4 September 2017


Ashok K Mehta 

Donald Trump's U-turn on Afghanistan and termination of the long and tortuous policy-making process are welcome. But two key elements not indicated are the length of the mission and force augmentation numbers

US President Donald Trump’s U-turn on Afghanistan and the termination of the long and tortuous policy-making process are a victory for his Generals. His disclosure at Fort Myers will be remembered not for what he said but what he did not say. Two key elements not indicated are: The length of the mission and force augmentation numbers. While Trump said US support is not unlimited and not a blank cheque, it is not time but condition specific. This deflates the Taliban joke: ‘While the Americans have the watches, we have the time’. The final product is not out-of-the-box stuff.

The happiest person on August 21, the day the Trump policy on Afghanistan was released in Kabul, was Gen John Nicholson, Commander, Operation, Resolute Force. He had been waiting for it since April and the last date given to him was July 18 but it arrived a month later. In the interim, according to the White House grapevine, Nicholson nearly lost his job. The Commander-in-Chief was so upset at his not winning the war that he wanted him replaced with National Security Advisor (NSA), Lt Gen HR McMaster.

It singles out Pakistan for its bad behaviour in providing sanctuaries to the very terrorists — the Taliban and the Haqqanis — who are killing US soldiers. It says nothing about how the US will alter the recalcitrant Pakistani behaviour in order to win an unwinnable war. Options on the table are curtailing funding, declaring Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism, withdrawing status of ‘most favoured non-Nato ally’, sanctioning leaders of terrorist groups and even senior Inter-Services Intelligence commanders.

Trump did not announce what measures the US will take to destroy terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani soil other than to say that it will assist Afghanistan security forces to dismantle them. These safe-havens are vulnerable to surgical strikes by surface and by air and with use of armed drones. Will Trump sanction cross-border armed strikes that his predecessor Obama had rejected?

Lifting of restrictions on offensive operations against terrorist sanctuaries, if approved, could be a game-changer. Ideally, he wants to defeat the enemy by applying instant retribution with overwhelming force and devolving authority to battlefield commanders in contrast to centralised authority the White House exercised in the past.

Trump also said that the US is seeking an honourable and enduring outcome that might include the Taliban in a political settlement. For this, he needs to coerce Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, which they have done in the past. Coercion of the Taliban is also necessary to disabuse them of the notion that they will conquer Kabul. The expected 4,000 US troops enhancement with accretions in North Atlantic Treaty Organisation support will bolster the advice, assist and train capacities of Nicholson’s team.

He was pledging last week in Kabul to annihilate the Islamic State and warned the Taliban to lay down arms and join the Afghan mainstream. He praised the Afghan Special Forces which are to be doubled from 25,000 to 50,000 and fight nearly 75 per cent of offensive operations for never losing. In the first five months of this year, 2,531 soldiers of the Afghan military were killed and 4,238 wounded. That is an average of 18 soldiers killed and 32 wounded every day. Earlier in the year, the attrition rate was much higher (29 killed) and if it is any comfort, the Taliban are taking even bigger casualties. Interestingly, 12,000 phantom soldiers are on the payroll, indicating that corruption has not declined. Meanwhile, the Taliban has vowed to make Afghanistan a graveyard for the US

Making India a strategic partner in Afghanistan is another US turnabout and a red rag to Pakistan. Time was when India’s role and activities were viewed by Washington through Pakistan’s lens. Islamabad had refused to talk to India on Afghanistan as that would legitimise New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan. The same US now wants India to do more than the three billion dollar already invested in economic development and assistance.

Businessman Trump said India makes billions of dollars from US in trade — like he mentioned climate change. India is the fifth largest bilateral aid giver and voted the most popular country in Afghanistan ahead of Germany, Japan and the US year after year. Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan is red line for Pakistan and Taliban.

A bipartisan group of US senators, led by Dan Sullivan, have recommended increased role for India in Afghanistan, some of which is contained in India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011 but many elements are not operationalised. The Bill under the National Defence Authorisation Act, 2018, has not been voted yet. An existing India-US-Afghanistan trilateral is likely to be made more meaningful.

It is Islamabad which is fretting and fuming. From a frontline ally of the US to a frenemy is sharp descent after high value collusion during the Cold War. Expectedly, Beijing has jumped in to support Islamabad’s valuable contribution to fighting terrorism. Islamabad has rejected US allegations of sanctuaries retorting: ‘Making Pakistan a scapegoat for US failures won’t stabilise Afghanistan’. Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has demanded that Pakistan be treated with respect and dignity. Many retired and serving US Generals do not share Trump’s policy of castigating Pakistan and pushing it into a corner.

Afghanistan’s NSA Hanif Atmar and US Generals have made it plain that the defeat of the Taliban is possible only if Taliban and Haqqani sanctuaries in Pakistan are destroyed. Atmar said that they have coordinates of the sanctuaries and that Afghan Special Forces were capable of dismantling them. Since 2004, when US drone strikes first began in Pakistan, 420 armed drones have killed an estimated 1,500 terrorists. The last drone strike was on July 3 in south Waziristan against an Islamic State target. On June 13, drones took out a Haqqani group leader in settled area of Orakzai agency of Khyber Pakhtunwa. This was the second attack outside the agreed drone strike area, the last being the strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in Balochistan after he reneged from talks.

Conversations will take place between US and Pakistan to see if Bajwa’s boys will renounce their strategic assets who are killing US soldiers. They are unlikely to see reason, at least for now. If Trump and his Generals — Kelly, Mattis, McMaster and Nicholson — mean business, only raising the cost for Pakistan will work. Trump told President Xi Jinping, commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army at his Florida retreat dinner: ‘I have left war to the Generals’.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)

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