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On August 21, 2017, President Donald J. Trump announced his Afghanistan policy, which until now has seen a number of failures since the U.S. invaded this country after 9/11. In short, winning in Afghanistan has remained a elusive dream. The main architects of Trump's policy were Secretary of Defense, General (r) James Mathis and the National Security Advisor, Lt. General H. R. McMaster. Both are very experienced military officers and both have held high military commands in Afghanistan.
The main takeaway from Trump's speech was that the U.S. intends to stay in Afghanistan for a undetermined period and that Pakistan was the main obstacle to U.S. victory after 16 years of war. In the same breath when President Trump singled out Pakistan, he also invited India, Pakistan's arch enemy, to adopt a larger role in Afghanistan to stabilize the situation. He failed to tell the American people that India, at the invitation of the U.S has been in Afghanistan for the last 15 years.
Pakistan on the other hand has been objecting to this ever since. Because Pakistan sees India taking advantage of this role in sending insurgents across Pakistan's western border who have carried out subversive activities inside Pakistan. Trump's remarks aggravated a already explosive situation.
On September 20, 2017, then Pakistan's prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, visiting New York for the 72nd U.N. General Assembly meeting, was invited to speak at the Council of Foreign Relations and discuss Pakistan's relationship with the U.S. after Trump's new Afghanistan policy. What he said to a question was quite surprising, because until now no previous prime minister of Pakistan had objected to India's presence in Afghanistan with such force and clarity.
On September 26, 2017 U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis travelled to India to seek India's help in Afghanistan and beyond. During a press conference with Mattis and in response to Trump's Afghanistan policy in particular, India's Defense Minister, without any hesitation said that India will not have any "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan. It seemed that India got Pakistan's message that Pakistan will not tolerate Indian armed forces on its western border in Afghanistan. See video clips below:
But before we examine President Trump's speech, it is important to hear what other former U.S. policy makers are saying about the current situation in Afghanistan after 16 years of U.S. war. According to these individuals the Afghan Taliban do not have a capacity to launch terrorist attacks across the globe or attacks inside the U.S. In fact according to Barnett Rubin, who has been involved in U.S. policy making, the 9/11 attacks were not planned in Afghanistan. All this is contrary to what current U.S. policy makers including President Trump say as to why the U.S. is in Afghanistan and why it intends to stay there.
The first explanation is provided by former Deputy National Security Advisor, Lt General (r) Douglas Lute, who held this position in President George W. Bush's second term. Once President Obama came to office, Lute continued to counsel President Obama until 2013. If one is looking for a balanced, informed and first hand view on Afghanistan, Lute fits that profile. The second explanation is by Dr. Barnett Rubin. From April 2009 until October 2013, he was the Senior Adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. Department of State. In December 2001, Rubin, as special adviser to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan, helped produce the Bonn Agreement that put Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan as its President. Hence he too has firsthand knowledge of events that have unfolded in Afghanistan over the last 16 years.
To view the full speech of President Trump and the supporting view of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Pakistan, please see the video's below:
Outlining his new Afghanistan policy, President Trump squarely laid the blame on Pakistan for the failing U.S. policy; that it is Pakistan that has been giving safe heaven to the Afghan Taliban who are the main adversaries against U.S. forces.
Trump said; "We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting...that will have to change and that will change immediately."
Some of these allegations are partially correct, and I will discuss why shortly. But there is little or no discussion as to why Pakistan adopts this policy. Additionally various U.S. policy makers and some senators such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham also blame the Afghan Taliban for their continuing protection of Al-Qaida operatives who conducted the 9/11 attacks. These are voices of those who want to justify keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan indefinitely, which I argue are more for geopolitical reasons. See one such discussion took place on February 9, 2017. See video below:
After 16 years the war in Afghanistan has already seen off the administrations of two former presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Without going into details and mentioning the long list of reasons as to why the U.S. has failed to tame the insurgents in Afghanistan, the general justification the U.S. has used is that if the U.S. were to withdraw from Afghanistan another 9/11 kind of event will likely take place on the American homeland. This web page provide's differing opinions of Americans, military and civilian, who have been deeply involved in the policy making of Afghanistan.
There was mixed reaction to President Trump's speech in the U.S. Below are two video clips of such discussion on mainstream television:
To expand on these complex competing interests. let's start first with the issue of India. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. has solicited the support of India in that country and has received it. Since then the Indian government has funded a number of projects in Afghanistan. In addition, the Afghan government, consisting mainly of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, all a minority groups, send their security forces to India for military training. It should be noted the Afghan government is thin on Pashtun representation, which is the country's majority population, between 40-50 percent. Until any government that is in power in Kabul corrects this reality, it is likely it will face strong opposition from the Afghan Taliban. There is ample evidence that the current setup in Kabul is handpicked by successive U.S. administrations - but that requires a deeper discussion for another time. For our purposes in general here, these developments have made Pakistan most uncomfortable as it fears encirclement by India. It is with consistency that suicide attacks have been launched from Afghanistan inside Pakistani cities since U.S. forces have arrived in Afghanistan. Additionally, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have publically called for a secessionist movement in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, which would result in this resource rich and strategically located province, breaking away from Pakistan. It is highly unlikely that Pakistan will cooperate with the U.S. when it is an openly asking India to be its partner in Afghanistan. The enmity between India and Pakistan goes back to 1947 when these countries were created and volumes have been written on its reasons.
