Winning in Afghanistan: Trump’s pipe dream

It should be remembered that since the birth of the nation of Pakistan in 1947, it has NEVER been able to exercise military control over its western desert province of Baluchistan and the mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, still less over Kashmir, and eastern Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh. So I think Pakistan’s ability to control events in Afghanistan is very limited.  But they make a good scapegoat to blame when the world’s most powerful military are stuck in a 16-year quagmire, and can’t leave.

With Pakistan off-side, the northern route for supplies becomes even more important, and that is controlled by Russia.

Winning in Afghanistan: Trump’s pipe dream

Dr. Sreeram Chaulia
Winning in Afghanistan: Trump’s pipe dream
Trump’s Afghanistan plan is neither a game-changer nor a sharp departure from what we’ve seen since the George W. Bush administration. But it creates avenues for India to play a larger role in Afghanistan and is likely to cement the Pakistan-China alliance.

Sixteen years into the US’ longest continuing war, déjà vu and quagmire are the two words that best characterize what Bush had considered a first front in a global “campaign against terrorism” and what Barack Obama had termed a “war of necessity.”

Now Trump has jumped on to this bandwagon by arguing that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists” and that “our troops will fight to win” and secure “an honorable and enduring outcome.” With an estimated 4,000 extra American troops slated to be dispatched to Afghanistan, the US will have about 13,000 boots on the ground for an indefinite time span.

Repeat loop

That an isolationist and domestically-inclined president like Trump would disregard his own “instincts” and repeat the formula of his predecessors of open-ended military intervention says something about Afghanistan as a vortex and the ‘graveyard of empires.’ It has a magnetic nature and geographic location which attract foreign players from far and near who end up burning their fingers or imploding.

Trump’s rehashing of old policies is also a sign of how he is being corralled by the Republican Party establishment in Washington. The troubles experienced by Iraq after the total American troop withdrawal by Obama in 2011, and by Afghanistan itself, which was abandoned by another Democrat, President Bill Clinton, in the 1990s, have become staple Republican memes to admonish against hasty pullouts from wars.

The crux of the US conservative outlook is that American military presence in troubled parts of the world prevents collapse, chaos, and extremism. Unsaid but also understood in this assumption is that projecting US military force is the best way to keep America’s regional rivals and competitors in check. Trump has, however reluctantly, been coached into this tradition by the mainstream Washington establishment whom he refers to as “my cabinet and generals.”

Victory in a lost cause

Can America ever win in Afghanistan with a mini surge of merely 4,000 troops when it could not vanquish the Taliban and allied jihadist groups and secure the Afghan state during peak deployment of 98,000 forces in 2010?

Sounding like a mimicker of Obama, Trump has narrowly defined success as “obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda and preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.” But none of these objectives can be realized without a negotiated political settlement to the war in Afghanistan, which Trump himself has admitted “nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” His hope that a firm US military push on jihadists will pressurize them to realize the futility of endless war and coerce them to seek peace with the Afghan government is as naïve today as it was a decade ago.

Having gained control of 40 percent of Afghan territory, the Taliban will treat the minor Trump troop bump as a pinprick to be brushed aside, not a sledgehammer that will erode their onward march. The resilience with which the Taliban continue to replenish their ranks despite losing thousands of fighters every year reveals that governance failures (the Taliban appeal to ordinary Afghans by alleging that the Americans are in their country to prop up “thieves and corrupt officials” of the Afghan state) and ethnic grievances (the ‘Afghan nationalism’ of the Taliban is basically Pashtun nationalism) are at the heart of the malaise.

It is precisely these core socio-political problems which require a comprehensive effort at “nation-building,” a task that Trump, like Obama, wants to avoid at all costs. How can America achieve victory by skipping over the basic disjuncture between its weak will and its grand ambitions of eliminating terrorism and stabilizing the Afghan state? Trump has no answer to this fundamental contradiction.

The India card

The most discussed element in Trump’s new policy is his invitation to expand India’s involvement in Afghanistan. His exhortation that India should “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” was followed up by his Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, commenting that “we’ve got to put the pressure on India that they have to be part of the political solution.

