trump's speech on August 21 outlining the way forward in Afghanistan.

The Indian foreign ministry statement was effusive in praise while the Chinese statement has been one of cautious and guarded hope.

Delhi has identified itself with Trump's Afghan strategy whereas the Chinese stance is calibrated -- observant and objective, keeping a distance.

Among the regional States, India and China can be regarded as 'winners' unlike Pakistan, Iran and Russia.


Trump made the following reference to India in his South Asian strategy:

Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world's largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.

We appreciate India's important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.

We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.

India finds the Trump strategy to work in line with its interests.

There are 3 main reasons for this:

One, the Indian establishment has been second only to the Pentagon in seeking an open-ended US military presence in Afghanistan.

Trump has granted that wish.

Two, the US has taken a 'tough' stance toward Pakistan for its support of terrorist groups, threatening it with retribution unless it made a course correction 'immediately'.

India has been demanding this all along.

Three, the US has co-opted India as a pivotal partner in its South Asia strategy and is inviting India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan not only in the economic area but also in the political sphere.

The Indian establishment couldn't have expected more from the new US strategy towards Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, the remarks by the external affairs ministry spokesman exude great satisfaction:

'We welcome President 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.'

'India shares these concerns and objectives.'

'We are committed to supporting the government and the people of Afghanistan in their efforts to bring peace, security, stability and prosperity in their country.'

'We have been steadfast in extending reconstruction and development assistance to Afghanistan in keeping with our traditional friendship with its people.'

'We will continue these efforts, including in partnership with other countries.'

To be sure, the US-Indian strategic partnership is taking a leap forward.

India and the US have had differences regarding the Afghan situation.

On the whole, Trump's speech signals that the US strategy now more or less conforms to the Indian line of thinking.

Simply put, India never subscribed to the doomsday predictions regarding Afghanistan and in the Indian estimation, the war is far from 'lost'.

In the Indian thinking, the main problem was that US strategy was deeply flawed, essentially because of Washington's inability or reluctance (or both) to force Pakistan to shut down the sanctuaries of the insurgents.

Put differently, India has been of the opinion that with a tough line towards Pakistan and with continued strong support for the Afghan forces (underwritten by an open-ended US military presence in the region), the Taliban insurgency can be defeated.

On the other hand, India never allowed itself to be persuaded that a genuine reconciliation with the Taliban is either possible or necessary.

Again, in the Indian perception, so long as Pakistan remains the central player on the Afghan issue, China will be the net beneficiary and it is a matter of time before the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which India opposes tooth and nail, will get extended to Afghanistan.

Fundamentally, India believes that it is only a direct and forceful US military threat that will ultimately compel the Pakistani military leadership to abandon its State sponsorship of terrorism.

From these angles, this shift in the US strategy will be touted as a signal foreign policy achievement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The overall fallouts of it on the US-Indian strategic partnership will be profound. India is graduating as a veritable ally of the US.

It is within the realms of possibility that India may allow the US and NATO to use its military bases for the war effort in Afghanistan, which would end the US' dependence on Pakistan.

Trump expects Delhi to take a hand in keeping the tenuous coalition government in Kabul going by using its influence with the influential power brokers.

The base line is that the US wants to preserve the power calculus in Kabul, which is 'pro-West', and feels that India has much experience in managing testy coalition partners and in finessing the cultural attitudes of Afghan political figures.

A turbulent period lies ahead as Afghanistan needs to hold elections and new political alignments will appear.

But India has never dabbled in Afghan domestic politics and a leap of faith is needed here.

Afghans have traditionally appreciated that India never interfered in its domestic politics.

Given the ethnic rivalries, India will run the risk of being seen as taking sides.

Trump also made a pointed reference to the US' $24 billion trade deficit with India to drive home that he expects Modi to loosen the purse strings and contribute to the war chest in addition to its massive aid programme in Afghanistan.

Trump would argue that the US is after all fighting India's war in Afghanistan as well.

To be fair, he expects the US' NATO allies also to step up with 'additional troop and funding increases in line with our own'.

But the big question is whether the US will follow up the rhetoric against Pakistan.

The fact remains that the success of the US military operations in Afghanistan and the chances of lasting peace still remain predicated on Pakistan's cooperation.

Nonetheless, in the near terms, so long as the US cracks the whip at Pakistan, India will get a reprieve from cross-border infiltration from Pakistan, which in turn would have a positive impact on the ground situation in J&K under some semblance of normalcy.

