Obama’s Legacy

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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Hafiz Inam

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.

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