President Trump’s Fort Myer speech was possibly his most coherent, controlled and unobjectionable public articulation since he took charge at the White House.
His remarks, which indicated more troops for Afghanistan, came down like a ton of bricks on Pakistan’s continued patronage of terrorist groups. The speech was a lucid — and long-overdue — recognition: The United States’ 16-year war in Afghanistan has been floundering partly due to Pakistan’s dualism on terrorism, as well as Washington’s dualism on Pakistan.
Trump’s penchant for going madly off-script was contained by a teleprompter, and his speech was likely overseen by national security adviser H.R. McMaster. The remarks were a sharp shift from President Barack Obama’s tentative nudging of Pakistan in his 2009 Afghanistan address at West Point.
In that famous speech, Obama committed to a troop “surge” in Afghanistan and vowed to start to bring home American soldiers 18 months later. He did speak out against “safe havens” for terrorists in Pakistan. But unlike Trump’s, his tone was confused and conflicted — as if he couldn’t make up his mind on whether he wanted to support Pakistan or admonish it. Eventually, Obama chose to place the United States and Pakistan on the same side of the trenches in Afghanistan, fighting what he called a “common enemy.” Obama’s contradictory framework allowed Pakistan to continue to draw good-terrorist, bad-terrorist distinctions between extremist groups, with its army acting against the Taliban in areas such as Waziristan and Swat — while facilitating groups such as the Haqqani network in Afghanistan and the Lashkar-e-Taiba against India with impunity.
Trump has, at least verbally, abandoned Obama’s equivocation. “The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan,” he announced, calling out the contradiction of paying “billions and billions of dollars” to Pakistan while it is “housing the very terrorists we are fighting.” Trump reminded the world that 20 U.S-designated terrorist organizations were operational in Pakistan and Afghanistan, making that the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world. One of the groups, the Lashkar, which carried out the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, is presently talking about transforming into a political party. That impunity is the precise reason that the Trump administration’s shrapnel attack on Pakistan’s deep state is music to Afghanistan’s and India’s ears.
“Well, I think that Trump was wise to consider many different alternatives and arrive at one that reflects a longer-term view of the region (and its challenges),” Saad Mohseni, often described as Afghanistan’s first media mogul, told me. Mohseni, who launched the country’s first privately owned radio station and the groundbreaking Tolo TV, argues: “America has fought one-year wars, 16 times. Interestingly, Trump — not [former president George W.] Bush or Obama — has opted to adopt a longer-term approach to countering violent extremism. The likes of Mattis, McMaster and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph] Dunford know Afghanistan very well. More importantly, they have witnessed Pakistan’s meddling close-up. They will not be that easily fooled.”
With an estimated 10,000 U.S troops in Afghanistan and about twice as many contractors, the United States has been working on alternative supply lines that can reduce its logistical dependency on Pakistan. Now, Trump has taken it one step further, with a public pivot to India in his address. Beyond his snarky and childish swipe at how many billions of dollars India makes in trade with the United States, the president’s open invitation to India to get more economically involved in Afghanistan is guaranteed to make Pakistan even more apoplectic.
When Trump declared that “another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States,” it was certainly an official acknowledgment of India as the dominant — and responsible — power in the region. India can be forgiven for chortling with satisfaction at the permanent erasure of the long-held hyphen between India and Pakistan. “The comments by President Trump on Pakistan are certainly welcome,” Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of the ruling BJP’s foreign affairs department, told me. “He has rightly blamed Pakistan for being the home ground to terrorism that hits both India and Afghanistan. India is already involved in several development projects in Afghanistan. The appeal from POTUS in this regards will further strengthen USA-India-Afghanistan collaboration.”
India is Afghanistan’s largest regional donor — just last year, it pledged $1 billion in aid to Kabul. It has built more than 2,500 miles of road in Afghanistan, power projects and even the country’s new parliament building. No government in Delhi will take dikats from Washington on its Afghanistan policy. However, Trump’s address underscores the legitimacy of India’s strategic involvement in Afghanistan and presents an opportunity for even more direct engagement.
So what happens next? Pakistan has always looked for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan because of paranoia about India’s rising influence. Trump’s courting of Indian involvement may have two possible outcomes. An enraged security establishment in Pakistan could step up help to terrorist groups to retain control and use it as leverage with the Americans. In other words, brace for an escalation of terrorist violence in Afghanistan. Trump’s repudiation of Islamabad is also likely to push it deeper into the protective embrace of China, drawing the lines for another proxy battle of global superpowers.
In India, no one is holding their breath. People want to see whether this is anything more than mere words. But the warning by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of punitive action against Pakistan (this year the United States withheld $350 million in military aid) has raised hopes.
Can Trump be counted on to not unravel on Afghanistan? What if he tweets the exact opposite — or comes unhinged and has a change of heart? In this one case, Mohseni is putting his money on the president. He tells me what we see as Trump’s weakness may end being his strength when it comes to Afghanistan: “Obama’s mistake was to telegraph his intentions by disclosing his endgame to the likes of the Taliban and the ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence agency]. All they had to do was to wait him out. Trump’s biggest strength is his unpredictability. Folks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are nervous; they are not sure how far he is willing to go.”