Indeed, the US support gives India a free hand to manage the Kashmir problem.

What India needs to guard against are three things.

First and foremost, there are inherent dangers in identifying with the open-ended US military occupation of a Muslim country.

Second, Delhi would have taken note that it is the only regional capital (other than Kabul) that has positively welcomed Trump's new strategy riveted on an open-ended military deployment to Afghanistan.

Third, most important, there is no certainty that Trump has said his last word on Afghanistan.

In fact, his speech outlining his strategy ended in an ominous tone:

'America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress.'

'However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.'

'The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political, and economic burden.'

'The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress and real results.'

'Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes open.'

'In abiding by the oath I took on January 20, I will remain steadfast in protecting American lives and American interests.'

It is of crucial importance for Delhi to take note that Trump has added such a caveat.

The caveat all but negates all that he said otherwise in the speech about the open-ended commitment to carry forward counterterrorist operations.

The point is, the Afghan government has so far given a dismal performance.

Trump did not say a single word in his entire speech praising President Ashraf Ghani.

He has made it abundantly clear that the US is solely in the business of killing terrorists -- and nothing more.

There, too, he is narrowly focused on 'American lives and American interests.'

What if the National Unity government in Kabul, which is riven by internal contradictions, collapses, finally?

What if there are mounting American casualties in the coming months? Trump's campaign for a second term will begin in about a year's time.

Already it is apparent that his speech has received mixed reaction in the US.

There is widespread scepticism among the US foreign and security policy elites over his decision to deepen US involvement in a military mission.

A Kabul datelined report by Rod Nordland of The New York Times underscores that Trump's strategy is doomed to fail.

Click to read more
IMAGE: A member of the Taliban insurgency during the execution of three men in Ghazni province, April 18, 2015. Photograph: Reuters





China has paid high attention to US President Donald Trump's speech outlining the way forward in Afghanistan.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson reacted to Trump's speech within hours and there have been a spate of commentaries alongside in the official media.

Most important, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi discussed Afghanistan with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a telephone conversation.

To take the last point first, the Xinhua news agency reported Yang's assessment as follows:

'Political dialogue is the only solution to the Afghanistan issue.'

'China is committed to facilitating Afghanistan's peace and reconciliation process.'

'The international community needs to support Afghanistan in achieving a broad and inclusive political reconciliation, support the Afghan people in pursuing a development path that suits their own national conditions and support the Afghan government in increasing its capability to fight forces of extremism and terrorism.'

'Due attention must be paid to the "important role" Pakistan plays in the Afghan issue.'

'Pakistan's sovereignty and security concerns must be respected.'

'China stands ready to keep communication and coordination with the United States on the Afghanistan issue and make joint efforts to realise peace and stability in the country and the whole region.'

Interestingly, prior to the conversation with Tillerson, Yang received visiting Pakistan Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua in Beijing where he stressed that 'it is especially important for China and Pakistan to enhance strategic communication under current global and regional circumstances.'

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying expressed the hope that the Trump administration's new Afghan strategy 'can help to promote the security, stability and development of Afghanistan and the region at large.'

Hua strongly defended Pakistan's record and credentials in the counterterrorism efforts and stressed the high importance of the US cooperating with Pakistan 'on the basis of mutual respect and their joint commitment to the security and stability of the region and the world... and (making) concerted efforts for regional security and stability.'

The spokesperson shifted the locus away from Trump's diatribe against Pakistan to the core issue of fostering Afghan-Pakistan cooperation.

She highlighted China's contribution to foster such cooperation leading to certain recent positive trends lately, and stated China's willingness to 'continuously play a constructive role as its capacity allows'.

Afghanistan again figured at a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Janjua during a wide-ranging discussion 'on the entire gamut of bilateral relations, regional, global issues, as well as the situation in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir.'

The Pakistani foreign ministry statement said they 'agreed to continue close consultations on efforts for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan and underscored the importance of the Trilateral Afghanistan-China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers' meeting.'

The Chinese commentaries carried a strong undertone of scepticism about the efficacy of Trump's strategy, which heavily depends on the military surge.

In fact, they viewed the strategy as a rehash of failed strategies pursued by previous US administrations.

But the Chinese commentaries carefully avoided any frontal attack on Trump and instead offered constructive criticism.

Interestingly, the Global Times in an editorial underscored the importance of China-US cooperation over Afghanistan:

Will the US turn Afghanistan into a geopolitical bridgehead in Central Asia or work with China to build peace there?... It doesn't trust China enough...

