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In Outrage Over Trump's Jibe at Modi, a More Vital Message on Afghan Policy Was Overlooked

More important though was what Trump said or implied on the current US approaches on the Afghan issue; that should be closely scrutinised by India’s security managers.

Vivek Katju |

Updated:January 9, 2019, 6:04 PM IST
In Outrage Over Trump's Jibe at Modi, a More Vital Message on Afghan Policy Was Overlooked
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump.

US President Donald Trump’s disparaging comments on the nature and quantum of Indian assistance to Afghanistan during a long rambling televised Q&A session at the White House on January 2 justifiably raised an angry reaction in this country as well in Afghanistan.

More important though was what Trump said or implied on the current US approaches on the Afghan issue; that should be closely scrutinised by India’s security managers.

The Afghan war is America’s longest war. It has gone on for more than 17 years. Perhaps for the first time, a US President candidly expressed public disappointment with the military’s performance when Trump said the “Generals did not do such a good job in Afghanistan…. they have been fighting in Afghanistan for nineteen (sic) years…. I have not been happy with what General Mattis has done in Afghanistan”.

Mattis recently resigned as the US Defence Secretary. A principal reason for the military failure is because the US political class simply let Taliban safe-havens continue in Pakistan. That prevented US forces from striking at the Taliban’s roots and enabled the insurgency to constantly renew itself. Trump had himself put Pakistan on notice to close the safe-havens but that position has now been abandoned.

The Taliban, the Afghan government and all concerned countries and parties engaged on the Afghan issue can only make one assessment from Trump’s comment: that the US leadership has no confidence left in the nation’s military to secure interests in Afghanistan. This impression will be strengthened by what Trump said after pronouncing that US generals had failed in Afghanistan.

After rambling on about Mattis for a few minutes, Trump said, “We are going to do something that is right. We are talking to the Taliban; we are talking to a lot of different people”. Taken together, Trump’s remarks show the US has essentially accepted that it is in a position of grave and irremediable weakness in Afghanistan.

After Trump’s criticism of the military, the Taliban who, as it is, are not making any concessions, in their discussions with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative on Afghanistan, will now harden their stand. They are unlikely to show any flexibility on the Afghan government’s demand that they should negotiate directly with only them.

The Trump administration had somewhat distanced itself from reports that half of America’s present strength of fourteen thousand troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn soon. However, Vice-President Mike Pence remarked a few days ago, “Trump is in a process of evaluating whether to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan”.

With Pence’s endorsement that a partial withdrawal is under consideration, the perception that Trump has decided to quickly cut and go from Afghanistan will only grow. And this impression will be further corroborated by Trump’s comments on what India, Pakistan and Russia need to do.

Trump rhetorically asked, “Why are we there—we are six thousand miles away”? He went on, “But I don’t mind, we want to help our people, we want to help other nations and you have terrorists, mostly Taliban but (also) ISIS”. These words were in the context of his observation—and an obvious complaint—of the reason why India, Russia and Pakistan which were countries in the region but not present in Afghanistan when the US which was “six thousand miles away” was engaged in fighting the Taliban.

Trump’s meaning was clear that these countries should be militarily engaged in Afghanistan with boots on the ground.

Trump’s desire of Russian and Pakistani military involvement shows an amazing ignorance.

The Afghans would never accept the former because they attribute all the decades of trouble to the Soviet ingress in 1979. Except for the Taliban, almost all Afghans consider Pakistani interference responsible for the country’s continued destabilization.

India did well to clarify immediately after Trump’s remarks that it will not send soldiers to Afghanistan. Indian assistance is extremely popular but no Afghan has ever suggested that Indian should be fighting in Afghanistan. Again, these comments only strengthen the conclusion that Trump wants to rapidly get out of Afghanistan.

The main casualty of Trump’s impatience and moves is the Afghan government. It seems to be hoping that the larger US establishment will prevent a troop pullout that may leave a destabilised Afghanistan. That would be a repeat of 1989, when the US simply abandoned Afghanistan after it succeeded in defeating the Soviet Union which had to order a humiliating withdrawal.

Reading the writing on the wall, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah are trying to consolidate the National Unity Government (NUG). They have persuaded former intelligence chiefs Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khalid to join it as Interior and Defence Ministers respectively. These were timely appointments of men of proven ability and deep reservations against the Taliban but who will now be severely tested in the field.

Ghani and Abdullah have to do more to impart a sense of purpose and unity to the disparate Afghan political class in a year in which Presidential elections, delayed presently till July, will have to be held. They also have to assuage the continuing concerns of the non-Pushtoon ethnic groups about the Taliban. They also have to ensure that the NUG, after the US example, is not marginalised by regional and international players especially, Iran, the Arab Peninsula countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the Central Asian states, China and India.

The visit of the Afghan NSA to Delhi was timely to further develop India-Afghan ties particularly in the security sectors.

The main beneficiaries of the Khalizad-Taliban negotiations are Pakistan and the Taliban. The latter’s international legitimacy is growing; its ideological moorings are being overlooked on the supposition that their thinking has evolved. It is standing by its demand that all foreign forces should leave Afghanistan for the reconciliation process to even begin.

It has not indicated any interest in power sharing by joining the NUG. Khalilzad is displaying great strategic distress which the Taliban are exploiting.

As Afghanistan enters a new period, India will have to activate and maintain contacts with all Afghan players, including the Taliban, and the international community to secure its interests.

(Vivek Katju is former Indian diplomat who served as a secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs.)

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| Edited by: Ahona Sengupta
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