Trump’s Challenge: Shatter Strategic Stalemate in Afghanistan

  • Pakistan’s role in providing ‘haven’ for terrorists criticized
  • India called upon to help bring stability to tense region

President Trump delivers his policy on Afghanistan. He speaks from the Fort Myer Army base in Virginia. (Source: Bloomberg)

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Faced with a resurgent Taliban and the growing threat from Islamic State, Afghan watchers have little confidence U.S. President Donald Trump’s new approach to the 16-year conflict in Afghanistan will do much to alter the dynamics of America’s longest war.

Pledging more troops, increasing pressure on Pakistan to stop providing a “safe haven for terrorists” and renewing diplomatic outreach to the Taliban, Trump late Monday announced an open-ended commitment to fighting the war in Afghanistan. “We are not nation building again,” he said. “We are killing terrorists.”

Trump’s commitment to Afghanistan bolsters Kabul as it faces renewed violence and could eventually build capacity in the Afghan security forces -- particularly the air force and special forces that are crucial to securing the country and overcoming terrorist groups. However, his pledge of additional U.S. troops does not fundamentally differ from the approach of his predecessors and is unlikely to change the course of the 16-year conflict. 

“Militarization is a recipe for more bloodshed and destruction,” said Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, adding that a “surge of few thousand troops will not change the strategic reality” of the longstanding conflict. “The strategic stalemate will persist for the foreseeable future.”

Responding to Trump’s announcement, the Taliban threatened to transform Afghanistan “into a graveyard for the American empire” if the U.S. does not withdraw its troops, the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in a statement.

Safe Haven

The Taliban now controls or contests 40 percent of Afghanistan, or more than 400 Afghan districts, according to U.S. estimates, and there has long been acknowledgment that Taliban fighters could not have made such advances without significant support from Pakistan. 

Islamabad has been accused of arming and supplying groups, including the Haqqani Network and Taliban, in a bid to assert geopolitical goals using proxy forces. Pakistan’s military in turn has blamed Afghanistan of harboring insurgents.

But after a series of bombings in Kabul, including the deadliest attack on the capital in 16 years on May 31, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani openly accused Pakistan of instigating “undeclared war of aggression” against his nation.

For that reason, Trump’s focus on Pakistan was welcomed.

“President Trump has acknowledged what Americans have known for some time,” said Husain Haqqani, a former ambassador of Pakistan to the U.S. and director of South and Central Asia at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. 

“Pakistan’s regional goals as identified by its powerful military are at variance with America’s interests,” he said. “Trump has clearly decided that he will not let Pakistan block peace and stability in Afghanistan, and endanger itself in the process, while retaining its status as a U.S. ally.”

Pakistan’s military and its foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment, although Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan’s second-largest opposition party, noted the heavy human and economic cost of the country’s support for the U.S. wars in Afghanistan. “Our economy suffered over $100 billion in losses,” he tweeted. “In addition, there were intangible costs on our society.”

Pleas for Patience

In Afghanistan, the government welcomed the U.S. decision to abandon it’s deadline for troop withdrawal.

Trump’s pledge of additional troops does not fundamentally differ from the approach of his predecessors and is unlikely to change the course of the 16-year conflict.

Photographer: Wakil Koshar/AFP via Getty Images

“The specification of a withdrawal date gave a signal to the Taliban and their sponsors,” M. Ashraf Haidari, director general for policy and strategy and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a phone interview. “And so they exercised strategic patience.”

Training and capacity building in the Afghan air force and a new special forces corps was particularly crucial, Haidari said. “We need this process to continue so that our air force is completely operational and on their feet,” he said. “We need capacity building and equipment to build a bigger special forces corps to fight the Taliban and ISIS.”

And he urged patience. “Development takes time,” Haidari said. “Sixteen years sounds like a lot of time. But in terms of development, it’s not much.”

India Engagement

Trump singled out India as a key player in bringing stability to the region. 

“We want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” he said of India.

His comments reflect the deepening U.S.-India strategic partnership, said Shailesh Kumar, a Washington-based senior Asia analyst at Eurasia Group. “India wants to ensure that Islamabad does not gain a foothold or influence in the country,” Kumar said.

India’s foreign ministry welcomed Trump’s new strategy and the attempt to confront “safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists” -- a clear reference to Pakistan. New Delhi also said it would continue offering development assistance to Afghanistan.

India’s government has long been involved in Afghanistan. Since 2001, New Delhi has spent nearly $2 billion in Afghanistan -- a huge sum for a developing country such as India -- on projects including dams, roads and the new Afghan parliament building.

At the same time, Trump’s call for deeper Indian engagement in Afghanistan is likely to fuel long-held suspicions in Islamabad that arch-rival India is using its diplomatic and economic presence in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan.

“He is upping the Indian role in Afghanistan, which basically means upping the ante on Pakistan,” said Imtiaz Gul, executive director at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “That will only mean continuation of hostilities in Afghanistan and instability with little prospect for peace.”

— With assistance by Ismail Dilawar, and Kamran Haider

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