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If careful, India can help US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan


Donald Trump’s much-awaited strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia is essentially a continuation of the ad hoc strategies pursued by previous U.S. presidents for the last decade and a half — strategies that have contributed to instability in Afghanistan and the region.

Despite his original “instinct” to favor a “complete pull-out,” the U.S. president appears to have caved to pressure from his generals.

Yet, his policy does not address past conditions that, for example, allowed ISIS to spread, to grow, to recruit and to launch attacks in Iraq.

Now these mistakes may be repeated in Afghanistan.

{mosads}First, there is a lack of clarity on whether the present Afghan strategy is counterinsurgency (COIN) or counterterrorism plus (CT plus); ambiguity also exists on the number and role of U.S. troops that will be stationed in the country. Without a clear vision of the end-state, the honorable and enduring outcomes for a U.S. troop increase and prolonged engagement remain unknown.

Second, the shift to a conditions-based approach from a time-based one is a useful departure from earlier U.S. strategy. There is, however, little indication of what will be done to change the conditions that deny space for the 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration of any region in the world.

With his sheer emphasis on “victory” and an aversion to nation-building, Trump’s decision to use kinetic military operations alone will not change the conditions that enable these groups to find the support and the space to carry out their agenda of indiscriminate violence and destruction.

Third, the United States has committed to working with the Afghan government while warning that U.S. support “is not a blank check.” Yet, there is no mention of  efforts to shore up the Afghan government’s institutional capability to improve governance and to deliver services to its people.

Fourth, while President Trump has mentioned the possibility of a future political settlement, such talks must only occur after strengthening the Afghan government’s negotiating potential and its institutional capacity to prevent internal subversion. More important, as Afghanistan heads toward another round of presidential elections in 2019, a repeat of drawn-out, messy elections of previous years would be disastrous.

Fifth, Trump’s plan for Afghanistan is an American plan, with no mention of a role for Russia, China, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or other regional powers. Without a regional strategy of cooperation or containment, those powers — particularly Pakistan and Iran — will continue jockeying for power and influence; the difficult U.S.-Iran relationship further complicates this situation.

Sixth, President Trump has stated that Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror. Despite this public shaming of Pakistan, Trump did not state how he would raise the price for Pakistan continuing such a policy.

On the other hand, much euphoria appears to exist in Indian and Afghan establishments over Trump’s new strategy. His criticism of Pakistan for providing safe havens to terrorist organizations was combined with his urging of India to do more to help Afghanistan — a sharp contrast from previous administrations downplaying India’s role so as to not alienate Pakistan, whose cooperation is essential for U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

India’s “soft power” approach — pledging more than $3 billion in developmental aid for various large- and small-scale development projects in Afghanistan — has earned it significant goodwill among Afghans. By aligning with the United States militarily, India could undermine such goodwill; as the present narrow security-dominated approach of increased reliance of kinetic operations could lead to an increase in civilian casualties and collateral damage, a backlash could occur.

India, thus, will have to craft its policy wisely, and carefully set expectations. For any meaningful U.S.-India partnership to succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, there needs to a comprehensive and long-term approach.

In the security sector, there is a need for training Afghan security forces on counterinsurgency operations; more focus should be placed on building an effective police force and law enforcement mechanisms, both essential components in any effective stabilization strategy. Beyond the selective targeting of terrorist groups, the United States will need  to devise an effective counterterrorism financing strategy to break the “conflict economy” and address the conditions on the ground that enable terrorist groups to thrive in the region.

Poverty and lack of access to basic services have compelled Afghans, particularly in rural areas and the peripheries, to join or support armed groups. There is a need for an integrated business plan to provide skill-based training, irrigation facilities for agriculture, poultry, farming and market access for the revival and growth of the Afghan economy. Educational scholarships for Afghans to study in India would help to address gaps in the country’s educated pool, particularly in public administration, electoral management and the judiciary. Economic alternatives and employment opportunities will deny the insurgents their support base in rural Afghanistan, reducing dependence on the poppy trade, a key factor in the insurgents’ funding.

For any meaningful partnership in Afghanistan, New Delhi will need to prod the U.S. to do more; Defense Secretary James Mattis’s visit this week to New Delhi is one good opportunity for India to elaborate on its position.

But the Afghans have already asked India to play the role of a reliable partner, by signing their first strategic partnership agreement in October 2011 — and it is time for India to play that role on a more serious footing.

Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is visiting research associate at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, and founder and president of Mantraya, an independent research forum based in Goa, India, that focuses on South Asian issues. She has conducted field research in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Follow her on Twitter @shanmariet.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan–Pakistan relations Afghanistan–United States relations Donald Trump Foreign relations of Afghanistan India Invasions of Afghanistan James Mattis War in Afghanistan Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan

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