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Trump's Afghanistan strategy raises stakes

Masood Saifullah | Shamil Shams
August 22, 2017

While Kabul has hailed President Trump's Afghanistan strategy, Islamabad is livid over the US' criticism of its "Islamist support." Experts say it will increase uncertainty in a volatile region with anti-US sentiment.

US President Donald Trump announcing his Afghanistan policy
Image: picture-alliance/Pool via CNP/MediaPunch/M. Wilson

US President Donald Trump finally announced his much-awaited Afghanistan policy in a televised speech on Monday. Not only has the announcement ended a long period of ambiguity over the US role in Afghanistan under Trump, it also certainly eased Afghans' concerns that their country could be abandoned by Washington in the face of a resurgent Taliban and an emerging threat from the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist group.

In his speech, Trump admitted that his first instinct was to pull out US troops from Afghanistan but after months of deliberation he decided against it. He stressed that "the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable," which could leave a "vacuum" that terrorists "would instantly fill."

Read more: The war for Afghanistan: Washington’s successes and setbacks

The government in Kabul, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, predictably lauded Trump's policy. Many Afghans are equally relieved the US would continue to engage in counterterrorism efforts in their country.

Ehsanullah Menhaj, a Kabul resident, told DW he was anxious the US might pull out completely from Afghanistan and leave the country at the mercy of a weak government, the Taliban and the warlords.

"I was worried that Trump would announce the end of US mission in Afghanistan. That would have triggered another civil war in the country," Menhaj said, referring to the conflict in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s.

"Thankfully, it did not happen. Many questions remain unanswered but at least we now know the US will stay here," he added.

Read more:Donald Trump will own the Afghan war in victory, his generals will in defeat

Trump announces new Afghan strategy

A wise strategy?

But Trump's Afghanistan strategy raises many questions. He refused to provide details about additional US troops he plans to dispatch to the war-torn country. The president also did not mention when he plans to send more soldiers to Afghanistan or, more importantly, how is he going to win the longest US war?

Wadir Safi, a lecture at Kabul University, believes the Afghan government could benefit from this ambiguity.

"I think it is a wise decision not to divulge all details about the strategy," Safi told DW.

President Ashraf Ghani's government shares the view. Shah Hussian Martazawi, a spokesman for Ghani, welcomed Trump's announcement, saying the US would determine the specifics of the new strategy based on the rapidly changing conditions.

"The new strategy has identified threats and challenges the region faces and, therefore, we believe Afghanistan and the US would benefit from it in the long run," Martazawi told DW.

Read more:Afghanistan waiting for new US strategy under Trump

High stakes

But too much guessing could also benefit insurgents and their regional backers.

Musawiq Wardak, a resident of the northern Balkh province, is skeptical of the new US strategy. He says it will increase uncertainty.

"The situation in Balkh is changing. Taliban militants are gaining strength in this part of Afghanistan. I need to know how Trump and his generals plan to deal with it," Wardak told DW.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says there is nothing new in Trump's Afghanistan policy.

"I was actually struck by how there was so little that was new in Trump's strategy," Kugelman told DW.

Siegfried O. Wolf, director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), said: "The success of the Trump administration will not be measured by achievements with regards to nation-building, social and economic development but rather by how effective the terrorist threat that emanates from the region gets addressed," Wolf told DW.

Read more: Resurgent Taliban and a government in disarray

The Pakistan 'problem'

Experts say that Trump's Monday speech is a clear indication that Washington's focus remains on resolving the protracted Afghan conflict by means of deploying more troops. This strategy has failed miserably in the past, they point out.

"The situation in Afghanistan got worse for many reasons, though troops were not one of them, or at least not the main reason. You can look at a variety of factors - weak and corrupt Afghan governments, resilient Taliban, militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, and so on," Kugelman said.

President Trump did slam Pakistan for providing "safe havens" to Islamists. Although, the previous Obama administration was critical of Islamabad's alleged role in destabilizing its neighboring country and backing factions of the Taliban to counter Indian influence, Trump was a lot more open and clearer on this subject.

"We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations," Trump said, warning that US military aid to Islamabad could be cut.

"We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting," he added. "That will have to change and that will change immediately."

Read more: India's partition and 70 years of proxy jihad

"Trump threatened to get Pakistan to change its ways, but he offered few specifics. Previous US presidents have tried to address the problem too, with little impact. I'm not optimistic Trump will be any more successful. Pakistan has little incentive to alter its policy, rooted in a deeply held strategic interest of maintaining ties to the Taliban to keep India at bay in Afghanistan, just because the US wants it to do so," Kugelman said.

The Pakistani military heavily depends on US aid but it has other financers also, mainly China, and to some extent Russia. If Trump's Pakistan censure will not be translated into a clear-cut policy and actions, it could prove to be even more devastating for the region. Pakistani authorities, particularly its powerful military generals, will take it as Washington's weakness and get closer to Beijing in the meantime. China has already hinted its support for Pakistan following Trump's Monday speech.

"Many people in Pakistan think Trump's speech was influenced by his close ties with India and that the US president ignored their country's 'sarcifices' in the war against terror," said Shah Meer Baloch, DW's correspondent in Islamabad.

Mir Hasil Khan Bezanjo, Minister for Ports and Shipping, told DW Trump's speech reflected his policy toward the whole of South Asia.

"I think that US policies toward South Asia are shifting drastically. The US has declared India the leader of South Asia and approved of its role in Afghanistan. It is a paradigm shift. It demands that all stakeholders in Pakistan should revise the old strategies," Bezanjo told DW.

SADF researcher Wolf says it remains to be seen to what extent Washington is willing to act to rein in the Pakistan threat to Afghanistan.

Analysts say that without tackling the Pakistan problem, the conflict in Afghanistan will remain unresolved, a fact Trump clearly highlighted in his speech. It could prove to be a new starting point.

Read more: 'Trump administration has zero patience for Pakistan's terror policy'