President Donald Trump has signaled an open-ended involvement without an identifiable end game by announcing a conditions-based approach instead of a time-based approach to the Afghan war.
In his first major national address on a key foreign policy challenge, Trump spoke in terms of ending the focus on nation-building and instead concentrating on “killing terrorists”. The speech was an about-turn on his frequent assertions during his presidential campaign and prior to that of pulling out of Afghanistan.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts; but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every angle,” he said.
He spoke in terms of “an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices” that America has made without quite defining what that outcome would look like. He also seemed to implicitly rule out “a rapid exit” because its consequences are “predictable and unacceptable”.
The President’s clearest focus was on the presence of terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Today 20 U.S. designated foreign terrorist organisations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region of the world,” he said.
In what would be music to India’s ears, he also said, “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror” but added a caveat saying, “The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict.”
Trump specifically sought India’s help in the Afghan war, calling New Delhi a “key” strategic ally even as he pointed out how it made billions of dollars in trade from America.
While the speech was mostly a dressing up of past policies, he tried to make it sound as if it was a radical departure. In fact, his emphasis on a conditions-based approach clearly foreshadows an extended and even permanent US presence in the country.
That brings into focus yet again the folly of the Afghan war as the US approaches the 16th anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan on October 7. The sheer financial cost of the endeavor seemingly without an end game tells a story full of follies.
So far, Washington has spent close to $800 billion dollars on the Afghan war, making it an average of about $49 billion dollars a year since 2001. Contrasted against Afghanistan’s 2016 GDP of $19.49 billion that cost of war illustrates one of the scandalous follies.
When the US invaded Afghanistan less than a month after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, its GDP was $2.46 billion. The nearly ten-fold increase may seem good in and of itself but the moment the annual cost of the war is factored in the picture goes terribly out of whack. America has spent between 24 times and two and half times of Afghanistan’s GDP between 2001 and 2016, respectively and yet the country remains in as much ferment, if not greater, as then. According to the World Bank, its gross national income (GNI) rose from $210 in 2004 to $670 in 2013 to begin to decline to $580 in 2016.
According to several reports, the Afghan government’s writ runs only in about 64 per cent of the country. Violence remains very high. According to the UN, a total of 3,498 civilians were killed and 7,920 were wounded in 2016. Some 61 percent of all civilian casualties were caused by armed Islamist groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Since 2009, when such record-keeping began the civilian casualty figure has nearly doubled. In 2009, 2,412 civilians were killed and 3,557 injured bringing the total to 5,969. In 2016, it touched 11,418.
With the conditions having clearly worsened in the last one year or so, the President’s so-called new approach already has an intrinsic sanction built in for a prolonged engagement. Although he did not talk in terms of injecting more troops, there are expectations that it may well happen soon.
One discernible change in approach is that Washington will no longer micromanage the war.
“I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, DC does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and front line soldiers acting in real time — with real authority — and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy. That’s why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” he said.
Such an approach is likely to intensify targeted strikes across Afghanistan against ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
For India, the important takeaway from the speech is that the Trump administration will lean on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to step up to the plate and show a greater willingness to get involved. It is not clear if Trump expects India to get involved militarily, a prospect New Delhi would shudder at given its own tensions with China and Pakistan.
By : Mayank Chhaya
(Mayank Chhaya is a senior journalist based in Chicago. He can be contacted at [email protected])