The US needs to enhance cooperation with China and improve ties with Pakistan to stabilise the Afghanistan situation.

China and the US share many common interests on the Afghanistan issue and both wish to see the country return to peace and stability.

In fact, Afghanistan could become a bridge for the two to expand their cooperation.

The US should give a constructive response to China's concerns about a US military base in Afghanistan and support China's Belt and Road initiative.

A trace of antipathy is apparent towards Trump's characterisation of India as the US' strategic partner in Afghanistan.

The Global Times was of the view that 'It will be stupid if the US abandons Pakistan and particularly short-sighted to get too close to India and drift away from Pakistan.'

The bottom line is that China heaves a sigh of relief that Trump has not ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, but has taken a U-turn from his campaign pledge to allow a mini 'surge' to go ahead.

The government-owned China Daily described it as a 'precious bow to reason'... (which) gives the impression that Trump is learning the ropes.

At least he is coming to terms with the cruel reality in Afghanistan that Obama was concerned about, and the dire consequences of 'a hasty withdrawal'.

All the same, the China Daily editorial was pessimistic about the chances of Trump's strategy succeeding 'because military intervention alone will not do the trick'...

'While China welcomes efforts to improve the security situation in Afghanistan and hopes US policy will help to achieve that and promote stability, it has steadfastly called for national reconciliation and development to be advanced at the same time.'

Equally, China insists that 'nation building' must go hand in hand with counterterrorist operations.

Of course, diplomacy is never conducted in the public domain.

It stands to reason that discussions have taken place between the US and Chinese officials in the run-up to the announcement of the new Afghan strategy by Trump.

Tillerson did acknowledge this. What could be the game plan? Some hints are available in Tillerson's press statement and his media briefing.

What comes out are the following:

While Trump has outlined the new military approach, there will also be a 'diplomatic front.'

A 'battlefield victory' over the Taliban is not achievable; the idea is that the Taliban also will be made to realise that there is a stalemate.

And 'at some point', the parties have to come to the negotiating table.

'Pakistan in particular can play an important role here, certainly in delivering the Taliban to the negotiating table...'

'Pakistan must adopt a different approach, and we are ready to work with them.'

'The ultimate effort is a peace agreement that is reached through a regional effort'.

'We (the US) believe, we already know, there are certain moderate elements of the Taliban who we think are going to be ready and want to help develop a way forward.'

Too much US pressure on Pakistan may destabilise that country. Therefore, a regional approach is needed.

'As I said, other regional players have strong interest in Pakistan. China has strong interest in Pakistan.'

'Having a stable secure future Pakistan is in a lot of our interests.'

'They are a nuclear power...'

'There are many areas in which we believe we should be having very productive dialogue that serves both of our interests and regional interest as well.'

Clearly, China would anticipate that it has a big role to play in the US' order of priorities in making a success out of Trump's Afghan strategy.

To be sure, the US hopes to leverage the 'all-weather friendship' between China and Pakistan to influence the latter's policies and to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This is one thing.

Second, while Trump has a closed mind on getting involved in 'nation-building' in Afghanistan, Tillerson separately acknowledged the importance of reforms and good governance.

China can play a useful role here too.

Third, stemming from the above, China must be wondering already 'What is there in it for the Belt and Road Initiative?'

Trump pointedly showed interest in exploring economic opportunities, which would 'defray' the cost of the war that the US is bearing.

The connectivity that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor provides Afghanistan to access the world market becomes relevant here.

Again, Chinese investments in Afghanistan within the ambit of the BRI hold much potential to revive the Afghan economy.

The US will appreciate China's involvement here.

Most importantly, from the US perspective, China should be co-opted as a partner rather than be forced to link up with Russia and Iran and act as a 'spoiler'.

On the other hand, from the Chinese perspective, the continued American military commitment to Afghan security is in its national interests.

Xinjiang's security and stability is directly linked to the Afghan situation.

Above all, China would expect that a close partnership with the US in the stabilisation of Afghanistan will have a salutary effect on the overall relationship between the two big powers.

All things taken into consideration, therefore, China is the big winner in Trump's decision to allow a military surge in Afghanistan.

Prima facie, India is the big winner in Trump's rhetoric against Pakistan.

But China could be the real winner in the substantive aspects of Trump's Afghan strategy.

Click to read more
IMAGE: Afghan police during a battle with the Taliban, Qalay-i-zal, Kunduz, August 1, 2015. Photograph: Reuters



The tone and content of the statement issued in Islamabad after the meeting of Pakistan's national security committee, regarding US President Donald Trump's new South Asia strategy suggest that the apparent policy shift in Washington did not take the Pakistani leadership by surprise.

