Trump’s Approach to Afghanistan: Some Ramifications – Part Two

3 October 2017 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • President Trump’s speech highlighting a new approach to Afghanistan has major ramifications for Pakistan.
  • Pakistan runs the risk of losing its friends in the West and having to rely almost entirely on China.
  • That, in turn, could make it a vassal state in all but name.
  • India may need to temporarily sacrifice its goal of strategic autonomy to avail itself of the opportunities in Afghanistan that were presented to it by the president’s speech.


As was seen in Part One of this analysis, President Trump’s statement on Afghanistan has wider ramifications than just for the US and Kabul. China would, undoubtedly, be aware that the Afghanistan policy would have direct and indirect ramifications for itself despite not being named in the speech. India, which the President cited in his speech as being required to play a greater security role in Afghanistan, would welcome the invitation, despite its caution at having that role being predicated upon its favourable balance of trade with the US. It is Pakistan, however, that bore the direct brunt of President Trump’s hard-hitting speech. At a difficult time, when it is trying to balance an increasingly economically-powerful India and risks losing completely its ties to the US, the President’s speech could only be seen as a major blow to Pakistan’s economic development and an undermining of its strategic ties to China.

This part of the analysis will examine those issues and assess Pakistan’s options.


While President Trump began his speech on Afghanistan by referring to the reasons why the US had sent military personnel there and moved next to the reasons why he changed his mind about withdrawing them, he spent the next few minutes of it excoriating Pakistan in none-too-diplomatic terms. Continuing with his third reason for retaining a military presence in Afghanistan, he said:

Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, twenty US-designated foreign terrorist organisations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world. For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror. The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict. And that could happen.… In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world, for that matter.

While both Pakistan and India possess nuclear weapons, India’s nuclear arsenal, as is its military, is controlled by the government. That is in stark contrast to the Pakistani military, which at the very least, appears to dictate policy to the government there. That perception is underscored by the Pakistani Army’s penchant for staging coups against the government. It goes deeper than that, however. The Pakistani Army sees itself as the protector of Pakistan’s very existence; it cannot, consequently, permit a “temporary” government to take any course of action that would jeopardise that existence. This thinking was made material in the Kargil War that was fought between India and Pakistan in 1999.

In that year, believing that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was growing overly friendly with then Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, an overture that culminated in the signing of the Lahore Declaration in February 1999, the Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Pervez Musharraf, deployed troops to the Kargil sector of Kashmir, which was administered by India. The Lahore Declaration was a remarkable step taken by two leaders who showed courage in attempting to bring about a new bilateral relationship. This was anathema to the Pakistani Army and led directly to the so-called Kargil War. When that war ended in failure, Musharraf ousted Sharif in a coup d’état. History was repeated in 2015 when Prime Minister Modi decided on the spur of the moment to travel to Lahore in Pakistan and attend Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding. Any goodwill that could have been generated by this gesture, which was again warmly reciprocated by Mr Sharif, was soon after destroyed by the terrorist attack, allegedly supported by Pakistan’s Army, on India’s Pathankot air base. This led to a downgrading, once again, of ties between the two countries.

General Musharraf did not bother to deny that Pakistan used insurgent and terrorist groups to carry out its operations at times. He also admitted to undermining the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai because the latter was growing too close to India, saying: ‘In President Karzai’s times, yes, indeed, he was damaging Pakistan and, therefore, we were working against his interest. Obviously, we had to protect our own interest.’ He went on to say that agents in Pakistan’s military intelligence unit, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate used the Taliban groups to strike against the Karzai Administration because it was believed to be dominated by officials who favoured India over Pakistan. As he remarked candidly, ‘Obviously we were looking for some groups to counter this Indian action against Pakistan. That is where the intelligence work comes in. Intelligence being in contact with Taliban groups. Definitely they were in contact, and they should be.’

It is that use of irregular forces that President Trump referred to in his speech. Speaking plainly and very directly, he said:

The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists. In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies. The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism. We recognise those contributions and those sacrifices. But Pakistan has also sheltered the same organisations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harbouring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilisation, order and to peace.

The speech caused much angst in Pakistan for several reasons. Its very unusual and undiplomatic directness in a public setting aside, Pakistan was embarrassed at being publicly named as a country that offers terrorists safe haven. Pakistan estimates that it has suffered around seventy thousand casualties in militant attacks since it joined the US-led “Global War on Terror”. It was also offended by the reference to the ‘billions and billions of dollars’ that it was paid by the US to fight terrorists. Foreign Minister Khwaja pointedly noted that Pakistan has lost more than US$123 billion to terrorism since the 11 September attacks on the US. The President’s speech strongly implied, therefore, that Pakistan accepted these sums of money and did not carry out its promises to eliminate the terrorist groups that went on to kill and wound American troops, thus making the country an accomplice to terrorists and terrorism. This led Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan’s largest opposition group to remark that ‘the amount spent by Washington on Pakistan is minuscule in comparison to the losses Pakistan has suffered in the war against terror.’ This perception was enunciated repeatedly by various Pakistani commentators.

It was quite possibly the terminology used, rather than the rationale cited, that caused the most upset in Pakistan. By referring to a ‘commitment to civilisation’, President Trump appeared to indicate that Pakistan could align with the US and fight against uncivilised forces or, by implication, be consigned to being seen as uncivilised by not doing so. That, too, has caused much rancour in Pakistan.

