The winners and losers in Trump’s Afghan Strategy – 1

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M K Bhadrakumar |

India and China are the only two regional capitals that have commented on the US President Donald 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 distance. Among the regional states, India and China can be regarded as ‘winners’ – unlike Pakistan, Iran, and Russia.

INDIA

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

Already it is apparent that his speech has received the mixed reaction in the US. There is widespread skepticism among the US foreign and security policy elites over his decision to deepen the US involvement in a military mission

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.

Read more: Will Trump’s ‘new’ Afghan strategy be successful?

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:

Afghan  government has so far given a dismal performance. Trump did not say a single word in his entire speech praising President Ashraf Ghani

  • 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.”

Read more: Pakistan can pull the plug on the US

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.

Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, the political, and economic burden

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.

Read more: Old wine in a new bottle

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

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

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 program in Afghanistan. Trump would argue that the US is, after all, 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”.

Read more: President Trump’s speech and our reactions

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.

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

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, the political, and economic burden.

Read more: Trumps’ new Afghan strategy- recipe for war, destruction and mayhem

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 Jan. 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 the counterterrorist operations.

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

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 driven 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 the mixed reaction in the US. There is widespread skepticism among the US foreign and security policy elites over his decision to deepen the 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.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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