This is a well-considered statement after weighing all options open to Pakistan at a defining moment such as the present one in the country's foreign and security policy.

The NSC meeting, which was chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was attended by the top brass.

Prima facie, the statement may appear to be a stern reaction articulating Pakistan's outright rejection of the allegations made by Trump.

That is only to be expected.

No US president has ever talked to Pakistan so rudely and in such threatening terms and the domestic opinion within Pakistan is incensed over it.

However, on careful reading and re-reading, it is a rather balanced statement, after all.

It eschews any combative tone and is more a dignified and appealing defence of Pakistan's stance.

Indeed, it firmly rebuts Trump's allegations.

Unsurprisingly, it also underscores Pakistan' resolve to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, making it clear that 'the Afghan war cannot be fought in Pakistan.'

At the same time, the overall message that the NSC statement conveys to the Trump administration is that Pakistan is still willing to work with the US provided the latter recognises Pakistan's legitimate interests and concerns in regional security.

Of course, there is one caveat -- Pakistan simply cannot and will not accept Trump's decision to co-opt India as a 'net security provider in the South Asian region'.

The NSC statement highlights India's troubled relations with its South Asian neighbours, India's neighbourhood policies, India's alleged use of terrorist elements and, of course, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

Suffice to say, from the Pakistani viewpoint the Trump administration has crossed the 'red line' by inviting India to play a pivotal role in the stabilisation of Afghanistan and in strengthening the South Asian region's security.

It stands to reason that the NSC meeting took into account the remarks made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson where he significantly moderated Trump's threatening tone and virtually left the door open for a new phase of constructive engagement between the US and Pakistan.

Indeed, Pakistan has a great deal to mull over, as the following excerpts of Tillerson's remarks illustrate:

'I think the President was clear this entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: "You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you".'

'And so at some point we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end...'

'Pakistan in particular can play an important role here, certainly in delivering the Taliban to the negotiating table.'

'Pakistan must adopt a different approach, and we are ready to work with them to help them protect themselves against these terrorist organisations, but certainly to begin to end their attacks that are disrupting our efforts at peace.'

'We are going to be conditioning our support for Pakistan and our relationship with them on them delivering results in this area.'

'We want to work with Pakistan in a positive way, but they must change their approach.'

'We are going to be engaging with them (Pakistan) in a very serious and thorough way as to our expectations and the conditions that go with that...'

'The US alone is not going to change this dynamic with Pakistan...'

'I think there are areas where perhaps even India can take some steps of rapprochement on issues with Pakistan to improve the stability within Pakistan and remove some of the reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country.'

'As I said, other regional players have strong interest in Pakistan.'

'China has strong interest in Pakistan. Having a stable, secure future Pakistan is in a lot of our interests.'

'They are a nuclear power.'

'We have concerns about their weapons, the security of their weapons.'

'There are many areas in which we believe we should be having very productive dialogue that serves both of our interests and regional interest as well.'

'So this is -- again, this is not a situation where the US is saying, "Look, it's just us and you."'

'What our approach is to bring -- as I said, these regional approaches is to bring all the other interest into this effort...'

'I think too often we try to distill these challenges down to where it's just the US and some other country and only between the two of us can we solve it.'

'We have to enlarge the circle of interest and bring others to --- into the effort as well, and that's what we'll be doing with Pakistan as well.'

Tillerson steered clear of holding out any threats of retribution unless and until Pakistan did this or that 'immediately'.

On the contrary, he freely acknowledged that 'too much pressure, too tough pressure' may destabilise Pakistan and, therefore, 'at the end of the day, Pakistan has to decide what is in Pakistan's long-term interest from a security standpoint for themselves and for their people.'

Interestingly, Tillerson disclosed that the Trump administration is very close to naming 'a very experienced individual' as the next US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (who also coordinates the Afghan reconciliation process.)

All things taken into consideration, the NSC statement is a clear indication that Pakistan will ask for a dialogue with the Trump administration.

In fact, a foreign minister level meeting is on the cards.

Pakistan is immensely experienced in managing the relationship with the US and it will be a completely unwarranted conclusion for Indian analysts to make that the two countries are parting ways.

Paradoxically, Trump's decision to allow a military surge in Afghanistan can only increase the US' dependence on Pakistani goodwill and cooperation.

