The longest war in American history — the war in Afghanistan being fought for 17 long years – instead of drawing to a close as originally envisaged, will now be fought with renewed vigour. Last Monday, President Trump unveiled the new US strategy for escalating combat in the trouble-torn country stating, “I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
Faced with an unyielding enemy, billions of dollars spent, almost 2,400 American lives lost and over 17,000 wounded, Barack Obama had officially abandoned the goal of nation building and of total victory in Afghanistan. He had sanctioned the official conclusion of America’s combat mission at the end of 2014.
Obama planned to withdraw all troops by 2016 and their number has fallen from a peak of nearly 100,000 in 2010 to a trough of 8,400. These remaining troops are training the Afghan forces, and engaged in surveillance, intelligence and logistics. So, the Americans aren’t fighting at present, at least officially.
The former President’s plan never came to fruition. Instead, now more reinforcements are set to come in and the Americans are returning for the big fight. “We are killing terrorists,” said Trump, revealing the focus of the new approach.
Change in Plan
The new strategy marks a turnaround by Trump, who before taking over as President had advocated full US withdrawal from Afghanistan with his effusive tweet, “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Let’s get out!”
While acknowledging that his ‘original instinct was to pull out’ especially given ‘the American people’s frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives,’ he explained the three key reasons why it all is changing:
• First, our nation must seek an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifice of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and win.
• Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan, because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before September 11.
• Third, the security threats we face in Afghanistan, and the broader region, are immense. Today, 20 US-designated foreign terrorist organisations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The highest concentration in any region, anywhere in the world.
The ‘Forever War’
Christened America’s ‘forever war’, it dates to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. President George W Bush launched the war after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. The US intelligence traced a link between al-Qaeda operatives who had carried out the attacks and Afghanistan’s Taliban. In response, four weeks after those attacks, the US, with NATO’s support, launched Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.
Bush had then ambitiously asserted that ‘our goal is to help Afghan people defeat the terrorists and establish a stable, moderate, and democratic state”. Little did he realise that he was setting a daunting target. In fact, Afghanistan has always been a tough country to rein in. Simon Reich of Rutgers University Newark, writing in The Conversation says even the British, who “effectively ruled most of the globe for almost three centuries, often ineffectively wrestled with controlling what is today’s Afghanistan”.
Like the British, American forces and their allies may have repeatedly subjugated the Taliban for extended periods, but they have never managed to destroy this hardline Islamic force. This is because, for the Taliban, this is an existential war of survival.
Indeed, the ending of America’s combat mission in 2014 coincided with the resurgence of the Taliban. The Afghan government’s control of territory has been consistently declining since then: In early 2017, it was 57% of the country. And no American administration can afford to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban for fear of bearing political responsibility for any large-scale attack that follows – anywhere.
While laying America’s path in Afghanistan and South Asia, Trump lashed out at Pakistan, ordering it to stop giving sanctuary to ‘agents of chaos, violence and terror.’ “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has sheltered the same organisations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars. At the same time, they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately…” warned Trump bluntly.
Pakistan has been at war with the Pakistani Taliban and homegrown extremists for years, but it has long tolerated the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, which are battling US troops in Afghanistan. Their leaders live relatively freely in Pakistan.
Pakistan fears that Afghanistan would ally with India against it, and sees the Taliban as the best tool for thwarting such an alliance. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries to recognise the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
After Trump’s address, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said US could consider sanctions on Pakistan or cut off its status as a major non-NATO ally if Islamabad does not crack down on the Taliban and other extremist groups.
But isolating Pakistan could push it closer to Russia, China and Iran, further complicating efforts to stabilise the region. Moreover, Pakistan remains a major player in Afghanistan, and will need to be on board if Trump hopes to end America’s longest war.
Pakistan has used its close ties to the Taliban to bring them to the peace table in the past and could do so again, but it will want to preserve its own interests, which appear to be in conflict with the US-backed Afghan government.
Partnership with India
Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy also had a clear role for India. “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,” said Trump.
India has provided $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan since 2001. By exhorting India to scale up its role in Afghanistan, Trump has provided India not just the springboard to step up in Afghanistan but to hem in Pakistan as well.
A New Hope
While Trump’s speech was widely criticised in Pakistan, it was welcomed by Afghanistan’s shared leadership of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
“The regional aspect of this strategy is very clear. It shows that the problem was very well identified,” Abdullah said, referring to Trump’s singling out of Pakistan adding that “the US strategy marks a unique opportunity to ultimately achieve peaceful objectives in the region.”