To an extent, this line mirrors the Obama administration praising India and urging it to step up its presence in Afghanistan. But one changed factor is that Trump is less bothered about hurting Pakistani sensitivities than Obama when it comes to bringing India in as a donor and security provider in Afghanistan.

By painting Pakistan as a problematic actor and hailing India as a constructive one, Trump is taking sides much more unhesitatingly than Bush or Obama. So sharp is the contrast Trump has drawn between Pakistan as a negative player and India as a positive one that the strategic establishment in Islamabad has let out howls that “America is in cahoots with India against Pakistan.”

In India, analysts are mulling whether Trump wants just more Indian civilian aid to Afghanistan (New Delhi has spent over $3 billion thus far for Afghan infrastructure and economic development), more military assistance to the Afghan government, or something else.

Since the Taliban are wresting the advantage in the latest fighting season, India is gravely concerned about the possible crumbling of the Afghan state which could embolden jihadists in the entire South Asian region and impact Indian control of Kashmir.

Independent of Trump’s prodding, India has to ramp up its security contributions to Afghanistan to preserve India’s own national interests of ensuring a moderate, non-jihadist Afghan state. It could offer to work alongside the US on strengthening Afghanistan’s Air Force, which remains rudimentary.

Trump is perennially into penny-pinching and asking US partners and allies to shell out more money for common causes. His “pressure” on India to rescue Afghanistan might be an opportunity for New Delhi to go beyond Afghan infrastructure-building and significantly increase its training and advisory capacities for branches of the Afghan military.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should declare all-out support for the beleaguered Afghan state apparatus short of placing Indian combat troops in Afghanistan. To those who worry that Trump’s dragging of India further into Afghanistan will anger Pakistan and make Islamabad even less agreeable to peace in South Asia, relations between India and Pakistan are already at rock bottom and cannot get any worse.

Taking the Pakistani bull by the horns?

If the US muddled through all these years in Afghanistan and will also do so under Trump, it is not only owing to myopic vision and shoddy understanding of grassroots realities, but also a colossal obstacle named Pakistan.

Successive American presidents have held Pakistan in suspicion and distrust for its “double game” of pocketing generous dollops of US military aid (estimated to be in excess of $30 billion since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001) while harboring and training jihadist proxies like the Haqqani network and other factions of the Taliban which attack American forces and keep the Afghan state off balance.

When Bush sent Pakistan an “unusually tough message” in 2007 to halt infiltrating jihadists into Afghanistan, or when Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, warned Pakistan in 2011 not to rear “snakes in its backyard,” Washington displayed it had minimal faith in Islamabad.

Yet, the aid kept flowing because the US calculated that it had no choice but to humor Pakistan to get at least limited cooperation from it. Geographical dependence on Pakistan for the supply lines of the US war effort in Afghanistan, as well as fear that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) would render Afghanistan utterly ungovernable, meant that no American government resorted to extreme measures to rein in Pakistan.

Is Trump going to be a much harder taskmaster? His confidence that Pakistan “will have to change” and “change immediately” its policy of “harboring militants and terrorists” is misplaced. Pakistan has responded defiantly to Trump’s criticism of its role in Afghanistan by saying “Let it come. Pakistan shall do whatever is best in the national interest.” The underlying clash of interest between Washington and Islamabad about the nature of the desired regime in Kabul is such that Pakistan will not cave in to Trump’s diktats.

The leverage that the US has to bend Pakistan to its will is often exaggerated and constantly shrinking. With Beijing pumping investments and loans as part of the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Islamabad’s dependence on Washington’s handouts is not as pronounced as it once was. The mocking reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s threats suggest that Islamabad believes nothing can hamper its current policies of interfering in and influencing Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

Suppose Trump adopts harsh concrete measures of terminating US aid to Pakistan and also revoking Pakistan’s status as a ‘major non-NATO ally’ of the US – ideas dangled by Trump administration figures as likely to be implemented if Pakistan does not cease abetment of jihadists in Afghanistan – the Pakistani military would be affected but not crippled.

Should Trump go further and intensify US drone attacks on Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS fighters sheltering inside Pakistani territory, the Pakistani Army would look to rally citizens under the banner of nationalism and independence from American hegemony, with the assured safety net of China’s alternative patronage.

