During his election campaign, President Trump had vowed to end the foreign wars and redirect the resources towards domestic needs such as infrastructure development. He seems to have reversed his position by announcing that more troops will be sent to win the war. In his speech, Trump was tough on Pakistan accusing it of providing havens to ‘terrorists’ who kill U.S. soldiers. He also asked India, a rising South Asian power for assistance in resolving the Afghanistan imbroglio.
Fifteen years after Operation Enduring Freedom commenced, the Taliban in Afghanistan remain a formidable force and no solution of Afghanistan’s future can discount their role. The Afghan government – propped up by the U.S. as part of its state building project – does not have control over nearly half the territory of the country. The Cost of Wars Project at Brown University has estimated that the U.S. has spent nearly $5 trillion wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. Afghanistan alone has consumed $2 trillion. Thousands of American soldiers have also died in this conflict.
Aside from the rhetoric of enduring freedom and exporting democracy, the real issue here is how the war machine influences U.S. foreign policy. No other country spends more on defense than the U.S.; and the mainstream media has been a cheerleader if not a participant in these war ambitions.
Trump’s ‘strategy’ is hardly a strategy. President Obama also employed his infamous surge in 2009 which did not yield any tangible results. Historically, Afghanistan has never been an easy country for a foreign power to control. The British at the height of their imperial power lost wars in the rugged territory and more recently the Soviet Union faced huge losses during its occupation in the 1980s. It is easy to blame Pakistan for sabotaging the U.S. goals than to admit that from the very start the notion of occupying, restructuring and democratizing a complex country was not the best of ideas.
Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan has been a frontline ally of the United States since the 1950s. From Cold War to the anti-Soviet resistance in 1980s to the war on terror, Pakistan has executed American security goals in exchange for billions of dollars in military and civilian assistance. In the case of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s security goals are not in sync with that of the U.S. The key reason for this is the rivalry with India. Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India have fought four wars over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan fears that India may gain influence in Afghanistan and therefore it might be encircled by a hostile power on its eastern and western borders. For years, Pakistan has been tolerant, if not outright supportive, of the Afghan Taliban. And this is the key cause for current fissures in Pak-U.S. relations.
President Trump’s speech was not received well in Pakistan. The visit of Assistant Secretary of State has been postponed at Pakistan’s request. Since 2001, Pakistan has been affected due to the spillover of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. Other than hosting millions of Afghan refugees, a large number of Taliban and Al Qaida militants came to Pakistan after the 2001 invasion. Some of them turned against Pakistan for supporting the U.S. leading to an uninterrupted reign of terror. 70,000 Pakistanis have died in terror attacks. Pakistan has to take some blame for its support to armed militias but conflict in the neighborhood has complicates the situation.
A key reason for Pakistan’s defiance is the deepening of the country’s ties with China investing at least $55 billion in Pakistan as part of its One Belt One Road project that intends to connect China with world markets through a network of roads, railways and sea connections. China and India – both growing economies with huge defense capabilities – are rivals for power in Asia. Many observers view the U.S. strategic alliance with India as a counterweight to Chinese influence. Trump’s invitation for India to play a role in Afghanistan has irked Pakistan’s military. In fact, pitting the nuclear neighbours against each other spells escalation of conflict in South Asia.
The truth is that diplomatic engagement is needed at a time when there is no Special Representative of USG for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hundreds of positions in State Department are lying vacant. Trump’s strategy is largely militaristic. While the U.S. has officially stated that it wants to support a process of reconciliation between Afghan government and the Taliban militia, it is unclear how this will happen given the increased war rhetoric.
The silver lining is that American media have highlighted the pitfalls of Trump’s approach. It is only through informed public opinion that the U.S. war policy can be revised. This is not the time to send more soldiers but to wrap up a protracted war through diplomatic and political means.