President Trump’s Afghanistan policy — Realignment on the anvil?

In his first prime-time televised address as the US Commander-in-Chief, President Trump announced his Afghanistan policy, wherein he pledged an increase in American troops and military degradation of Taliban in the future. He sought an enhanced role for India in bringing peace in Afghanistan as he ruled out hasty withdrawal of American troops. President Trump also issued the sternest warning yet by an American leader to Pakistan for providing safe havens to terrorists.

This can be seen as a radical departure from the previous policy of the United States on Afghanistan. This fact can be substantiated by two arguments. First, this policy is unambiguously focused on degrading the Taliban militarily. Secondly, he has not yet closed the doors of political dialogue with Taliban in future. Mincing no words, he confirmed that the primary interest will remain degradation of Taliban which superimposes itself on the secondary interest. In the past, the western alliance had shown sensitivity to Pakistan’s objections to India’s role in Afghanistan. But this time, to cater to his primary objective, President Trump had to verbally target the safe haven of terrorism in the region i.e. Pakistan, for giving shelter and support to the terrorists. Similarly, he unequivocally supported India’s constructive role in Afghanistan to rebuild the war-torn country. Therefore, this shift in approach is definitely a radical departure from the past.
President Trump did not mention China’s role in Afghanistan despite it being a significant stakeholder in the region. This has definitely irked China which is evident by the way the Chinese Foreign Ministry defended Pakistan’s ‘constructive’ role in Afghanistan. To digress a little, it is not a secret anymore that China was interested in exploiting the mineral resources of Afghanistan, so it was pushing Pakistan to increase the presence of Taliban in the region so that it can work behind the evil shadows of Pakistan to pursue its economic objectives.

America wants India to work more constructively in rebuilding the post-war Afghanistan. India is already the largest aid donor to Afghanistan in the region and second largest export destination for Afghanistan. It has built dams, power projects, roads and other linkages to connect Afghanistan with the international lines of communication and transportation. Inviting Afghanistan as a stakeholder to build the Chabahar Port of Iran is a testimony to this fact. Apart from educating and training the Afghan people and their security forces, India has built the Afghan Parliament, which is an epitome of democracy and India’s resolute support in the legitimate Afghan Government. India cannot dictate the priorities of Afghanistan, hence, it responds positively to the demands originating from Afghanistan and tries to fulfil the same in practical limits. Therefore, India is an independent actor in Afghanistan, which itself is an independent and sovereign country. The relationship between the two nations is based on mutual self-interest, ancient ties (as old as Indus Valley Civilisation) and shared affinities. This process of goodwill needs to be carried forward.

President Trump has removed the initial reservations of the United States of offending Pakistan by allowing India to expand its scope of activities in Afghanistan. Hence, we can expect an acceleration in India-Afghanistan cooperation. There might be a substantial discussion to explore more areas of cooperation where India can assist Afghanistan in areas such as rural development, health and education. Similarly, President Trump has begun giving a setback to the unholy coalition of China and Pakistan in the region, which was aiming for a dominating role Afghanistan. By criticising Pakistan and not mentioning China in his speech, he has cleared that America will not allow them a free access in Afghanistan anymore.

In the pursuit of peace in Afghanistan, the role of Iran is of paramount importance. Trilateral cooperation between Afghanistan, India and Iran over Chabahar Port for an access route is beneficial to all the countries. This cooperation should not offend any country including the United States because the larger objective of stabilising Afghanistan rests on the premise of a stable relationship between these two neighbours and India. For a landlocked country like Afghanistan, multiple access routes are naturally advantageous in its ambition to secure development for itself and stability in the region.

Although the ambiguity over troop numbers remains unresolved, it is quite possible that a new alliance with clear civil and military domains is emerging to outvote China-Pakistan axis. President Trump has assumed the military domain to degrade the terrorists, whereas it has suggested India to assume the developmental role in both civilian and military aspects. What is missing from this equation is the role of other regional stakeholders such as Russia who have turned suddenly active in the region to reclaim their perceived lost glory. As the South Asia policy of President Trump would unfurl itself in the near future, more clarity regarding the troop size, engagement with Taliban factions, strikes in Afghanistan-Pakistan border and most importantly, the role of other regional powers such as Russia, Iran and China would get clearer. Optimistic speculations or pessimistic assumptions are not going to benefit Afghanistan today, but a concerted effort to address the aspirations of Afghanistan Government and its people in an atmosphere free from violence and conflict is what we all should hope for the ‘Heart of Asia’.

About the Author
The author is an analyst who expresses his opinions on matters of global significance. He can be contacted at X (formerly Twitter) using the handle @postsfromVivek.