Pakistan’s game plan is to delve deeper into alliance with China if the US cracks the whip, thereby forcing Washington to recalculate if it might lose Pakistan to China forever and forfeit whatever marginal influence it has left over Islamabad. The proverb that “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” holds good for US-Pakistan relations.

For Washington, Islamabad remains a necessary evil and there is no happy resolution to this complex bilateral equation scarred by what former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani calls “magnificent delusions” and “mutual incomprehension.”

The eternal war

But all said and done, no matter how strictly Trump tightens the screws on Pakistan and how far he promotes India in Afghanistan, the ultimate dream of ending this long, long war is as unattainable today as it was when it commenced in 2001. This is because not everything troubling Afghanistan is external to that country.

Trump is mostly selling old wine in a new bottle and has no global imagination for fixing Afghanistan’s myriad domestic ills. Some interesting geopolitical possibilities are indeed emerging due to his definite tilt in favor of India, but this factor alone is not sufficient to alter the course of the Afghan war. Afghanistan will be different in the Trump presidency. For better or worse is anyone’s guess.


Dr. Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, in Sonipat, India. He is a leading opinion columnist for Indian newspapers on world affairs and a radio and TV commentator on global affairs. He is a contributing editor for ‘People Who Influenced the World’, and has authored ‘International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones’; Politics of the Global Economic Crisis: Regulation, Responsibility and Radicalism (Routledge, New Delhi, London & New York, 2013); and Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister (Bloomsbury, New Delhi, 2016). He tweets on global economic and political developments @sreeramchaulia

The Never Ending War trap

Pepe Escobar always manages to draw a lot of threads into a cohesive picture.

Korea, Afghanistan and the Never Ending War trap

While the US-backed ‘Hunger Games’ in South Korea plow on, a ‘new strategy’ for Afghanistan is really all about business. But China is already there

August 23, 2017


US Army self-propelled howitzers take part in a military exercise near the DMZ in Paju, South Korea, on August 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

There are more parallels between an unfinished 1950s war in Northeast Asia and an ongoing 16-year-old war in the crossroads between Central and South Asia than meet the eye. Let’s start with North Korea.

Once again the US/South Korea Hunger Games plow on. It didn’t have to be this way.

Trump admits defeat in Afghanistan

By setting the bar for victory very low, Trump assures victory and can leave. Gone is the concept of nation-building. Gone is the concept of the Afghan Army being able to defeat the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS on their own. The Taliban may even form part of the Government of their own country (how reasonable is that?).  Instead the US will kill every jihadist in sight, without looking too hard for them, and then cut and run and claim victory in the graveyard of empires.  History will record this as a LOSS.

President Trump’s speech

Thank you very much. Thank you. Please be seated. Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Tillerson, members of the cabinet, General Dunford, Deputy Secretary Shanahan and Colonel Duggan. Most especially, thank you to the men and women of Fort Myer and every member of the United States military at home and abroad. We send our thoughts and prayers to the families of our brave sailors who were injured and lost after a tragic collision at sea as well as to those conducting the search and recovery efforts.

I am here tonight to lay out our path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia. But before I provide the details of our new strategy, I want to say a few words to the service members here with us tonight, to those watching from their posts, and to all Americans listening at home. Since the founding of our republic, our country has produced a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage, and resolve is unmatched in human history.

American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield – for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives, and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds they achieved total immortality. By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission and one shared sense of purpose.

They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed and color to serve together and sacrifice together in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all service members are brothers and sisters. They are all part of the same family. It’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag and live according to the same law.

They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other. The soldier understands what we as a nation too often forget, that a wound inflicted upon on a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt.

And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together. Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate. The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.

As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas, and we will always win, let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name, that when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.

Thanks to the vigilance and skill of the American military, and of our many allies throughout the world, horrors on the scale of September 11, and nobody can ever forget that, have not been repeated on our shores. But we must acknowledge the reality I am here to talk about tonight, that nearly 16 years after September 11 attacks, after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history – 17 years. I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly, lives trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations. That is why shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defense Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia.

