From global geopolitics to the concerns of American voters, Trump's behaviour on Afghanistan bears a passing resemblance to the presidential. Who's behind it?by Robert Fry / August 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
Trump greets members of the military ahead of his speech on Afghanistan. Photo: PA President Trump’s change of heart of Heart on Afghanistan has his many critics sniggering at yet another major policy u-turn. The apostle of America First has, it seems, turned into an interventionist the minute the guiding hand of Steve Bannon departed the White house. Such judgements are easy, but they are also cheap. What Trump is doing is addressing a series of political issues from the global to the most parochial levels; in doing so, his behavior bears a passing resemblance to the presidential. Geopolitics first: while Trump’s speech contained a characteristic rant against Pakistan it was his Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, who gave the plan its proper context when he referred to it as a South Asia Strategy. It is a strategy, moreover, that is closely linked to events in East Asia. In order to defend South Korea against nuclear attack from North Korea, the US has installed its Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in the south, to howls of protest from the Chinese who see it as a forward deployed missile defence system for the protection of the continental US. Its proximity to the mainly land based Chinese nuclear capability means that the delicate balance of mutual deterrence is upset and the Chinese may have to expand its submarine based nuclear systems in response. This, in turn, will provoke an Indian reaction, as, while Pakistan is its most proximate enemy, it is the Chinese nuclear inventory that represents the standard by which it will measure its own. Pakistan has always compensated for its conventional military inferiority to India by a first use nuclear policy and, proportionately, it holds more nuclear warheads, an advantage it will feel compelled to retain. By putting Pakistan on warning, Trump is circumscribing its strategic freedom of action at every level from support of terrorism to nuclear deployment. In doing so he aims to consolidate a US advantage in the Western Pacific without provoking instability in South Asia. Regional politics second: Pakistan has always seen Afghanistan as its reserved strategic space. With borders that are indefensible and facing superior Indian conventional forces its warfighting choices are limited to nuclear release or a retreat into Afghanistan. That’s why Pakistan has always hedged its bets by ostensibly supporting Western intervention in Afghanistan and, at the same time, provided a secure base for the Taliban. An autonomous and Taliban dominated Pashtunistan in the south of Afghanistan would entirely suit Pakistani strategic purposes. If would also draw a line across Afghanistan with the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazzara in the north, supported by India, and the Pashtun in the south, as clients of Pakistan. What is at stake with any measure of Taliban success is therefore not just a local insurgent victory, but the strategic geography of South Asia—and perhaps the pre-conditions for the next Indo-Pakistani war. That’s what Mattis means by a South Asian Strategy. The verdict of history third: Afghanistan is the one that got away in the wars of 9/11. Many Americans—Generals Matts and McMaster prominent amongst them—judge that the first casualty of Iraq was Afghanistan. By concentrating on regime change in Iraq rather than consolidating in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration threw away an easy win and one with totemic significance in the context of 9/11. In Iraq, it also released atavistic forces that it could neither comprehend nor control and the Middle East is now in the throes of a millennial conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam—behind which lie the imperial ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Iran—that even the strategic inventory of America cannot resolve. It can, though, make a difference in the relatively limited conflict in Afghanistan and the Trump plan not only seeks to fix an historical omission but to do so at an acceptable cost. Finally, parochial politics: it’s been a tough few weeks at the White House and most of the grown-ups remaining have recently swapped military uniform for civilian suits. An irreducible core of Americans will support Trump come what may, but Joe average is now looking for the re-assurance of reliable competence and it is the military wing of the Trump Administration that provides it. Anecdotal reports suggest that General John Kelly only took the job of chief of staff after Mattis and others told him it was his patriotic duty. But even such appeals to sentiment come at a price, and the measured and rational plan that Trump laid out yesterday had the generals’ fingerprints all over it. Bannon is dead, long live McMaster.