Examining Trump's Afghanistan-South Asia strategy

Daily: Future Directions International
Date: 07.08.19


On 22 July 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and US President Donald Trump met
at the White House. The meeting touched on the relationships between Afghanistan,
Pakistan and India. Their discussion could affect the policies of all three countries.


In September 2014, former US President Barack Obama entered into a Bilateral Security
Agreement with Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, to withdraw American troops from
Afghanistan by 2024. Few people anticipated that a future presidential candidate would
make an electoral pledge, in 2016, to hasten the withdrawal process. Yet, in August 2017,
US President Donald Trump realised the impracticality of his electoral promise. He declared
that his Afghanistan-South Asia strategy centred on the ideas of no hasty exit from
Afghanistan, no nation building in Afghanistan and conditional co-operation to affect
Pakistan’s behaviour.

That strategy posed three challenges to Pakistan: it gave India a major role in Kabul’s
affairs; demanded that Pakistan stamp out terrorist groups operating from its territory to
attack India; and asked it to stop sheltering the Afghan Taliban, which was working to
undermine the Kabul regime.

Regarding the first challenge, Pakistan refused to acquiesce to India’s sway over
Afghanistan’s affairs. Its view was that Afghanistan was Pakistan’s backyard and India had
nothing to do there except work to destabilise Pakistan. That effort was especially evident in
Baluchistan province, which was already reeling under the Doval doctrine. This was
announced in 2010 and was primarily meant to address the situation in Kashmir.

Ajit Kumar Doval, who retired from India’s Intelligence Bureau in January 2005, was
appointed as the National Security Advisor in 2014, to assist the Indian Prime Minister
Narendra Modi. The Doval doctrine, which still exists, is predicated on three principles:
morality is irrelevant, free extremism from calculation or calibration and rely on military
might. There are three subordinate parts to the doctrine: destabilise Pakistan’s Baluchistan
province through proxies, turn Afghans (including the Taliban) against Pakistan and launch
a hybrid war against Pakistan. The central idea is to keep Pakistan busy in its west, to turn
its attention away from the east and Kashmir.

There is another facet to this challenge: Pakistan faced the charge that it sought strategic
depth (or somewhere to retreat) in Afghanistan and, to achieve that objective, supported
one branch of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan tried to allay Indian concerns by saying that it
no longer sought strategic depth in Afghanistan, or to cultivate Islamic militants there to
wage a holy war against India, which was another aspect of the strategic depth policy.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, emphasised those points, both
before Khan’s visit to the US and immediately after it, calling the strategy a dead horse.
That clarification was to vindicate Pakistan’s stance of offering India a minimal role,
bordering on an outright exclusion, in the ongoing peace negotiations in Afghanistan. On
the insistence of US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the US respected Pakistan’s position.

Regarding the second challenge, Pakistan came to terms with the US, albeit reluctantly. In
October 2016, chairing a formal meeting, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif,
informed the Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence, General Rizwan Akhtar, of the
problems the Government of Pakistan faced regarding the alleged militant activities of
Maulana Masood Azhar, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and the Haqqani network in neighbouring
countries. Sharif warned that Pakistan would be isolated internationally if support to the
militants from the military ranks were not stopped. The heated argument that ensued during
the meeting was leaked to the daily DAWN. That story became known as the DAWN leaks,
which became a source of civil-military discord.

Before the Khan-Trump meeting, the US offered Pakistan a face-saving option. On 2 July
2019, the US designated the Baluchistan Liberation Army as a Specially Designated Global
Terrorist organisation. For years Pakistan had been demanding that the US do that. In
response, on 17 July,  Pakistan arrested Hafiz Saeed, who was a founder of the banned
militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. He was alleged to have masterminded the Mumbai attacks
in 2008, and was arrested on terror financing charges. Saeed was considered part of the
implementing machinery of the tacit strategy of plausible deniability, designed to disrupt
peace, primarily in the Indian part of Kashmir. President Trump hailed the arrest as a
victory in the US’ efforts to bring peace to the region. Pakistan expects, in return, that it will
not slide from grey to black on the Financial Action Task Force list, an international
watchdog against money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

Pakistan has shown its inability to comply with the third challenge. Islamabad thinks that any
effort to refuse shelter to the Afghan Taliban would adversely affect millions of Afghan
refugees settled in Pakistan’s western half. Instead, during his meeting with Trump, Khan
pledged to prod the Taliban into participating in peace negotiations with the Kabul regime,
to bring about an intra-Afghan dialogue, especially in the post-ceasefire period. Khan also
pledged to facilitate the immediate release of two foreigners captured by the Afghan
Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2016. Khan tacitly admitted by those actions that Pakistan
enjoyed enormous influence with the Afghan Taliban.

Following on from the admissions that Saeed was part of a terror-financing gang and that
Pakistan enjoyed a profound control over the Afghan Taliban, there are repercussions for
Pakistan. One of them is Pakistan’s over-commitment to implementing Trump’s Afghanistan-
South Asia Strategy, especially since Trump is once again thinking of withdrawing US forces
from Afghanistan before the November 2020 US presidential election. Pakistan has to act
hurriedly. Nevertheless, through these admissions, Khan might be hoping to restore its
reputation somewhat and gain economic relief for his government.

Back to columns in 2019