Donald Trump's new Afghanistan strategy reflects America's intellectual bankruptcy and is bound to fail

US president Donald Trump on Monday announced an extension of his country’s military presence in Afghanistan. So what else is new?

Ajit Sahi August 23, 2017 08:05:24 IST
Donald Trump's new Afghanistan strategy reflects America's intellectual bankruptcy and is bound to fail

US president Donald Trump on Monday announced an extension of his country’s military presence in Afghanistan. So what else is new?

Actually, it's worse than the same old, same old.

Shortly after he made the announcement, The Atlantic cheekily put out a tweet dated November 2013 from — who else? — but The Donald himself:

Trump’s volte-face before a gathering of US troops only reinforces the grim warning you see at shops everywhere: If you break it, you buy it.

America has broken Afghanistan. Now, Trump is realising that there is no easy way out.

To be sure, Trump doesn't want anyone to think that he shares previous Republican president George W Bush's vainglorious agenda of "spreading democracy" or "nation building" in foreign lands.

While making his announcement on Monday night, Trump clarified that his decision to increase military presence in Afghanistan is only limited to “killing terrorists”. Sounds sexy. But it isn't. It only reflects the American government's intellectual bankruptcy and lack of political leadership. The fact remains that they are unable to cope with the geopolitical demands of bringing peace and stability to South Asia.

But let's stay with "killing terrorists" for a minute. What has America been doing since it invaded that godforsaken country in December 2001 — only a few weeks after the 11 September, 2001 terror attack — if not killing terrorists? How many terrorists remain in Afghanistan that haven't been knocked off in nearly 16 years?

Donald Trumps new Afghanistan strategy reflects Americas intellectual bankruptcy and is bound to fail

File image of Donald Trump. AP

And, if in all these years, the terrorists haven't complied with the very reasonable US demand that they die, then what is the guarantee they will have a change of heart at the new president's vow and get killed in short order?

In August 2016, a “Costs of War” study carried out by Rhode Island-based Brown University estimated that since America's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, some 173,000 people have died in that country and Pakistan.

According to the study, there was “no disputing” the fact that the wars in the two countries “continue to be devastating for civilians” and indicated that a large number of casualties were civilians and not terrorists. In fact, the study counted around 31,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan alone during that period and added that around 7,000 “insurgents” — the scholars’ euphemism for terrorists — had been killed in Afghanistan in 2015 alone.

A study by three nonprofit organisations of physicians from the US, Canada and Germany dedicated to preventing nuclear war, estimated nearly 45,000 insurgents had been killed in Afghanistan by December 2011, in the first decade of the war. That was six years ago. The internet is full of many other estimates by experts which suggest that much higher numbers of Taliban have been killed. And now Trump says many more are left?

“Killing terrorists” sounds even more ignominious than “nation building” or “spreading democracy”. The phrase symbolises a chronic misrepresentation that some kind of terrorists with only an undemocratic agenda grounded in religious (read Islamist) hatred and medieval fanaticism are out to undo all the good the US is doing in the world and that region in particular.

This long-held pretence refuses to acknowledge that the “terrorists” in Afghanistan, though religious obscurantists, have always had a political agenda — self-rule — which is what triggered their armed resistance to Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. The US not only accepted that resistance as correct but also backed it with “treasure”, arms and training, which led to the Soviet Union’s ouster from Afghanistan a decade later.

But when these “freedom fighters” turned against their one-time benefactor — the United States — in the mid-1990s, Washington suddenly decided they were hell's putrid “terrorists” after all, who cannot be bought or bargained with; who, with perseverance, would be wiped out just like unwanted household pests.

Well, as America and Americans already know — or do they? — plan A hasn’t exactly worked out in the 16 years the US occupied Afghanistan and ran it through its surrogates. Even Obama’s plan B —  “winding down” US military presence in Afghanistan and then “exiting” that “theatre of war” — didn’t shape up as intended.

That Trump’s plan C — indistinct from plan A — is bound to fail is evident from what Trump said while making the announcement. He said that exiting Afghanistan was not an option because that would mean the terrorists, who he described as “thugs and criminals and predators and… losers” would flood back into the country soon as the Americans left.

