Threading the Needle: India, Trump, & Afghanistan

By Sarah Watson —

U.S. Marine on patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Source: ResoluteSupportMedia’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

On August 21, following a protracted internal debate, President Trump announced his strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia as a whole. The speech included both strong language on Pakistan and a promise that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would not be subject to hard deadlines. Trump, while he did not discuss actual troop levels, promised an invigorated effort with a laser focus on counterterrorism. But the announcement, the process that produced it, and statements by Trump’s own cabinet should all prompt Indian policymakers to question the nature of U.S. commitment. Trump’s South Asia strategy is not set in stone; India can help ensure it remains favorable by doubling down on its own commitment to Afghanistan.

Reports of the strategy review process describe Trump’s reluctance to continue U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and his interest in unusual policy approaches. President Obama also conducted an in-depth strategy review before deciding on an Afghanistan policy, and accounts of that process describe Obama’s frequent frustration. A difficult review process does not necessarily mean a shaky commitment to the end result: Obama by and large stuck to his decision. Trump is temperamentally quite different from Obama, however, and important voices within his political coalition deeply oppose a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan. This likely increases the pressure to declare victory at some future point and withdraw.

In words that brought understandable joy in India, Trump stressed that his administration would pursue a harder line on Pakistan. Although President Obama repeatedly condemned terrorist safe havens on Pakistan’s soil, he never used Trump’s gloves-off language. Trump’s speech lacked specifics on what exactly the United States would do to compel Pakistan to cease its support for terrorist groups in Afghanistan; later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of conditioning aid, while a senior official raised the possibility of sanctioning Pakistani government officials with ties to terrorist groups. The latter step would indeed be groundbreaking.

But even the most anti-Pakistan U.S. president will face constraints on his or her ability to act — as long as the United States has a significant presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan controls the current supply routes into Afghanistan. Most central Asian routes will remain closed to the U.S. military given the current state of U.S.-Russia relations. The Trump administration is equally unlikely to pursue logistics cooperation with Iran, as much as this might please India. This leaves the United States with the choice of either Pakistan or a tenuous northern route to supply its increasing numbers of troops in Afghanistan.

Finally, Trump offered both praise and tough words for India. He highlighted the U.S.-India strategic partnership and then in the same breath noted that India makes “billions of dollars” in trade with the United States and should do more to assist Afghanistan economically. This phrase carries an echo of Trump’s incorrect claim that India made its participation in the Paris Climate accords contingent on receiving “billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid.” In both cases, Trump cast India as failing to pull its weight.

Indian commentators appeared confident that India would be able to essentially proceed on its current course without major changes. This assumption is shaky. No matter how much India has done and is doing for Afghanistan, it is unlikely to receive more patient treatment than our NATO allies. It does not help that India’s allocations for Afghan assistance have declined in each of the past three financial years, from $137 million in fiscal year (FY) 2015-16 to $54.6 million in FY2017-18. When the Indian and Afghan foreign ministers met this week for the bilateral Strategic Partnership Council (only the second meeting since the council was formed in 2011) India announced 116 community development projects in 31 provinces as well as a few larger public works projects. The projects are promising, but no price tags or timelines were attached.

One of the most promising vehicles for U.S.-India cooperation on Afghanistan is the U.S.-India-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue, which last met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2016. The three countries are in negotiations for the next round of the dialogue, hopefully to be held before the end of the year. The U.S. goal for the session is a brass tacks discussion on aligning development priorities, with the U.S. Agency for International Development playing a key role. The U.S. government hopes to get a clearer idea of what India plans for Afghanistan’s economic development and of how the two countries can work together; the goal is not to let regional politics dominate the discussion.

In determining its response to the Trump administration’s overtures, India cannot afford to overlook Trump’s relatively mild language on the Taliban itself. He raised the possibility that “perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Secretary of State Tillerson, in remarks issued earlier that day, was more explicit, saying that “the Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement.” India must decide whether it can accept such an outcome.

India has been a steadfast supporter of Afghanistan for decades, and its assistance must be seen in the context of India’s own budgetary restrictions and the United States’ own reluctance for India to provide military assistance. But in a region that is increasingly unfriendly to U.S. goals — with Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan all at odds with U.S. policy — having an ally can mean the difference between success and failure. If India wants to harden Trump’s commitment to staying the course in Afghanistan, now is the time for it to announce it is taking development cooperation with Afghanistan to the next level.

Ms. Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @SWatson_CSIS.

Sarah Watson

Sarah Watson

Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.


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