Method in the Mad­ness?

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Seema Sirohi

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

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