Nothing To Cheer About

Trump’s New Afghan Doctrine

Raman Swamy

India's foreign office is not normally known for swift endorsements of major military doctrines and foreign policy statements by leaders of other countries.

Yet, within a few hours of US President Donald Trump outlining his new military strategy for Afghanistan, the external affairs ministry in New Delhi issued a statement welcoming it—even though there could be certain implications for India that warranted deeper evaluation.

Trump's speech began at 6.30 am Indian Standard Time on Tuesday morning and by afternoon an official spokesman in New Delhi was ready with a positive response appreciating the American president's "determination to enhance efforts to overcome the challenges faced by Afghanistan and in confronting issues of safe havens and orher forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists.... India shares these concerns and objectives."

Had Trump's address been a simple and straight-forward policy statement, the alacrity with India came out with applause would have been appropriate and even admirable.

But it was a complex and multi-layered policy pronouncement containing as many blunt statements of intent as nuanced and suggestive allusions. There was much that Trump spelt out in clear unambiguous terms but there were also many details left deliberately vague and non-specific.

Moreover, the basic theme of the new Afghan policy was from the US military perspective, addressing issues uppermost in the minds of most Americans—Early disengagement or a new surge of American troops on the ground? Fight to the finish or efforts for truce with the Taliban? War on terror outfits or regime change or down-grading of American involvement to a non-combatant and purely advisory and training role?

The answer to all such questions seemed to be on the hawkish side—1) there will be no US troop withdrawal; 2) there is no question of repeating the Iraq mistake of leaving a military power vacuum which would be quickly filled by terrorist organizations like ISIS, Al Qaeda and Taliban. 3) nor will there be any deadline for defeating the enemy.

In other words, there was a lot that was left unsaid even while reasserting that America was determined to extricate itself only after achieving complete victory.

Effectively, what it amounts to is that there is a great deal which military, diplomatic and geo-strategic experts would have to analyse for many hours and days before assessing the import and implications for neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan. Trump's speech warrants careful study and hasty endorsement by New Delhi would not be prudent.

Certainly, a significant part of his speech—dealing with Pakistan—sounds like music to Indian ears. Here are a few relevant quotes :

"A 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 very 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 US service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace".

For India to welcome this portion of the speech is understandable and even perhaps justified.

However, Trump's references to India are worthy of greater scrutiny and only an exercise of reading between the lines will elicit the full ramifications.

He said: "Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world's largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.

"We appreciate India's important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the Untied 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".

What does this really mean? Why did the US President suddenly bring in his point that "India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States" (a reference he has made earlier too about climatic change)?

The External Affairs Ministry would do well to decipher the expectations of the Trump Administration with deeper analysis before issuing a blanket endorsement of the new US Afghanistan policy. It is a virtual South Asia doctrine, with roles assigned to both Pakistan and India in the war against terror.

Vol. 50, No.11, Sep 17 - 23, 2017