In a rare primetime address to the nation on Monday, US President Donald Trump gave shape to his administration’s foreign policy approach toward Afghanistan.
In an embarrassing about-face, Trump reversed his earlier views on Afghanistan saying that “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11”.
This is a departure from what presidential candidate Trump had called for during his election campaign, “an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan”. His stated objective now is to fight on and win.
Targeting terrorists, not terrorism
Trump delivered his address to an audience of uniformed men and women of the armed forces from Fort Myer near Washington, DC. His speech started with an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by American soldiers to preserve the nation’s values and way of life. He pledged to give them the necessary tools and means to complete their job in Afghanistan.
Trump tried to set clear goals for victory: “Attacking our enemies, obliterating the ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”. The wording might be a tad different, but these objectives were already part of the US policy in the region during the presidential terms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Going after the terrorists is justified in the short term, yet it cannot be an effective long term solution for eradicating global terrorism. It is essential to first address the political causes which compel some people to choose the path of violence against civilians as a political tool for change. Terrorists take recourse to such tactics as they believe it is the most effective option – if not the only one – available to them.
Trump’s approach does not draw any medium to long term vision for resolution of conflicts not through violence but by political means. Even if the military is able to exterminate terrorists in Afghanistan and stops providing them safe havens in the region, it will not stop lone wolves from conducting terror attacks. The struggle will continue unless the root causes are addressed, an important issue that Trump neglected to address in his speech.
Trump’s approach does not draw any medium to long term vision for resolution of conflicts not through violence but by political meansWalid Jawad
The Afghanistan quagmire
The US has been fighting in Afghanistan for over 15 years, which makes it the longest running war in American history. US citizens are said to have limited appetite for lengthy engagements in overseas conflict. From a strategic standpoint, it is important for the US to finish the job that George W. Bush started in 2001. Lack of progress on this front is undermining trust in any plans or promise of success as the cost of war continues to mount along with the number of US soldiers killed in the war.
The history of Afghanistan provides a lesson which the US has found difficult to learn from. In addition, terrorists find Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain advantageous to their cause - both geographically and politically. For many decades, it has shown that an unfinished engagement will only lead to deeper conflict and a disastrous outcome.
This long term involvement is very problematic for the US as it has to reset its policy every four to eight years in line with its presidential elections. Considering the time constraints within which presidents have to operate, Trump did not offer any clear benchmarks or time limits for assessing the progress of his approach.
In the political vacuum left after US supported Afghan and foreign fighters (collectively called the Mujahideen) defeated the Soviet army in 1989, the country turned into a safe haven for terrorists, namely al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, the terrorist group’s leader, took credit for the 9-11 attack on the US. The moral of the story was not lost on Trump, yet he completely missed the lesson.
“We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
In this statement, Trump confirmed that he could not understand the difference between ‘supporting’ and ‘dictating’. Dictating how Afghans should manage the affairs of their nation will not succeed, but without financial and political support Afghanistan will not graduate from a failing state to a functioning one. Thus, terrorism will persist.
A myopic vision
Reducing the US role in Afghanistan to a military-centred one is insufficient for achieving the goals outlined by the president. The manner in which he sought the assistance of Pakistan and India seemed to lack the desired diplomatic finesse.
The influence US has on these competing nuclear powers requires a delicate diplomatic balance. Targeting Pakistan without giving it any credit will only cause resentment and resistance toward advancing US interests in the region.
Although Trump’s strategy appears short-sighted, it appears to be a major political coup. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, is standing by the Afghanistan plan. Indeed, political observers and experts breathed a collective sigh of relief when Trump retracted from his pre-election call to pull out of Afghanistan. Is it a sign of maturity, learning on the job or finally listening to the experts? It is too soon to speculate even as Trump stuck to his speech this time and resisted the urge to speak off the cuff.
But what we know about Trump is that he is all about taking on the next challenge. It is a gung-ho style of governance. However, Afghanistan and the role it plays in the region makes for a complex situation requiring level-headed plans and decision-making. Advancing US national security is a long term process.
The president’s job is to set the policy and step aside to allow qualified experts to frame the appropriate strategies. In fact, foreign policy must strike a balanced diplomatic, economic and defence strategy. It is not possible for a solely military-backed approach to deliver an effective Afghan policy.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.