Editor’s Note: Senator Mushahid Hussain is Chairman of the Pakistan Senate Defence Committee. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
President Donald Trump’s much touted Afghan strategy – which is a U-turn on his original views – is essentially a facelift of a tried, tested and failed formula.
It is a surge, of sorts, backed by a rap on the knuckles for Pakistan (which remains an abiding and favorite scapegoat for US failures in Afghanistan). It is a sop to India, more symbolic than substantive. And it gives carte blanche to the military to pursue what is now an unwinnable war without end against a faceless and stateless enemy.
Pakistanis would critique the Afghan strategy of President Trump on three counts.
First, 16 years and $1 trillion later, what can 4000 more American troops do which over 100,000 American troops could not achieve?
Second, injecting India into Afghanistan – whom Pakistan accuses of using Afghan territory to foment violence in Pakistan’s border regions – is a sure recipe for a Pakistan-India proxy war on Afghanistan soil.
Third, with no military solution in sight for Afghanistan, regional diplomacy, involving Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia, is more in need than anything listed above.
Although President Trump has said that he recognizes the “contributions and sacrifices” of the Pakistani people who have “suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism,” he has also accused Pakistan of “continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
Such talk is counter-productive, given the Pakistani people’s sacrifices (over 60,000 soldiers and civilians dead) and the fact that Pakistan today is probably the only Muslim country to have waged a successful anti-terror fight.
As a pivotal regional player, Pakistan today has greater room for maneuver in foreign policy. Pakistan has a close rapport with China and Russia as well as the Central Asian republics, serving as the hub of a growing regional economic connectivity. And US clout and leverage is much diminished today.
With Modi’s India divided and polarized – and bogged down in problems with neighbors like China, Nepal and Myanmar – Pakistan has strategic space in which it can operate.
Despite all the above, Pakistan can see a small glimmer of hope. President Trump has clearly spelled out his definition of victory in Afghanistan, which he reduces to “preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.” So when President Trump talks of an “honorable and enduring outcome,” it is similar to President Nixon’s “peace with honor” mantra just before exiting Vietnam.
Moreover, Trump, for the first time, has put the onus on the Afghan government, stating “our commitment is not unlimited and our support is not a blank check,” and the “government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political, and economic burden” adding, he is looking for “real reforms, real progress, and real results,” plus warning Kabul that America’s “patience is not unlimited.”
There is also a new emphasis on the economic dimension as part of the overall diplomatic and military strategy towards Afghanistan. This was made clear when Trump talked about India. He said that it “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.”
Having taken this long to formulate what is essentially new wine in an old bottle, the politician in President Trump probably saw an opportunity to score some points with his domestic audience while announcing a foreign policy – something he has struggled to do in the past.
Unlike Russia, where he has refused to be critical of Putin, on Afghanistan, he has conveniently conformed to the traditional position of the American security establishment.
Trump's Afghanistan plan
Apart from sharing the American Establishment worldview on Afghanistan, he has also outsourced the war to his generals and commanders in the field where he has made it clear that there will be no “micro-management from Washington DC” and that he has already “lifted restrictions placed by the previous administration on action to be taken in the battlefield”.
By handing over responsibility to the military, should the outcome be negative, Trump feels he will escape the blame or the consequences of defeat.
With little over 40% of Afghanistan already under the influence or control of the Taliban, according to the most recent quarterly report to the United States Congress from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Trump’s war rhetoric is a throwback to the last days of the Vietnam War, when President Nixon resorted to the Christmas Bombing of Hanoi in December 1972 with the intention to bring the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to the conference table.
Very soon, the realization will dawn on President Trump that the road to peace in Kabul lies through Islamabad, and Islamabad will be ready for the call that will come from Washington seeking a helping hand to extricate the United States from the Afghan quagmire.