Pakistan on Trump’s Afghanistan plan: Nope

The president wants to lean on Pakistan's regional rival India for support in Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

President Donald Trump’s new military plan for Afghanistan, announced on Monday, features leaning heavily on Pakistan and India.

In addition to announcing that he would send an unspecified number of U.S. troops to Afghanistan to continue America’s longest war, Trump also accused Pakistan on Monday of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror” and asked India — with which Pakistan has a very contentious relationship — to do more to help. It’s not clear why Trump thought that it would be a good idea to further pit the two nuclear powers against each other to help development in Afghanistan, and it hasn’t been received well so far in South Asia.

Aitzaz Ahsan, Pakistan People’s Party’s central leader, told ThinkProgress that “enormous disappointment” is the dominant response to Trump’s speech in Pakistan. “There is no takeaway for Pakistan at all. Encouraging India to establish itself in Afghanistan is enabling it to create a grip around Pakistan,” said Ahsan, who accused India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “hostility towards Pakistan.”

“Pakistan has been the front line state against terror and has been fighting terrorist organizations on the ground. It has lost more soldiers in this fight than any other country,” said Ahsan, describing his country as a “modern, liberal society which is threatened and in jeopardy because of the extremists groups.”

Ahsan said he hoped Monday’s statement “like many of Mr. Trump’s statements” will “not mean what he actually says – and that the Pentagon and State Department, whose officials are more grounded in this situation and have a better appreciation of Pakistan’s fight against terror… will prevail over what Mr. Trump has said.”

Sameer Lalwani, deputy director at the Stimson Center’s South Asia program, said the strategy might boil down to “trying to coerce Pakistan with a poor set of cards.”

“The strategy hasn’t written off Pakistan in that they’ll never be responsive to U.S. inducements and coercions… and that has been tried multiple times over by the Bush and Obama administrations and ultimately didn’t bear fruit, so it’s hard to see how this will work better.”

“What the intention might have been is to send a message to Pakistan, saying that we can turn to other partners if you don’t cooperate with us. That’s can be a useful threat in theory,” said Lalwani, adding that “the devil is in the details” as “the credibility of that threat lies in whether India is capable or willing to escalate its efforts in Afghanistan.”

India has already been one of the leading providers of economic aid to Afghanistan, and Lalwani said that it’s unclear if it is willing to do more. Economic aid and perhaps some arms sales aside, any military involvement on behalf of India is “very, very unlikely.” Indeed, Lalwani explains that the focus of U.S.-India relations has been to keep China in check and build up India’s maritime capacity to take on a larger role in the security management of the Indian Ocean.

“Ultimately encouraging India to get involved in a land war in Central Asia detracts from that broader objective… India is going to calculate that its not in its best interest to get involved in Pakistan,” said Lalwani.

Then there was a single line in Trump’s speech about both India and Pakistan being nuclear powers, which said Lalwani, was “very confusing” and fraught with danger.

As the United States tries to turn up the heat by looking to India or cutting aid to Pakistan, Pakistan as options too — it can shut down land and air routes that take supplies to U.S. troops to Afghanistan, for instance.

“By applying more pressure on Pakistan, you fuel their worst fears on security issues, and because they’re outmatched conventionally [weapons-wise] they double down on their nuclear capabilities, and that makes things even riskier,” said Lalwani.

The Afghan view: Finally, a plan

Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan lawmaker and women’s rights advocate told ThinkProgress that Trump’s plan was at least something, at a time when Afghans feared that the United States would pull out entirely. The official Afghan response to Trump’s plan in Afghanistan has been largely positive.

“Not only me, but many Afghans have been waiting for a clear position from the United States for a very long time – since the new administration came into position,” said Koofi, adding that given Trump was previously in favor of pulling out, Monday night’s statement left Afghans “hopeful that the longer term strategic partnership in Afghanistan will continue.”

Given that expectation, what Trump offered was seen as a clear strategy on at least two points: “that President Trump has not made his strategy time-bound, but rather, need-bound, and that was very good advice from his advisors that he listened to,” said Koofi.

“The other was his very clear message on Pakistan… right now more than 15 terrorist groups are functioning in Pakistan, including Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, and even some Daesh [ISIS] are coming from there,” said Koofi, echoing a long-standing Afghan view that Pakistan is heavily responsible for the unrest on its soil.

Trump mentioned India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons, and asked that India “to help us more” with development in Afghanistan, but for now, it’s still unclear what shape that would take and to what extend Pakistan would feel comfortable with India’s reach into Afghanistan. This, said Koofi, is a strategy that, while necessary, “will expedite war for some time.”

Trump painted a picture of what victory would look like for the United States on Monday: “Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

But what does victory, to the extent that it’s even possible, look like for Afghanistan?

“Having Afghan security forces standing on their own feet, supporting Afghan institutions, which he [Trump] didn’t mention in his strategy, to engage civilians in the democratic process so that they are a strong nation… a state with a rule of law,” said Koofi. “But [in his plan] there was no talk of civilian engagement at all.”

“These are ambitious wishes, but it’s something that Afghan people would like to see.”