Trump's prospective Af-Pak strategy

Daily: Pakistan Today
Date: 19.07.17

Afghanistan is an important component of the US foreign policy. Former US President
Barack Obama declared the US policy towards Afghanistan in March 2009, just four months
after winning the election. Obama hyphenated Pakistan with Afghanistan by declaring the
Af-Pak strategy. Pakistan was perturbed at this hyphenation, which also meant de-
hyphenation of Pakistan from India. Though incumbent President Donald Trump has not
finalized any policy on Afghanistan, it can be surmised that, in its essential detail, Trump’s
prospective policy would be an extension of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy. Pakistan’s de-
hyphenation from India and hyphenation with Afghanistan will continue.

As per the electoral pledges, Obama’s priority in 2009 was to reduce the presence of US
troops in Afghanistan. However, Obama opted for an escalation followed by de-escalation
policy expressed in his Af-Pak strategy. That is, an upsurge of troops to launch a hammer-
and-anvil operation along Pakistan’s border before any drop in the number of troops.
Nevertheless, Obama kept looking for any plausible way-out strategy which did not reverse
the gains but which could save the lives of US soldiers. This is why Obama heavily relied on
drones and not on US’ foot on the ground. During the de-escalation phase of the Af-Pak
strategy, Obama even tolerated the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban in 2015 and did not opt for
resurge of troops. Trump’s upcoming Af-Pak strategy is also expected to advocate for an
initial surge in US troops in Afghanistan.

Reportedly, the Taliban enjoy a sway over 20 to 40 percent of Afghanistan whereas the
rest is ruled over by the Kabul regime of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Given the vast
rugged swathes of Afghanistan, this percentage does not matter much. What matters is
who is in control of urban centres including Kabul. The major challenge today is that Kabul
is under attack. Both the Taliban and the US-led forces have been trying to focus on Kabul.
The Taliban understand that the world listens to the power which controls the capital. This
is why Kabul invites the attention of the Taliban, who now understand that the world does
not bother about their claim of ruling over any area of Afghanistan. Instead, the world
recognizes those who have a say in Kabul. That is why perhaps the focus of all kinds of
bomb blasts is mainly Kabul, and not other cities of Afghanistan. The Trump administration
thinks that an initial surge in US troops in Afghanistan is important to push the Taliban away
to the point that Kabul survives.

In September 2014, the Bilateral Security Agreement took place between Ashraf Ghani and
the US to have a residual force of about 10,000 troops till 2024. On the ground, the US
retained about 8,500 troops. The purpose of retaining the troops was to maintain military
bases, protect against the invasion by the Taliban and train and help Afghan National
Army. The Trump administration is now mulling over launching a mini surge amounting to
committing about 5000 additional combat troops to Afghanistan. The main purpose is to
bring under control the South-East area of Afghanistan which is frequented by to-and-fro
movement of the (Afghan) Taliban purportedly belonging to the Haqqni network. In Obama’
s Af-Pak strategy, though an amount was pledged for Pakistan, nothing was delivered
under the pretext that financial help would be offered under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act of
2009 (passed into law in October 2010) offering Pakistan 7.5 billion dollars over five years.
However, this time the US has decided to cut the financial support of Pakistan. That is,
Trump’s Af-Pak strategy is coming with little carrots.

In the de-escalation phase of the Af-Pak strategy, the strength of the Obama administration
was to rely overly on drone strikes. This action paid dividends by rooting out al-Qaeda from
the FATA area of Pakistan and quelling the wave of Taliban resurgence. Though drone
strikes are still there, the Taliban seem to have found a way out of the strikes and they are
safely operating around Kabul to disturb its tenor of life. Keeping Kabul calm is the foremost
priority of both the Kabul regime and the Trump administration. That is why it is expected
that the US would opt for more drone strikes even during the escalation phase of Trump’s
imminent Af-Pak strategy.

Obama’s Af-Pak strategy also focused on reconciling with the Taliban coming to terms with
the new realities in Afghanistan. This area might offer another challenge to the Trump
administration because making the Taliban respect the strength of the Kabul regime
requires a pre-requisite of humbling the Taliban. The Taliban sees any version of the
peace process in terms of US and its allies’ abandoning Afghanistan and giving in to the
Taliban. However, the US sees the peace process in terms of Taliban’s adapting
themselves to new political realities of Afghanistan. The NATO is expected to toe the US
line. The escalation of troops coupled with more drone strikes may serve this purpose and
this means that a limited war may be witnessed around Kabul and in the South-East region
of Afghanistan in coming weeks.

Generally speaking, in the post-2001 phase, there are five major areas where the Taliban
have been facing the challenges of reconciliation. First, Afghanistan has to run on a
constitution based on western ideals of democracy, though the constitution can be
tempered with Afghan traditions. Second, the Taliban will have to forgo the dream of
replicating the Islamization of medieval ages in Afghanistan to make it an Islamic Emirate.
Third, human rights, especially women rights, need to be at the centre of the system.
Fourth, the economy of Afghanistan has to be developed along industrial lines. Fifth,
Afghanistan has to abide by international norms and treaties.

In the context of constitution, which is essentially federal, Afghanistan stands divided into
two halves. The educated westernized and progressive Afghans see a solution for the ills of
Afghanistan in a federal constitution whereas the conservative and religious Afghans see
their future in a political system dipped in authoritarianism. The Taliban belongs to the
latter. The roots of ethnic discontent is that a Taliban is necessarily a Pashtun but a
Pashtun has to be a Taliban through his actions. That is, only those Pashtun are the
Taliban who act in the Taliban way. If one does not act, the boundary of distinction is
blurred.

The transition from Obama’s Af-Pak strategy to Trump’s prospective Af-Pak strategy has
become possible because the Taliban think that the departure of all foreign forces from
Afghanistan is an important pre-condition for bringing peace to Afghanistan. However, the
US thinks that the departure is not possible unless the government running the Kabul
affairs gets independent in its security and management affairs. That is, who will go first is
one of the major challenges.  

The US is not ready to leave Afghanistan to its own fate to let Afghanistan once again
becoming a hotbed of terrorist networks seeking sanctuaries in Afghanistan and launching
attacks on the US. It is yet to be seen what Trump’s Af-Pak strategy brings along to address
this part of the challenge.

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