Then there is the other issue of Pakistan's alliance with China, which the U.S. most certainly looks at with anxiety. To neutralize this alliance the U.S. has found India to be a willing partner. Facing these realities, just the Indian factor alone makes Pakistan less of an enthusiastic partner of the United States. Here it seems likely that the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistanis find common interest, which motivates them to rid Afghanistan of the U.S. and India if possible. As the years have gone by it becomes clear that the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a proxy fight between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Pakistan's growing alliance with China is of concern not only to traditional U.S. military thinkers but also of deep concern to the neo-imperial members of the U.S Congress, such as McCain and Graham, whose aspirations of remaining the sole superpower of the world are now under threat. With China's arrival in the Persian Gulf, in Gwadar in particular, China's reach into the Middle East, as well as into Africa, has become a reality.
Without fully telling the American people and the world that U.S. issues go far beyond just terrorism, President Trump singled out Pakistan as the one country that prevents the U.S. from winning in Afghanistan - when in fact the Afghan Taliban just by themselves are a handful for any invading power. If past history is any measure Pakistan must play its cards correctly because the Afghan Taliban are quite capable of turning on Pakistan, which would be a nightmare scenario. In fact some of this is already taking place where the Pakistan based, Pakistan Taliban, have found sanctuary in Afghanistan and have become the proxies of the U.S. and India, frequently undertaking attacks inside Pakistan.
It is important to understand the distinction here. The Afghan Taliban based out of Afghanistan are allies of Pakistan, whereas the Pakistan Taliban, originally based out of Pakistan, are allies and proxies of the U.S. and India, and are given sanctuary inside Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance (Afghan) government, India and the U.S. forces inside Afghanistan.
The killing of over 140 school children in December 2014 in Peshawar was carried out by the Pakistan Taliban who came from Afghanistan. Within hours of this attack, then army chief of Pakistan, General Raheel Sharif, went to Kabul to address this issue with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan. Just to recap on the Taliban groups - once again, the Afghan Taliban (the same people who fought the Soviets) based in Afghanistan, with some of their leadership in Pakistan, is one group. The other is the Pakistan Taliban, recruited by the Indian intelligence and the U.S. from Pakistan, is based in Afghanistan, and it frequently carries out attacks inside Pakistan.
All this shows that a lot was left out in President Trump's speech.
In a strong but measured rebuttal to President Trump's accusations, Pakistan undertook two significant developments. On September 6, 2017 when Pakistan observed the Pakistan Defense Day, in remembrance of the 1965 war with India, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said during a public speech:
“If Pakistan has not done enough against terrorism, then no country in the world has done enough,” the army chief insisted while saying that now the time had come for the world to do more. He also said, “The sentiments of the people are quite clear on the current state of relationship with the US. We don’t need aid. We want to be treated with respect and trust. Our efforts and sacrifices need to be acknowledged.”
Then on September 8, 2017, Pakistan's foreign minister Khawaja Asif traveled to China to meet its foreign minister Wang Yi. During a press conference given by both foreign ministers, Wang Yi said:
"When it comes to the issue of counter terrorism, Pakistan has done its best with a clear conscience. In comparison, some countries [U.S. and India] need to give Pakistan the full credit that it deserves....China supports Pakistan in safeguarding its national sovereignty and dignity...Pakistan has been at the forefront of international efforts to combat terrorism for a long time, which the international community should recognize and appreciate."
The meeting ended with Pakistan supporting China's offer to hold the first trilateral meeting of Foreign Ministers of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan later this year.
It remains to be seen, as to how the U.S. will respond to these regional developments around Afghanistan, which are geopolitical in nature and where the U.S. has been treading water for over 16 years. But one thing has become quite clear that around Afghanistan and South Asia in general, there are two opposing views. One is of China and Pakistan, which desires a more representative government in Afghanistan, devoid of excessive outside influence. The other view is of the U.S. and India which focuses just on terrorism and one that desires a government in Afghanistan which is representative of a minority population and one that not only is allied with the U.S. but also with India, as stated clearly by President Trump.
As we have seen, there is increasing contradiction to the McCain-Graham allegation by former U.S. policy makers that U.S. forces must remain in Afghanistan just to fight those who conducted the 9/11 attacks.
Further perspective is seen in the two video clips of General (r) Lute and Rubin, which took place at the U.S. Institute of Peace on July 14, 2017. These provide a more realistic view of some actual facts on the ground. Particularly that the Taliban are not a terrorist threat of a global nature that the hawks and the neo-conservatives in the U.S. make them out to be. All this shows that the U.S. is in Afghanistan more for more geopolitical reasons and less for terrorism. Main stream media in the U.S., Pakistan and India are completely avoiding this discussion on which rides the prospect for future peace in the world.