Donald Trump’s presidency presents an unexpected opportunity for India in its continued efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. As Western forces reduce their presence on Afghan soil and the formidable Haqqani-Taliban combination consolidates control over increasingly larger areas, the Afghan government’s position continues to diminish. The Trump administration brings with it the opportunity to make a concrete shift in policy to deal with the challenges that threaten to undo the progress made in Afghanistan over the last decade and a half. Given President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, and National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s statements on Afghanistan, the incoming administration may push for increased troop levels in Afghanistan and confront Pakistan over its role as the major destabilizing force in South Asia.
An increase in the number of troops and a clear stance on Pakistan would find widespread support in India. Since 2002, India has offered over $2 billion to Afghanistan and views the stability provided by a foreign military presence as indispensable to the developmental projects New Delhi remains committed to pursuing in the country.
Mattis and Flynn believe the United States must remain engaged in Afghanistan. Their extensive experience in Afghanistan will be crucial to molding U.S. strategy as they head the two most important national security posts in the administration. Mattis, who previously commanded United States Central Command, covering the region from the Middle East to Central Asia, is a strong proponent of American engagement in the world and believes war is “more than just fighting battles.” At his recent confirmation hearing as secretary of defense, Mattis emphasized that the primary lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan have been that military efforts must be accompanied by long-term diplomatic and economic engagement to ensure sustainable progress.
Flynn also supports American engagement. Previously, he was director of the United States Defense Intelligence Agency and served as the senior intelligence officer at the joint command of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. In a 2010 report, he argued that sustainable success could only be achieved by refocusing intelligence efforts from merely analyzing insurgent groups to actually understanding political, economic, and cultural contexts by engaging with the Afghan people they were trying to defend.
Trump, who pushed for retrenchment throughout his presidential campaign, tweeted “Let’s get out of Afghanistan” in 2013, but has changed his mind. Since his election, he has discussed a proposal for more troops with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. This view is in accordance with Mattis, who at a 2013 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing asserted the need to support Afghan security forces and counter the perceived lack of U.S. commitment in the region by demonstrating support through tangible actions.
Flynn would support an increase in troop levels, having worked closely under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the a former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan who strongly advocated for the same. McChrystal submitted a controversial report, which concluded that if the United States didn’t send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, they were in danger of “mission failure.” The Obama administration felt the Pentagon was pushing to deploy troops without considering other options and ultimately McChrystal resigned due to tensions with the White House over strategy in Afghanistan. Flynn has also written that the war in Afghanistan has been “half-assed” with “token” forces and that leaving would allow the Taliban to gain complete control.
While an increased troop presence will be necessary to train, advise, and assist the struggling Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, all efforts toward annihilating the Taliban and its associated insurgent groups will be in vain as long as the militants continue to enjoy safe havens within Pakistani territory. Trump has previously supported a harder line on Pakistan, stressing that the Taliban are “going to come back anyway because they’re really in Pakistan.” As per the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko’s report, the reconstruction of Afghanistan “has been the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our nation’s history.” The Trump administration must therefore hold Islamabad accountable for actively working against U.S. interests in the region.
Mattis and Flynn are also cognizant of the geopolitical reality that there can be no sustainable peace in Afghanistan while efforts to eliminate the Taliban are continuously undermined by its neighbor. Mattis recognizes that “sanctuary and freedom of movement for the Afghan Taliban and associated militant networks inside Pakistani territory is a key operational issue faced by the Afghan security forces.” Flynn has warned that countries sheltering jihadist groups risk direct attack themselves, including partners of the United States: “If our so-called partners do not act in accordance with internationally accepted norms and behaviors or international law, the United States must be prepared to cut off or severely curtail economic, military, and diplomatic ties.”
$20 billion in U.S. aid over 15 years, and suffering the blowback of fostering terror networks on its own soil, have both failed to influence Pakistan’s use of terror as instruments of state policy. The Trump administration must realize that Islamabad’s interests are better served by a weak Afghanistan locked in a deferential relationship with Pakistan. Unless Islamabad plays the long game and, in its own interest, completely ceases all support for terrorism, the gap between its interests and those of the United States will be too large to bridge. As Bruce Reidel emphasized, “the longest war in American history is a proxy war with Pakistan.” Or in the words of Donald Trump, “some ally!”
Despite inconsistencies, India can find a valuable interlocutor in the Trump administration as it expands its development partnership with Afghanistan. The United States must increase troop levels to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the Afghan people and bolster reconstruction projects to ensure sustained peace in the region. However, these efforts will be futile unless the Trump administration leverages its role as the biggest contributor of economic and military aid to Pakistan to compel its army to cease support for terrorism once and for all.
Arushi Kumar is a research assistant at Carnegie India.