President Donald Trump’s harsh words for Pakistan while announcing his Afghanistan and South Asia strategy reflects the growing frustration within the US government over Islamabad’s continued support for cross-border terrorism, a former American diplomat said. Trump, in his first prime-time televised address to the nation as commander-in-chief, warned Pakistan of consequences for providing safe havens to terrorists and sought an enhanced role for India to bring peace in the war-torn country. He ruled out a hasty withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan to end America’s longest war. “President Trump tonight presented the nation with his strategy for Afghanistan — a strategy that largely continued the approach of the previous administration, with a few key distinctions,” former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia in the Obama administration Nisha Desai Biswal. “First let me say — the most dramatic shifts were not in US policy towards Afghanistan but in the attitude of the president himself—going from the withdrawal he had advocated during the campaign to essentially continuing, and even augmenting the troop levels for the foreseeable future,” she told PTI. In announcing the strategy, she said Trump acknowledged the potential vacuum, and instability that would result from a precipitous withdrawal. “Continued US presence at current or near current levels, while not enough to stabilise Afghanistan, can at least keep it from collapsing entirely. The president’s announcement will provide some reassurances to the region which feared a US vacuum,” she said.
Biswal said Trump seemed to focus almost entirely on the counter-terrorism mission, again pointing to a narrow mission aimed not at building a stable and viable Afghanistan but merely on preventing deterioration and preventing threats to the American homeland. “A military strategy without an accompanying diplomatic and development strategy can at best be a band-aid to stop the bleeding but it will not address the underlying problems. To be fair, the two prior administrations also failed to successfully address the underlying challenges,” she said. The president’s harsh language for Pakistan reflect the “growing frustration” within the US government —including in military and intelligence circles—with Pakistan’s continued support for terror groups carrying out attacks in Afghanistan and India and its diminishing cooperation with the US, Biswal said. “While the tougher stance may be warranted, I have not seen high-level diplomatic engagement to manage the reactions,” said the former top American diplomat.
The president also prioritised India as a partner that can play a larger role, she said. “While India has provided significant economic assistance to Afghanistan, it has not played a larger political or military role. That has largely been a mutually supported decision — the US, sensitive to Pakistani reactions, did not want Indian boots on the ground, and India for its part also did not want to put its troops into Afghanistan,” she noted.
However, with the US patience with Pakistan wearing thinner by the day, there is less heed being paid to Pakistan sensitivities and a greater expectation that India, with much at stake, should take on a greater share of the burden, Biswal said. And there is much India can do, without taking on a kinetic role. It can provide training and equipment to the Afghan military and provide more substantial support for the Afghan trust fund, she said. “While many will take issue with the president’s blunt language linking trade and burden sharing, I already see efforts by State and Department of Defence to soften the approach to India,” she said. However, for Afghanistan to be successful, stable and economically viable, there must be a robust regional diplomatic strategy, she added.