Why Donald Trump's South Asia policy will only drag on

US' current policy is only old wine in a new bottle.

 |  6-minute read |   23-08-2017
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US President Trump recently announced with much fanfare his new policy towards South Asia, focusing on US commitment in Afghanistan. It was eagerly awaited and when it was finally announced, it had all the trappings expected, with no new surprises. The policy, which had been under debate for months, was expected in July, but finally released a month later.

In simple words, it is old wine in a new bottle, as it fails to take into consideration ground realities in Afghanistan. The policy removes the option of US withdrawing on similar grounds as the erstwhile USSR, in defeat and confusion.

The policy aims to create conditions for seeking an honourable exit from the country. His statement, "The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable", conveyed the fears of the West, that a withdrawal without stabilisation, could result in it becoming the next Syria, however much more potent and dangerous.

The policy clearly conveys a few thoughts. Firstly, Trump has committed the US to an anti-terror war, without any time frame for a pullout. The implication of this versus earlier is that the US will not be involved in nation building, but only in eradicating of terrorists.

Secondly, as was expected, there would be a troop surge of approximately four thousand troops, basically up to four battalions implying possibly a composite brigade strength. It would also enhance increased air operations including drone strikes in support of ground troops.

Thirdly, considering his increased distancing from NATO, it will be a US surge of troops only, with no additional commitment from NATO allies, whose role would continue to be to train and equip Afghan forces, as part of the Resolute Support Mission.

Fourthly, it envisages the continuation of India’s contribution to development and building of infrastructure in the country. However, though not mentioned, India’s supply of military hardware and training support would continue.

Finally, Trump has openly warned Pakistan about its continued support to terror outfits operating from its soil and the support it provides to them. It has thrashed bare Pakistan’s claims that it is also a victim of terror strikes and is facing the brunt from anti-Pakistan terror groups operating from Afghanistan.

This threat, despite continued dependence on the Pakistan port of Karachi for movement of major stores, indicates increased frustration in the minds of the planners on Pak’s support to the Taliban, Haqqani network and other associated groups.

The policy has ignored many ground realities and hence may only delay the inevitable withdrawal of the US, akin to the USSR. At its peak strength, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) had a strength of more than one hundred thousand troops, which could not eliminate the Taliban, while with a surge the present strength would be approximately 15,000.

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Pakistan was a major factor when the US waded into Afghanistan and in the initial phases of the war, however, it is no longer the only player in the country.

While it still supports the Taliban and Haqqani leadership, also termed the "Quetta Shura", many other nations have jumped into the fray, which would need to be simultaneously handled.

Iran is also openly supporting the Taliban by providing them funds, sanctuary and weapons, while simultaneously supporting the Kabul government. Operations launched by the Taliban in Herat and Farah provinces of Afghanistan bordering Iran, clearly have Iranian support.

The Afghan governor of Farah has claimed that Iranian commandoes have been killed alongside Taliban fighters. With increased US involvement, Iran a sworn enemy of the US would only increase its support to the Taliban, adding to US woes.

Russia and China are openly in parleys with the Taliban. There are rumours the Russians are also providing the Taliban with weapons. Financially the Taliban has no shortage of funds as it relies on opium to fund its activities.

For both, China and Russia, support to the Taliban is in their own national interests. Apart from impacting US operations in the country, the Taliban is a sworn enemy of the ISIS, which has established its roots in the country, close to the Pak-Afghan border. The spread of ISIS is of more concern to them than the Taliban. Hence, Pakistan is likely to move closer to them, to offset US pressure.

The US is restricted in handling other nations which have begun dominating the Afghan landscape. It has imposed sanctions on Iran and Russia and relations with both are at the lowest ebb. Iran and the US remain sworn enemies.

China and the US are competing in the South China Sea and relations are on the downward slide over North Korean antics. Hence, while it may threaten Pakistan, it would have limited control over the support being provided by the others.

Further, the US has also failed to consider the internal compulsions of Pakistan. Pakistan cannot do US bidding as it would place its own security at risk. Increased Indian presence in Afghanistan, while reducing Pakistan’s role would be opening its underbelly to Indian domination.

Hence, Pakistan cannot let its strategic advantage, provided by the Taliban, from vanishing. Simultaneously, it cannot accept additional drone strikes across the border targeting the Taliban and Haqqani network leadership, as it would lower the standing and prestige of the army. Thus, it has limited choices.

The US hopes Pakistan would act decisively against the Quetta Shura and push the leadership into Afghanistan, where it could be targeted and reduced in power. However, Pakistan may play the game differently and move the leadership temporarily into Iran, once pressure increases, where the US may hesitate prior to launching drone strikes.

For India, persistence and positive support to Afghanistan have finally paid off. With NATO refusing to cooperate, the US needs other partners, partners it can trust in the long term, hence the entry of India.

It will now be a major player in the region, with the ability to influence future outcomes. It has to convince the US to stick to its guns and ensure that it applies pressure on Pak to dismantle all terror groups on its soil, not just the Taliban and Haqqani network.

The simplicity of Trump’s announcement as against complications in the strategic environment may still spring a collection of surprises for the US. Its ability to negotiate with those with whom its relations are at the lowest will be its main test.

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Writer

Harsha Kakar Harsha Kakar @kakar_harsha

The author is a retired Major General.

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