Interestingly, the NSC statement concludes by saying that 'Pakistan will continue to extend all possible cooperation to the international community for achieving the common objectives of peace and stability in Afghanistan and in the broader region.'

Equally, if the NSC statement is any indication, a drastic change in the strategic direction of Pakistani policies is not to be expected at this point.

Pakistan will in the first instance make an attempt to re-calibrate the relations with the US, which have not been in good shape for some time anyway.

Any shift can only happen if the forthcoming US-Pakistani dialogue runs aground.

Make no mistake, both sides will take care that such a breakdown, which doesn't suit either side, is avoided as far as possible.

Meanwhile, Pakistan will keep nurturing its developing relationship with Russia and keep the relations with Iran on an even keel as well.

These two countries are important stakeholders in Afghanistan and they also happen to be at loggerheads with the US.

On the other hand, Pakistan also cannot overlook that Russia-US and Iran-US relations are highly dynamic and are far from 'Afghan-centric'.

The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, in fact, issued a rather long-winded commentary regarding Trump's Afghan strategy, doubting the efficacy of its emphasis on the military surge while at the same time also reaffirming, curiously enough, Moscow's 'openness to cooperate' with the US in the capacity-building of the Afghan armed forces as well as 'in advancing the national reconciliation process.'

There are some similarities between the Russian and Chinese positions vis-à-vis Trump's Afghan strategy and it is entirely conceivable that the two countries have been coordinating their stance.

The point is, Moscow always wanted to work with the US and NATO in Afghanistan. Its first preference remains the same even today.

As regards Iran, it also is carefully navigating its relations with the US, fully conscious that the top priority is to safeguard the nuclear deal of July 2015 and not to get into a confrontation with the US.

Tehran takes a nuanced view of Trump.

In regional politics, Iran's primary focus happens to be on the stabilisation of relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council States -- Saudi Arabia, in particular -- and on consolidating its hard-won victory on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.

With regard to Afghanistan, security considerations have always been Iran's number one priority -- border security, drug trafficking, security of the Hazara Shia community.

Evidently, a US surge in Afghanistan to kill terrorists per se does not harm Iran's interests.

Although Pakistani analysts are addicted to the exhilarating great game, the Pakistani elites cannot but be aware that neither Russia nor Iran is really looking at Afghanistan as a turf to confront the US.

The overall Russian and Iranian approach to the US is to negotiate optimal terms of engagement that serve their national interests.

At any rate, it is preposterous that the inherent contradictions in Pakistan's relations with Russia and Iran can be wished away.

Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has been quoted as telling American Ambassador David Hale at a meeting in Rawalpindi that 'We (Pakistan) are not looking for any material or financial assistance from the USA.'

But the remark can be taken for its optics in the domestic opinion.

In reality, though, much as the US' capacity to leverage Pakistani policies have significantly diminished, Pakistan's dependence on the US goodwill also cannot be overlooked in the areas of trade, access to Western financial institutions and banking system -- and even for the maintenance of the western equipment on which Pakistani armed forces continue to depend.

The bottom line, therefore, is that Trump's Afghan strategy can only further strengthen Pakistan's strategic partnership with China and only increase Pakistan's need for Chinese political and diplomatic support.

Given the imperatives of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Beijing can be trusted to ensure that Pakistan's security and stability do not come under US threat.

Equally, Pakistan can rest assured of China's full backing at the political and diplomatic level to frustrate any US attempt to 'isolate"' Pakistan.

At the same time, it is also one hundred percent certain that the US will seek China's help -- if it has not done that already -- to influence Pakistani policies in the interests of regional security and stability.

On its part, China has always been keen that the US joins its Belt and Road Initiative. Afghanistan could turn out to be the revolving door that makes this dream come true.

Trump is well aware of Afghanistan's vast mineral reserves and the challenges in transporting them to the world market.

The New York Times reported last month that:

  • a. Trump personally took up this topic with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani;
  • b. Trump's aides have discussed with American companies the potential for extracting rare-earth minerals from Afghanistan; and,
  • c. that the White House was deputing an envoy to Kabul to discuss the subject with Afghan mining officials.

    To be sure, the CPEC is bound to attract the attention of American/Western companies at some point as the most viable and economical transportation route.

    Indeed, a very engrossing period lies ahead for the US-Pakistan-China triangle.

Click to read more
IMAGE: An Afghan man carries an injured woman from the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, August 25, 2017. Photograph: Omar Sobhani/Reuters

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M K Bhadrakumar