My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I have heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the oval office. In other words, when you are president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle. After many meetings over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David with my cabinet and generals to complete our strategy. I arrived at three fundamental conclusion about America’s core interests in Afghanistan.

First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices 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 to 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 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. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq.

As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorists enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for bled to liberate and won were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.

Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world. For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror. The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states, whose tense relations threat to spiral into conflict, and that could happen.

No one denies that we have inherited a challenging and troubling situation in Afghanistan and South Asia, but we do not have the luxury of going back in time and making different or better decisions.

When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into. Big and intricate problems. But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I am a problem solver. And in the end, we will win. We must address the reality of the world as it exists right now, the threats we face, and the confronting of all of the problems of today, an extremely predictable consequences of a hasty withdrawal. We need look no further than last week’s vile, vicious attack in Barcelona to understand that terror groups will stop at nothing to commit the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children.

You saw it for yourself. Horrible. As I outlined in my speech in Saudi Arabia, three months ago, America and our partners are committed to stripping terrorists of their territory, cutting off their funding and exposing the false allure of their evil ideology. Terrorists who slaughter innocent people will find no glory in this life or the next. They are nothing but thugs and criminals and predators, and, that’s right, losers. Working alongside our allies, we will break their will, dry up their recruitment, keep them from crossing our borders, and yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear.

We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America. And we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us or anywhere in the world, for that matter. But to prosecute this war, we will learn from history.

As a result of our comprehensive review, American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically in the following ways: A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. I’ve said it many times, how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military operations.

We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will. Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power, diplomatic, economic, and military, toward a successful outcome. Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban and Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen. America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field.

Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.

The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.

Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists. In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies. The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism. We recognize those contributions and those sacrifices, but Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations 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 same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.

Another critical part of the South Asia strategy or America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic harbor 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.

Finally, my administration will ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work and work effectively and work quickly. I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers, acting in real time with real authority and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy. That is why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.

The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful. As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field, we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS, including the liberation of Mosul in Iraq. Since my inauguration, we have achieved record-breaking success in that regard. We will also maximize sanctions and other financial and law enforcement actions against these networks to eliminate their ability to export terror. When America commits its warriors to battle, we must ensure they have every weapon to apply swift, decisive, and overwhelming force.

Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition. — attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge. We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own. We are confident they will.

Since taking office, I have made clear that our allies and partners must contribute much more money to our collective defense, and they have done so. In this struggle, the heaviest burden will continue to be borne by the good people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces.

As the prime minister of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us. Afghanistan is fighting to defend and secure their country against the same enemies who threaten us. The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do. Afghans will secure and build their own nation and define their own future. We want them to succeed. But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.

We are not asking others to change their way of life but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward. Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country.

But strategically-applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace. 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, political, and economic burden. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress, and real results.

Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open. In abiding by the oath I took on January 20, I will remain steadfast in protecting American lives and American interests. In this effort, we will make common cause with any nation that chooses to stand and fight alongside us against this global threat.

Terrorists, take heed. America will never let up until you are dealt a lasting defeat. Under my administration, many billions of dollars more is being spent on our military. And this includes vast amounts being spent on our nuclear arsenal and missile defense. In every generation we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed.

We prevailed because we know who we are and what we are fighting for. Not far from where we are gathered tonight, hundreds of thousands of America’s greatest patriots lay in eternal rest at Arlington national cemetery. There is more courage, sacrifice, and love in those hallowed grounds than in any other spot on the face of this Earth.

Many of those who have fought and died in Afghanistan enlisted in the months after September 11, 2001. They volunteered for a simple reason: they loved America and they were determined to protect her. Now we must secure the cause for which they gave their lives. We must unite to defend America from its enemies abroad. We must restore the bonds of loyalty among our citizens at home, and we must achieve an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid.

Our actions and in the months to come, all of them will honor the sacrifice of every fallen hero, every family who lost a loved one, and every wounded warrior who shed their blood in defense of our great nation.

With our resolve, we will ensure that your service and that your families will bring about the defeat of our enemies and the arrival of peace. We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts, courage in our souls and everlasting pride in each and every one of you. Thank you. May God bless our military, and may God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much. Thank you.