GAYETI SINGH | 25 JANUARY, 2017
NEW DELHI: In the few days since Donald Trump assumed office, the real estate mogul turned politician has moved to implement a range of executive orders -- on abortion and women’s rights, jobs and trade, immigration and refugee access, and even his very vocal electoral promise of building the Mexico Wall. One of the areas where Trump has remained uncharacteristically silent, however, is perhaps the most pressing issue concerning the United States today -- namely, America’s war in Afghanistan.
As Trump assumes the role of President, the American war in Afghanistan continues. Although most foreign troops in Afghanistan were withdrawn at the end of 2014, the United States remains heavily invested in the region. The plans to rollback American troops were repeatedly extended and modified during Obama’s presidency, and even today, more than 13,000 Nato military personnel remain in Afghanistan, most of whom are American.
At the same time, the Taliban -- who the US dislodged through a military invasion in 2001 -- is quickly gaining ground. Large parts of Afghan territory is now, once again, under Taliban rule, with the group seeing some of its biggest gains yet in the last few years, especially in the provinces of Helmand and Kunduz. Even official reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) have noted that territory under Taliban control has increased steadily over the years, with reports from the ground painting a very worrying picture. Some estimates indicate that almost one-third of all territory in Afghanistan is now under Taliban control or influence, with 80 percent of Helmand now with the militant group.
This, when civilian casualties continue to climb for another consecutive year. As a spate of attacks have occurred across Afghanistan, 2016 will go down as yet another bloody year, with United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) figures documenting 8,397 conflict-related civilian casualties (2,562 deaths and 5,835 injured) between 1 January and 30 September 2016 (the figures for the entire year at yet to be released). The actual figures are likely to be far higher.
Donald Trump, despite the urgency of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, has said been relatively silent -- during or after his election campaign -- on the conflict torn country, and the little that he has said, has largely been contradictory.
In the past, Trump has described the US’ involvement in Afghanistan as a “disaster” -- indicating that US troops should be brought home. However, when he spoke to Ashraf Ghani in December last year, he assured the American-supported Afghan President of Washington’s continuing cooperation. Following the assurance, Trump failed to invite Afghanistan to his inauguration -- sending circles buzzing about the Trump administration’s potentially wavering stance on Afghanistan.
Related to the security situation in Afghanistan is the growing presence of the Islamic State in the country, with a series of recent attacks being claimed by the militant group. Although Trump has put forth a policy of wiping out the Islamic State, there is absolutely no clarity regarding how he intends to do so, and whether the group’s arms and affiliates outside of Syria and Iraq -- in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia (to name a few) -- figure in the larger plan.
Meanwhile, other players -- namely Russia and China -- are flexing their muscles in Afghanistan, with it being no secret that Moscow is in talks with the Taliban. The Ghani-led government in Kabul has been categorical in its displeasure regarding the above. Russia, in fact, hosted a meeting with Pakistan, Afghanistan and China in Moscow last month on the future of Afghanistan.
There is also the issue of US aid to Afghanistan. The US has spent a huge 115 billion USD in aid in Afghanistan, in addition to other military costs. While US officials have told their partners in Afghanistan that US aid and assistance will continue, this statement was received in Kabul with the expectation that Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton will win the election. With Trump now in the driver’s seat, there is concern growing in Kabul regarding the US’ renewed position on the conflict.
Which way the Trump administration will move forward on Afghanistan remains anyone’s guess, but a clue may be provided in two key Cabinet picks. Trump's Defence Secretary, General James Mattis, is a former commander of forces in Afghanistan. The General, previously, has been very vocal in pressuring Pakistan to reign in the Taliban -- on whom Islamabad exercises considerable influence, albeit while maintaining that it does not. Mattis has also urged Pakistan to take further action against the Haqqani network, with Islamabad, once again maintaining that it’s doing its part.
It is important to reiterate that the US position on Afghanistan is directly related on the US’ stance on Pakistan, as many in Afghanistan are of the opinion that Islamabad aids and abets terrorism across the border. Islamabad is accused of differentiating between ‘good’ terrorists and ‘bad’ terrorists, with the former referring to terror groups active in Afghanistan and India, and the latter relating to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other groups waging a war against the Pakistani state. This contention, in fact, has been a constant thorn in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ghani, when he first assumed power, tried to deviate from the previous administration's Pakistan policy and reached out to the neighbouring country. The effort kickstarted a dialogue process with the Taliban, as Islamabad used its influence to bring the militant group onto the negotiating table. However, as the violence continued, Ghani’s administration grew more and more frustrated. The talks fell through, and within a span of a few months, Ghani was speaking a language similar to that of Karzai in open hostility to Islamabad.
The US, on its part, has been walking a tightrope between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and while it has pressured Islamabad to act against terror groups, it has fallen short of openly calling out the Nawaz Sharif-led administration on not doing enough. Gen. Mattis being the pick, however, may indicate that the Trump administration will take a harder stance on Pakistan in respect to the country’s counter terror operations than the previous government in Washington.
The second key cabinet pick who may offer a clue on the US-Afghan way forward is national security adviser, Lt Gen Michael Flynn, who -- like Gen Mattis -- has spoken about Pakistan needing to take a tougher stance on all terror groups, including those active across the border.
The best guess, given all the above, is that Trump’s Afghanistan policy will be centred on increasing the pressure on Pakistan to reign in the Taliban and Haqqani network. Withdrawing any more troops from Afghanistan in the short-term is an unlikely scenario, as -- despite Trump’s position on extricating the US from foreign entanglements -- Washington has far too much to lose. After over a decade of military and political involvement, the US cannot simply exit Afghanistan -- especially as the Taliban’s influence continues to surge -- as doing so will result in what many people would regard as a clear defeat.
That said, pressuring Islamabad to reign in the Taliban and Haqqani network will have its own set of problems, and is far easier said than done -- as the President and his new administration will soon find out.