The Debate

What Trump Left Out of His Afghanistan Strategy: China

Recent Features

The Debate

What Trump Left Out of His Afghanistan Strategy: China

Trump’s vision of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan came off as myopic, ignoring a role for other regional powers.

What Trump Left Out of His Afghanistan Strategy: China
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo Senior Airman Kenny Holston

After months of review and anticipation, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan last month. In doing so, he became the third American president to take ownership of what is now the United States’ longest war.

Trump, while acknowledging that Americans have grown war weary after 16 years in Afghanistan, nevertheless doubled down on a continued U.S. presence in the country. He did not shape his strategy around specific troop numbers or a withdrawal timetable, but instead outlined a far-reaching counterterrorism rationale for a continued American presence in the country.

The new U.S. strategy is perhaps notable for its geopolitical myopia more than anything. In addressing the geopolitical position of Afghanistan and the Asian subcontinent in his speech, Trump reduced the latter to just India and Pakistan. Other regional stakeholders, including Russia, China, Iran and the Central Asian states received no direct mention.

The focus on South Asia notably zeroed in on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.

Trump’s strategy was predicated on a long-standing conception in the United States that has failed to drive successful policy outcomes – that the enduring interests of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex are in direct opposition to U.S. policy goals in Afghanistan.

Trump minced few words when discussion Pakistan’s culpability in fostering “agents of chaos” within its borders. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” he added.

Meanwhile, Trump lauded India’s ongoing contributions to Afghanistan’s economic prosperity and stability, and invited New Delhi to do more, while taking a swipe at India’s trade surplus with the United States. Between inviting India to step up its initiatives and calling on Pakistan to abandon its long-standing policy of employing cross-border sub-conventional warfare in Afghanistan, Trump may have lit a slow-burning fuse that could bring the United States headfirst into an imbroglio between these two nuclear-armed South Asian rivals.

While Trump received applause in New Delhi for highlighting Pakistan’s transgressions, he did not answer the question that has long bedevilled U.S. policy planners in Afghanistan – how the United States can condition and alter Pakistani behaviour. Subsequent reporting, citing administration sources, has hinted at the potential use of sanctions against Pakistani military personnel who have close ties to terror groups, but more broadly, the approach remains ill-defined.

The omission of China entirely from the strategy presentation highlights an important gap in the administration’s thinking about Afghanistan and Pakistan’s foreign policy. Islamabad may be less reliant on Washington today. Instead, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in full swing, it is more than ever a Chinese client state.

If the United States applies pressure, backing up Trump’s words with action, Pakistan’s civilian government and powerful military alike will find much to like about China’s backing. China’s relationship with Islamabad will remain more important than its relationship with Kabul and a continued U.S. presence focused on counterterrorism will allow Beijing to free ride on U.S. efforts to combat various armed groups in the country.

China’s response to the new U.S. policy will probably come after a period of calibration and once U.S. troop levels and objectives are finalized in a more granular way. Beijing has already been encouraging Afghanistan’s government to focus its fight on Uyghur separatist groups based on Afghan soil. The People’s Liberation Army has, according to intermittent reports, also considered a direct role in Afghanistan.

That all may have to wait. The Obama administration’s withdrawal timetable has been set aside and the Trump administration has seemingly recommitted to infinite warfare and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, with no well-defined strategic end state. Trump noted that “conditions on the ground will guide [the United States’] strategy” in Afghanistan.

That is simply an obfuscation of the reality that there is no strategy or reason for the United States’ continued presence in Afghanistan.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post. It is republished here with kind permission.