by Derek Eggleston, a third year International Relations Undergraduate at King’s College London, focusing on US. Foreign Policy
With the Mueller investigation and outrage over the lackluster response to Charlottesville hanging over the President’s approval ratings like the sword of Damocles, last Monday, Trump decided to try something new: behaving like a President. Around 9 PM E.D.T the President rolled out a guiding path (dare I say strategy?) for how his Administration will be dealing with the nearly 16-year ongoing American military presence in Afghanistan.
The speech Trump gave represented a new thing for the President, the prioritization of the opinion of experts above his gut instinct. This was apparent, implicitly, with his meetings at Camp David the previous weekend as well as explicitly mentioned in the speech. His campaign rhetoric of pulling out as quickly as possible is no longer a legitimate reality for Trump who is operating under a continued U.S. strategy that maintains leaving a void for extremism and terrorism to breed is an unacceptable outcome. But as to the specifics of his strategy, what do they represent? Will they work? This article will take a cursory glance at some key elements of the Trump Administration’s South Asian strategy and conclude with the implications of these findings and how they should be engaged.
A first facet of Trump’s strategy is that “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on”. From a military perspective, this is a sound statement. Time and time again, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) progress on the ground has been stifled due to the unpopularity of conflict at home. A good case study of this is the Moshtarak Campaign, whose efficacy amongst the British-led incursion into Nad-e-Ali was blocked due to domestic uproar over the disproportionately televised coverage of the failures of the American-led incursion into Marjah. American domestic opinion (fresh with memories of failed conflagrations in the Middle East) is a concrete barrier to tactical advancement on the ground, so Trump’s willingness to not allow it to dictate terms has the potential for success. However, this success is not guaranteed. Despite indicating the U.S. will use its economic, diplomatic, and military apparatus to have a cohesive focus on achieving strategic outcomes in South Asia, he also indicated we are there to ‘kill terrorists’ and not nation-build. The question which naturally follows is how Trump defines nation-building. Does he make the common mistake of conflating nation and state building or will the two be differentiated? This is an important question to ask, does this include development of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) as well as domestic services such as the Afghan National Police (ANP)? Whilst their advancement has not gone perfectly and significant issues such as desertion and drug abuse remain, ISAF’s willingness to work towards their development and build the state security apparatus has been one of the few things essential to a successful future. Trump wants the U.S. to stay the course and not leave a vacuum, to do so requires necessary state building and development which one would hope is certainly present in Trump’s strategy despite a desire to not involve the United States in nation building. These concerns only deal with the military side as well. It is safe to say using these conditions rather than public opinion deciding foreign policy will certainly mean heavy opposition to Trump domestically who will see prolonged presence, regardless of situations on the ground, as nothing more than the bellicose markings of a hawkish President. He will have to address these concerns domestically.
A second key pillar made very apparent in his speech was ambiguity. The days of America announcing dates and numbers are no more under his Administration. Whilst the number argument could go either way, as one could argue releasing the numbers can be used to intimidate the enemy, his refusal to announce dates does represent an improvement upon existing U.S. actions in the area. Obama infamously announced the U.S. surge in Afghanistan, but in doing so added time constraints, indicating the U.S. would begin their withdrawal in 18 months. Although the withdrawal was eventually slowed down towards the end of his second term, such a statute of limitations handed a clear strategy to the enemy: leave the country, go hide in the FATA or Balochistan, then return in 18 months once troop presence has gone down. Obama made a conscious choice to please his Democratic base with a promise of a specified pull out, ultimately to the detriment of tactical success. He would later have to reverse his position, which left his game of balancing domestic support and tactical success a house of cards in which he could sustain neither. The ambiguity of American presence is one of the more legitimate aspects of Trump’s new strategy.
A final key point in the speech was how Afghanistan played into a broader South Asian strategy, particularly how the role of Pakistan and India would be innately linked with America’s goals in Afghanistan. As for Pakistan, Trump’s strategy leaves a lot to be desired. Despite being an official partner of the U.S., Pakistan’s complacency in a strong terrorist presence in both its own country and Afghanistan has put it at odds with the West. Trump has thrown out the carrot and sharpened the stick to coerce Pakistan into falling in line. However, this is nothing more than asking Pakistan to work against its own strategic interest. Instability breeds anti-Western and Indian terrorism, both of which the Pakistani Government (dominated heavily by the security apparatus) has long tacitly supported. The stabilization of Afghanistan into a stronger state integrated into South Asia both politically and economically has long been India’s goal. The realization of such a state, which would likely be more sympathetic to India who is fostering such an end, would place Pakistan in a pincer grip between India and a state sympathetic towards India. It does not take expertise to realize this is not a strategic end Pakistan will support. Furthermore, Trump does not have expendable amounts of leverage in coercing Pakistan to accept such an undesirable outcome. Pakistani reliance on American aid has reduced significantly in recent years, and Chinese investment provides a crutch for Pakistan to fall on should the demands of the U.S. become unbearable. In Pakistan, Trump is pushing for the government to work against its own interest, and he has reduced leverage to force them to do so. It will certainly take a deal-maker as good as Trump thinks he is in order to sort out the complications of this request.
All in all, the President’s speech left a lot to be desired. Many of the particulars need to be worked out, and the strategy remains unclear and its success remains dubious. In the end, he will probably make similar mistakes to his two predecessors, who made the mistake of straddling between commitment to tactical success on the ground, and maintaining enough distance to placate Americans. Without a clear end goal, military presence will continue with neither enough will to fully withdraw nor enough to truly commit the massive resources that would truly be required to effectively eliminate the Taliban from the region. However, an attempt at a coherent foreign policy strategy is a remarkable improvement from equivocating neo-Nazis and people who do not like neo-Nazis. But then again, Trump is the President of the United States and should not be given kudos or points just simply for acting like a President and doing the bare minimum. There is also an onus on civil society to proactively engage with his strategy. Rather than being weighed down in analysis discussing whether or not the strategy is a distraction tool to shift focus from domestic failures, there is a necessity to engage the strategy critically and examine its efficacy in such a hostile region. As an American, I hope for the best, but in the end there is still a long list of people I would rather handle our geostrategic conflicts and interests in South Asia than Donald Trump.