There are, however, more substantial reasons for Pakistan’s dismay. Pakistan has grown increasingly close to China over time. It was that friendship that was instrumental in seeing China invest around US$60 billion in the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”, a network of energy pipelines and road and rail links that is meant to transport energy from Iran to China via the Pakistani port of Gwadar. According to Chinese and Pakistani leaders, this Corridor would provide the impetus to boost Pakistan’s economic growth. There have been doubts raised, however, about the benefits to be accrued from this project and at least one report of a more sinister Chinese “master plan” that hints at the risk Pakistan runs of becoming a vassal state to China. The difficulty for Pakistan in this regard is that whereas China previously refused to acknowledge, let alone agree with, any suggestion that Pakistan supported terrorism, it signed a statement at the BRICS conference in Xiamen on 4 September expressing concern at the instability that terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba brought about in the region. It was the first time that China has signed a statement that specifically named those groups, both of which operate out of Pakistan, allegedly with the support of the state. If Pakistan loses China’s confidence, it would have lost its major friends in both the East and West.

Pakistan, additionally, runs the risk of losing its friends in the Middle East. In August this year, in the wake of the Saudi-led embargo against it, Qatar introduced a visa-free arrangement with around eighty countries to attract tourists and entrepreneurs. Among those, unsurprisingly, were the US, almost all European countries, India, China and Russia. To Pakistan’s dismay, it was not initially favoured with that arrangement and was only added to the visa-free list by the Qatari authorities towards the end of September. While it could be argued that Pakistan was originally excluded because of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, it does not explain why Kuwait has, since 2011, made it more difficult for Pakistani citizens to enter that country. Prime Minister Sharif objected in March this year to the enhanced scrutiny of Pakistani travellers to Kuwait in discussions with the Kuwaiti leadership but to no avail; the enhanced scrutiny of Pakistani citizens travelling to Kuwait remains in place. Islamabad has also fallen out of favour, more or less, with Riyadh after it refused to join a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen, no matter that the retiring Chief of Army Staff was asked to take command of the coalition troops. If Pakistan now falls out of favour with the US and, by extension, with Western Europe, it would become almost entirely reliant, even more so than it is currently, on China. That could leave it in a dangerous situation.

Another danger posed by President Trump’s speech to Pakistan is that it seems to offer encouragement to separatist groups like the Baloch Republican Party. His speech was, in fact, received as such by Baloch leaders in exile, who welcomed the new Afghan and South Asia policy and urged the US to recognise and differentiate between its “friends and foes” in the region. The exiled Baloch leader, Nawab Brahumdagh Bugti, who seeks an independent homeland – Balochistan – that would be carved from Pakistan, said: ‘We welcome President Trump’s statement about new American strategy on dealing with Pakistan.… My grandfather opposed [the] Pakistani plan of giving borders to the Chinese. China is now building a huge military base in border in the pretext of so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which the Baloch call the corridor of death and destruction.’ He went on to add that despite the UN and US designating groups like the Haqqani network and Jaish-e-Mohammed as terrorists, their leaders moved freely in Pakistan while the political leaders and activists in Balochistan Province, through which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes, are subject to abduction and death by those groups. This implied threat was taken seriously enough for ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to warn that the country could be bifurcated again, just as it was in 1971 when Bangladesh became independent.

Replying to President Trump, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a resolution on 30 August condemning the accusation that Islamabad was prolonging the war in Afghanistan and denouncing his speech as ‘hostile’ and ‘threatening’. Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif urged the government to postpone visits by US delegations to Pakistan or by Pakistani officials to the US and to close ‘ground and air lines of communication through Pakistan’ to US personnel and materiel being moved to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s foreign office announced shortly afterwards that it had postponed a visit by a US Acting Assistant Secretary of State to discuss Washington’s new Afghanistan policy.

The reception to the President’s speech was markedly different in India. New Delhi was quick to praise the new approach to Afghanistan for at least two reasons. First, India recognised the value of the US president’s reference to the ‘issues of safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists.’ India, which refers to this issue whenever it can, rejoiced in the fact that Pakistan had been openly named and accused of being complicit in terrorism. The President, moreover, had issued Pakistan with an ultimatum in no uncertain terms, saying that it would ‘have to change’ and ‘change immediately’. Second, India was called upon in the speech to play a greater role in stabilising Afghanistan. This was pure manna despite the slight edge interjected by the reference to Indo-US trade. Whereas Pakistan objected to any role played by India in Afghanistan, India now sees a way to increase its economic, military and political presence there. This call now opens the door to a greater interaction between Indian and US military personnel in Afghanistan, provided that New Delhi takes the opportunity to do so. Such interaction could only enhance the rapidly-growing relationship between the two countries and add to China’s worries. In light of the recent Doklam standoff, this ought to be an opportunity too good for India to miss. Whether India has the political nous to avail itself of the opportunity and to see such a move as a means of more quickly attaining its goal of strategic autonomy, however, remains to be seen.

President Trump’s speech denoting a new approach to Afghanistan was a watershed moment. If that speech is converted to policy and then translated into actions that are carried out in accordance with its letter and spirit, it could mark a change in Washington’s goals there. The US could achieve its new goal of eliminating terrorists and bringing stability to the country because its military would no longer be tasked with nation-building in addition to prosecuting a war while being limited in their decision-making processes. Washington could re-establish a Central Asian presence, giving China and Russia pause for thought. A powerful competitor like China, furthermore, could be forced to review its strategic plans and constrained to a degree, if necessary. This could provide the US with a base to the west of China, in addition to having bases to its east. India could benefit by aligning itself, however temporarily or with whatever reservations, to the US in Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, would be forced to make some very hard decisions, which would set its path for some time to come.

President Trump’s speech has the potential to bring about substantial changes in the region.



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