President Donald J. Trump outlined last night the much-anticipated strategy his administration will adopt in Afghanistan, now the United States’ longest war. Trump placed Afghanistan in the context of the larger U.S. fight against global terrorism and mentioned the rise of the Islamic State as the result of a political vacuum in Iraq after the American withdrawal. By placing his Afghanistan decision against the chaos that emerged in Iraq, Trump clarified why he had changed his mind from his initial “instinct,” as he put it, to simply pull out.
He then offered three “pillars” that would characterize the “new” U.S. efforts, which would include the deployment of an unspecified number of additional troops. These new pillars include: the end of a time-bound commitment to Afghanistan and a pivot to a “conditions-based” evaluation instead; the integration of “diplomatic, economic, and military” approaches; and a changed approach to Pakistan, especially the continued problem of terrorist safe havens there. He then added that the growing U.S.-India strategic partnership would also be a “critical part” of the South Asia strategy, and welcomed greater Indian economic assistance for Afghanistan.
These pillars are not so new, actually. To me they suggest a gear shift drawing upon trends already perceptible. While a conditions-based presence differs, for example, from former President Barack Obama’s earlier time-bound troop surge, the deterioration in Afghanistan’s security had already resulted in an Obama administration rethink on a complete withdrawal according to the previous timeline.
Second, the integration of diplomatic, economic, and military efforts is decidedly not new—it simply recognizes the reality that military power is just one tool that has to be in support of some political goal. Trump’s indication that “perhaps it will be possible” to find a political solution between the Taliban and the Afghan government—coupled with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s more direct statement on a path to a political negotiation—again indicates continuity with the Obama administration’s approach. The combination of a more counterterrorism-focused approach in Afghanistan without a stated timeline for withdrawal could, theoretically, prevent the Taliban from just waiting the United States out and could help create conditions more conducive to a political negotiation.
The president’s blunt remarks on Pakistan’s terrorist safe havens publicly affirmed a problem that has become increasingly unsustainable. Pakistan has been a victim of terrorism, but that fact does not absolve the country of its selective efforts to go after terrorists on its soil. In early August, for example, a Pakistan-based terrorist group under longstanding UN Security Council designation, active against India and Afghanistan, took steps to register itself as a political party without any previous indication of renouncing violence. Pakistan has not upheld its obligation to prevent all terrorist elements from operating on its soil. U.S. members of Congress and executive branch officials have already begun to call out Pakistan for its terrorist safe havens, and former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter as well as Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been unable to certify that Pakistan is making “sufficient” efforts to target the Haqqani network. So the Trump emphasis on tightening up on Pakistan marks a stepped-up continuation of a trajectory that has been driven by Pakistan’s choices.
The elevation of India to a more prominent position as part of the larger U.S. strategy in the region marks to my mind the most significant departure from the past. But Trump stated up front the role that India has already been playing in Afghanistan—India is and has been the fifth-largest bilateral donor to the country, and has been a supportive partner to Afghanistan over the years. India has been deeply involved in building infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, and the Afghan parliament; training officials; providing food assistance; and contributing other forms of much-needed development support. We should be doing more with India to support Afghanistan, including helping to shore up its challenged government.
Questions unanswered in the new Trump administration strategy: At what point, and how, will the diplomatic effort kick in to “support an Afghan peace process,” as Tillerson’s statement put it? How will the State Department, enfeebled by a lengthy restructuring and without a full complement of senior officials to run policy, let alone complex diplomacy, execute the responsibility? What role will the Trump administration see for all of “Afghanistan’s neighbors,” as Tillerson stated, in this peace process? These questions will need answers quickly or the “new” South Asia strategy will be left with a military component in search of its diplomatic partner.
My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, will be out in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).