Trump’s empty threatsTrump’s empty threats

M. Ziauddin
After having reached the conclusion that withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan any time soon could turn the war ravaged country into a base once more for transnational extremism, U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to stay back and fight the war to the last Taliban. His speech on Monday last (August 20, 2017) highlighted the familiar challenges associated with the Afghan theater, namely Washington’s desire for Kabul to take on more responsibility for the war and Pakistan’s role in providing sanctuary for militants. Trump, however, did not give any details of his strategy which while sounding new appeared to be old wine in a new bottle. He did not say how many troops he intended to send in for the new surge. And he did not say how he would reconcile the US need for Pakistan to reach his troops in Afghanistan with essential supplies of fuel and other civilian stuff with his threats to not only stop all aid to Islamabad but also to take out Afghan Taliban allegedly hiding in the country’s settled areas. He has invited India to help out Afghanistan with economic assistance but sounded as if he wants New Delhi to foot the renewed war bill if not in full but at least in part as according to him India is making as much as $30 billion from its trade with the US. He did not say why India, at least 50 per cent of whose population is living below the poverty line and which has already invested $3 billion in Afghanistan divert more resources to a war which does not appear to be winnable? The reason why he has invited India to share the financial burden of the new surge could be because it was on India’s insistence that he finally decided to enter a never-ending, low-intensity conflict. And the Indian reason for its insistence could be its own fears that once the US troops left Afghanistan the country would fall to Taliban which in turn would mean an effective terror weapon in Pakistan’s hands which it could use to increase pressure on its 700,000 troops occupying the Indian held Kashmir. One should not also ignore the fact that the US has already decided to promote India as its proxy in its pursuit to keep China from challenging Washington’s global hegemony. So, perhaps in order to prime India to play the US proxy against China more effectively Washington has decided to agree to India’s request for not leaving Afghanistan any time soon.  It seems a number of important factors other than India’s insistence has also gone into persuading the U.S. to decide to stay in Afghanistan for an indefinite period.  Considering that the full sized deployment of 150,000 troops until about 2011 could not pulverize the Afghan Taliban from Afghanistan the US seems to have dissuaded itself into giving up attempts to resolve the Afghan imbroglio.  It now simply wants to manage the crisis so that the Afghan government is enabled tomaintain control over key urban centers and more capably manage the insurgency.  The 2014 NATO drawdown exposed the organizational weaknesses of the Afghan National Security Forces, which in turn enabled the Taliban to resurge. In the years since the bulk of the International Security and Assistance Force thinned out, the Taliban have reportedly made territorial gains of around 40 percent — 11 percent captured for sure, and a further 29 percent contested. And even this number may underestimate the real extent of Taliban control of Afghan territory. The group even briefly captured the city of Kunduz in 2015, marking the first-time capture of a major urban center by the Taliban in the current war’s history. Also, since Washington wants to prevent Afghanistan from once again playing host to transnational extremist organizations capable of attacking the United States and its allies the US would like to ensure that the Afghan Taliban are kept engaged militarily as well as through negotiations.  But when Pakistan sees Afghanistan, it sees India for obvious historical reasons including the problem of Indian Occupied Kashmir and the way India intervened militarily to dismember Pakistan in 1971. So, from Islamabad’s viewpoint, India represents an existential threat vastly superseding any danger posed by al Qaeda, or any other jihadist outfit that targets the Pakistani state, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter.  Therefore Islamabad is clandestinely supporting the Taliban to extend its strategic depth as a means of hedging against a potential Indian military thrust. Pakistan’s expectation is that in exchange for receiving its support, the Taliban will maintain an anti-India posture upon entering the power-sharing agreement widely expected to someday draw the war to a close. Ultimately, Islamabad wants to avoid the presence of what is perceived as a hostile power on both sides of its border. These factors will prevent an easy resolution to the conflict, something that Washington is well aware of. In some ways, it might be simpler to actually work out a deal with the Taliban, but even that option is seeded with problems now. The Taliban has gradually become a decentralized organization with a core leadership overseeing various — and occasionally competing — factions. This undermines the unified face needed for successful negotiations.  Moreover, any attempts to pull India into a more active role in talks would only strengthen Pakistan’s resolve to delay the start of meaningful negotiations until Islamabad feels it has achieved a more favorable outcome in Afghanistan. It could also push Islamabad even closer to China.  Nonetheless, India will still try to use this opportunity to extract Washington’s support in a growing trilateral alliance between the United States and Japan — especially as China has stared India down into withdrawing meekly from the Himalayan front face-off. Indian forces have now gone back behind their boundary line accepting Chinese condition that negotiation can only start after India withdraws from the position it has occupied near the ‘Chicken Neck’. Neighboring powers including China and Russia, meanwhile, want a stable Afghanistan, but prefer Washington to manage the country’s security. But mindful of the fact that the US is building up India to fight its proxy war against China which Washington feels would in due course of time challenge its global hegemony. In the final analysis the new Afghan policy of Trump sounds like a non-starter because the very country it is threatening to punish and against which it wants to let loose India provides the US the all- important life-line through which it supplies fuel and other civilian goods to its troops stationed in the land-locked Afghanistan. One recalls that the US could not withstand the 8-month long closure of this route by Pakistan in retaliation to the Salala incident in which the US gunship helicopters had killed as many as 26 Pakistan soldiers in November 2011. Pakistan had demanded an apology but the US finally came up with an apologetic regret because it was finding the alternate route through Central Asia too long, too cumbersome and too expensive. And now this route too has gone out of its reach because of increased Russian influence in the CA region.

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