Take a deep breath. Doesn’t this mean that in 16 years America hasn't made a dent in the terrorists’ capacity to reclaim the Afghan heartland?

One sentence from his speech is especially worth quoting in full: “Working alongside our allies, we will break their will, dry up their recruitment, keep them from crossing our borders, and, yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily.” Really? So in 16 years the US has not worked alongside its allies, not broken the will of the terrorists, not dried up their recruitment and not defeated them?

It is also unclear what Trump refers to in promising to “keep them from crossing our border”. Whose border? America’s or Afghanistan’s? Or was that Trump’s colonial slip of the tongue?

It might be worth noting that the RAND Corporation, a noted American conservative think tank, last year bluntly wrote that the “targets of American campaign have survived US counter-terrorism efforts” and “have proven resilient and adaptive. They have morphed to meet new circumstances and exploit new opportunities, and they will continue to do so. The threat remains.”

With regard to the Taliban, the RAND article, authored by Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor to the RAND president, said without much ado that the terror group “remains a formidable foe and will not be tamed”.

And yet, Trump’s speech on Monday provided absolutely no acknowledgement of the utter failure of the American military campaign in Afghanistan since 2001. What came next in his announcement therefore made even less sense: The warning to Pakistan for sheltering terror groups and the exhortation to India to join The Great Game.

Let us for a moment recall what President Bush’s top diplomat, Richard Armitage, told Pakistan’s military intelligence chief, who happened to be in the US during 9/11, a day after the attack. Armitage reportedly told the Pakistanis that if Islamabad didn’t cooperate with Washington, the US would “bomb Pakistan to the Stone Age”.

A decade-and-a-half later there is little evidence Pakistan has “cooperated” with the US beyond tokenism and even less evidence of the US having burst a firecracker in Pakistan, much less bombing it back to the Stone Age.

If anything, over the last six decades, Pakistan has repeatedly spit in the US' face and shown itself an indispensable ally to America's geopolitical designs for Afghanistan and Central Asia. Love it or hate it, the Americans can’t do without Pakistan simply because its assent to any peace plan in Afghanistan is vital to its success.

And the increasing closeness of Islamabad with Beijing over the last decade in matters political, economic and military only means that Washington can ill afford to unclasp from Pakistan, regardless of Trump’s rhetoric. Does Pakistan even care for America’s warnings? It does not. Does America know Pakistan doesn’t care for its warnings? It does.

As for India, one needn’t look beyond the last 16 years to appreciate the limitations of New Delhi’s role in Afghan affairs. India has desperately tried to piggyback on America’s shoulders in Afghanistan since the Taliban government’s ouster in December 2001. One of the first civilian aircraft to fly into Kabul belonged to India. Foreign affairs correspondents joke that there are more Indian diplomats in Afghanistan than there are Indian-origin people in that country.

Successive Indian prime ministers, from Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi have foolishly pretended to be big shots at the Afghan round table. But India has no more than a symbolic geographical proximity with Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s other neighbours, at least on the south, east and north, will hardly let India gain a foothold.

Trump’s request to India and countries of Central Asia countries to play a bigger role in Afghanistan can only be called a pipe dream, perhaps brought on by whatever is lit in that pipe (that he thinks America should be smoking). The three Central Asia countries stacked directly above Afghanistan — Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan — together have a massive 2,800-kilometre border with China and are beholden to their giant neighbour to the east.

Since 1992, when Beijing started diplomatic relations with these countries and two others in Central Asia — Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan further to the west — China has made huge economic and security investments in these nations. Beijing spends top dollar on their infrastructure, including building oil pipelines, roads, and extracting natural resources. China is the biggest source of foreign investment in a region that is awash with Chinese products. Will they allow India an advantage in Afghanistan? That isn't even a question worth considering.

To be fair to Trump, although his singular incapacity as any kind of a statesman is especially evident in the latest strategy, the sheer lack of imagination in plan C is more reflective of the failure of the American political system as a whole.

His predecessor Barack Obama, one of the smartest politicians in a generation anywhere across the world, struggled to resolve the Afghanistan quagmire. In the end, he failed.

America’s scope to bring peace to Afghanistan is extremely limited. And by increasing its military presence there, Trump made that scope even narrower.

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