Method in the Madness?
It has only been three weeks of Donald Trump as president but seems more like three years. Be prepared to age faster and get more wrinkles in the age of Trump.
He has already “broken” and “repaired” the China policy, welcomed the Japanese prime minister right after, shaking his hand for a record-breaking 19 seconds in a subliminal message to Xi Jinping, rebuffed Australia, dissed Mexico, warmly welcomed Canada’s Justin Trudeau and blocked a former Palestinian leader from a UN job. To be noted: he had two normal calls with India. In some cases, Trump walked back from the brink: his advisers recently told the Europeans the nuclear agreement with Iran would be honoured, not ripped up. On Israel, he moderated his extreme support for settlements: he no longer considers Israeli settlements “a good thing for peace”.
And Trump has already lost his national security adviser Michael Flynn who had to resign for allegedly hinting to the Russians that sanctions might be lifted once Trump took over. Washington already didn’t like him, the Russian scandal did him in.
Oh, the short memories in Washington! Didn’t Ronald Reagan’s men make a deal with Iran to delay the release of American hostages until after the 1980 election in exchange for arms, a.k.a. the Iran-Contra scandal? Go back further to 1968 and find Richard Nixon scuttling the Vietnam War peace talks so the Democrats won’t get electoral advantage. It is a tradition.
But Washington is raging against Team Trump for being confused, ch- aotic, clueless and riddled with typos. Yes to all that, but is there any method in the madness?
The retreat on China steered by the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, may be tactical. The scripted exchange satisfied China and that’s all good. It was the bonding with Japan’s Shinzo Abe that was more significant from a wider Asian security perspective. A home run, the Japanese media said. Trump may return to the drawing board on China after taking measure of Vladimir Putin, the man who has made himself pivotal to so many calculations for so many countries so quickly, India included. But to change anything on China and Russia, Trump will have to fight all of Washington, including stalwarts of his own Republican Party like Senator John McCain. Where he sees an opportunity, McCain and Co. see reasons to implicate Moscow.
Somewhere in the mix is Afghanistan and what Trump can or would do about America’s longest war. It’s mired in a deadly stalemate. And 2016 saw Russia and Iran carving space in Afghanistan and work in symphony with Pakistan and China.
This quad is attempting to set the table. India has had to shout to be heard and force its way into the Moscow- sponsored club.
Trump will have to take a call sooner than later: send more troops to quash the Taliban or continue with Obama Administration’s policy of tying US troops in knots while refusing to equip Afghan security forces enough to fight back. Reason: Pakistani objections.
Good news: some powerful people are tired of this fail-fail strategy. McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants US troops to win instead of following a “don’t lose” template. The US military seems to agree. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, gave an unusually frank testimony in front of McCain’s committee last week, arguing for more troops, a clearer winning strategy and even declaring Taliban a terrorist organisation. He called for a “holistic review” of Pakistan policy, a country he blamed for the stalemate.
“It’s very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” True that, said the senators who went on ask pointed questions about Pakistan. McCain and other Republicans see an opportunity to push for a new approach with the Trump Administration.
But this is where it gets complicated. Nicholson sees Russia as the new villain in Afghanistan. Its motives and methods are suspect. The Russians are in Afghanistan to undermine the US and Nato, not to fight ISIS, Nicholson said. They want revenge for being forced out the first time by US-financed Mujahideen.
Nicholson accused Russia of legitimising the Taliban and creating a “false narrative” about how the Taliban — not the Afghan army — are the true bulwark against ISIS. Americans worry that Russian weapons to the Taliban can easily land in Al-Qaeda’s lap given the proximity between the two groups.
If Trump wants to reset with Russia, Afghanistan will be a complicating factor. India’s headaches will multiply, as will pressure to step in and help.
Kiss and make up