It is still not clear how Trump will respond to the growing threat of a Taliban insurgency. He has barely talked about it and may even feel challenged by what Obama has left behind.
The new American president is having a hard time formulating new policy.
They say hindsight is like 20/ 20 vision. It is easy to examine Obama’s Afghan policy especially after his departure from the presidency. He has left an inescapable crisis and a challenge for his successor. Whether or not the policy of a drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan initiated by Obama was a success does not hold significance now as it has become a matter of the past. To the contrary, commenting on the contours of Trump’s Afghan policy is difficult because he has barely talked about his Af- Pak policy during his often prolix and fiery election campaign. He deliberated at length on all the issues surrounding US domestic and foreign policies but he seldom talked about how he would deal with the intricate Af- Pak region. Now well into his presidency, Trump is generally mum about the region.
When Obama assumed office in 2009, the situation was different. He inherited a war which was defined by his predecessor, George W. Bush, as “unfinished business” and “more daunting than I anticipated” in his memoirs. It was the time when the indigenous insurgency had come to the fore and US troops were getting stiff resistance on the ground. In 2009, NATO headquarters in Kabul and a CIA base in Khost came under attack. In retaliation, Obama commissioned a surge of the US troops up to 100,000 in Afghanistan – highest US troops deployment since the Vietnam War. Later, with the onset of the Arab Spring, Russian intervention in Ukraine, a fresh outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the surfacing of ISIS, shifted Obama’s policy focus to other important areas, leaving Afghanistan somehow neglected. This further exacerbated the already deteriorating situation and gave some breathing
space to the militants and they started securing territorial gains. In 2016, a report submitted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction ( SIGAR) revealed that the Afghan government lost 2.2% control to the Taliban in 2016. Hence, it comes as no surprise if Trump says he has “inherited a mess” from the previous administration.
Although Trump has not officially announced his policy regarding the Afghanistan imbroglio, the chances are high he will scale up US troops in Afghanistan to counter the insurgency effectively. During his presidential campaign, he chastised Obama for his drawdown policy as he feared the policy would repeat the horrors it brought to Iraq when US abandoned the country to survive on its own and ISIS emerged in consequence. He is also aware of the geopolitical significance of the Af- Pak region. In his words: “I would stay in Afghanistan. I hate doing it. I hate doing it so much. But again, you have nuclear weapons in Pakistan. So I would do it.” In his inaugural presidential speech, he vowed to eliminate “Islamic radicalism” from the face of the earth. His statements suggest an inclination towards intensifying the war on terror being fought in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.
Apparently, the Afghan government is in a political turmoil due to a stalled dialogue with the Taliban, rampant corruption and resilient insurgency which has reduced its administrative control to an alarming 52% over the years. Thus, Kabul is left with no option but to seek strong backing from Washington in dealing with such predicaments. Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan chief executive, believes the Trump administration will shore up Kabul in crushing the militants who are exercising more sway than ever before. The Taliban have become emboldened which is evident from the warning letter issued by the Taliban to President Trump asking him to reverse US policy on Afghanistan or meet the “historically shameful defeat.”
The warning letter itself is a reminder of the Taliban’s growing influence in terms of political and military strength. The SIGAR report unveils the fragility of Afghanistan’s security apparatus vis- à- vis the adamant Taliban. The report says, “the number of the ASF are decreasing while both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control or influence are increasing.” The shadow governors of the Taliban are running a parallel government in Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces. Even the militants have introduced their brand of “shadow justice” – a mobile system offering speedy and swift justice.
Despite the Taliban’s recent military triumphs, it seems the conflict has reached a standstill position where both the contestants, the Kabul regime and the Taliban, have not been able to outmanoeuvre the other. The Afghan national army lost 5523 soldiers in the first eight months of 2016 but somehow managed not to relinquish any major city or town to the Taliban. The situation has become more hazy and byzantine with the involvement of other regional stakeholders, namely China, Russia, Iran and India, who are meddling in Afghanistan’s matters in one way or the other. Their meddling has contributed in keeping the impasse because neither of the stakeholders wants to put its stake in jeopardy. The stalemate does not offer a promising prospect to Washington which desperately wants to see a strong government in Kabul running the country seamlessly.
Analysts fear the Muslim travel ban by Trump would bring forth detrimental repercussions for the foreign forces operating in Afghanistan. The ban, which is likely to inflame anti- Americanism, would increase violence in the war- torn country where hatred against the USA is already rife. Such policies only help the Taliban and ISIS in recruiting new fighters. It appears as if President Trump is eager to intensify the Afghan war. At least his actions reflect this intention.
It is true that Donald Trump remained quite vocal against ISIS and its affiliates during his election campaign but somehow preferred reticence about the Taliban. This shows the appeasement policy initiated by Obama to lure the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table with the help of regional players would be continued by Trump with minor changes. One may call it a stick and carrot policy. The frail government based in Kabul is exposed to a menacing insurgency orchestrated by the Taliban and is in dire need of unrestrained US backing, should it want to win this war. Possibilities are high that President Trump will not only keep supporting Kabul through humanitarian and military aid but also employ an aggressive military campaign to overturn the failure of US policy on Afghanistan.