24 Aug 2017
Trump’s South Asian adventure
At first sight Donald Trump’s address to the American people yesterday offers continuity of US military engagement in Afghanistan. He says ‘my original instinct was to pull out’ but that he was persuaded ‘with my Cabinet and generals to complete our strategy.’
The US will maintain its small force of around 8,400 military personal in Afghanistan, people who are mostly training the Afghan military and police but with some special force operators still fighting a very tough conflict against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Trump says he doesn’t want to talk about troop numbers, but several months ago he gave authority to Defence Secretary James Mattis to increase the US commitment by up to 4,000 more personnel.
As to the time frame for this commitment, Trump rightly says that ‘the American people are weary of war without victory’, but Trump thinks it’s wrong to ‘announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military operations.’ He doesn’t want to say how many more years the US involvement will last. Rather, he wants results which are, frankly, unspecified beyond saying that the mission isn’t nation building, but rather killing terrorists and looking after ‘shared interests.’
One wonders if Trump appreciates the irony of his situation. The candidate who wanted the troops out quickly and had no interest in Afghanistan as a society has become the President which just given his generals a freer-hand, with broader rules of engagement to ‘lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field’ attacking insurgents, terrorists and organised crime. All this without an end date and a substantial growth in military numbers.
Trump’s statement is an untidy presentation of a pragmatic strategy. He was never going to reconcile the outcome with some of his past comments. It’s encouraging that Trump accepted his national security team’s advice. He doesn’t want to repeat Barack Obama’s error of leaving Iraq too eagerly in 2011 only to see the country slip back into chaos. It turns out that the price of protecting American security interests is to ‘work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress.’
Other parts of Trump’s speech are, to say the least, strange, one suspects almost impossible to implement. Billed as remarks ‘on the strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia’ Trump offers five pillars of American policy in the region.
The first pillar is ‘a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions’, which is a recipe for long term if not permanent engagement. Pillar number two is ‘the integration of all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic, and military – toward a successful outcome.’
Well done to the national security wonk that slipped that into the President’s text. It couldn’t sound less like a Trump sentence, and it sits completely at odds with the authentic Trumpism five lines later that ‘We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.’ If anyone can work out pillar two, please let me know.
Pillar three ‘is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan.’ Trump says that America’s policies of ‘paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting … will have to change, and that will change immediately.’
Few countries have paid a higher price from terrorist attacks than Pakistan. If Trump’s implication is that Islamabad can simply choose to close its border with Afghanistan and to stifle extremist sentiment within parts of its population, he is profoundly misinformed. There is no alternative for the US but to continue to work with Pakistan for all that countries many challenges.
Further developing a strategic partnership between the United States and India is Trump’s fourth South Asian pillar. That’s sensible, but alarm bells will be ringing in Kabul and Islamabad with this sentence in the statement: ‘but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.’
Let’s be clear, the larger an Indian presence in Afghanistan, the more Pakistan will read this as an attempt to squeeze at its strategic survival. Nothing could be more designed to push Pakistan closer to China, or to be less helpful to the United States on Afghanistan, or indeed to raise tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Trump says in his speech ‘all my life I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.’ Different and very, very difficult, Mr President. You can’t build a south Asia-policy by trying to extract favours based on aid delivery and trade balances. Issues like nuclear weapons, national survival and regional security get in the way.
Australia’s Afghanistan policy for some years has been bipartisan in supporting a long term military training commitment. This aligns well with the President’s statement. The US will ask friends and allies to make extra troop commitments, but they probably don’t have much expectation that Australia will do more with Canberra just recently increased its troops numbers by 30 to 300.
Australia’s immediate priority should in any event be to step up to further assist the Philippines defeat a so-called Islamic State group controlling the city of Marawi in Mindanao province. We have a compelling interest to knock that group out of the ring before it becomes a deeper threat in Southeast Asia. We also have some proven expertise on military training which is working well in Iraq and Afghanistan. That should be Malcolm Turnbull’s response if Donald Trump makes a call asking for a personal favour.
(Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.)