President Trump will retain a US military presence in Afghanistan.This is a direct reversal of his stated campaign promise; demonstrates the influence of his military advisers. The decision will have a major impact on other regional actors, including China, India and Pakistan
United States President Donald Trump delivered a much-anticipated speech on 21 August in Washington DC, in which he addressed the ‘path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia’. The president, who has previously been plainspoken in his determination to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, was at pains to explain that he had changed his mind about that withdrawal, a notable expression in itself, and why he now felt it necessary to retain troops there.
Despite the war in Afghanistan having gone on for over sixteen years, the longest in US history, the loss of thousands of US personnel and a general war-weariness among the American public, it now appears that President Trump will increase troop numbers, allegedly by around four thousand to add to the eleven thousand already there. He also appeared to take a broader view of the situation in Afghanistan, making it a regional issue and not one to be resolved unilaterally by the United States, increasing pressure on Pakistan and bringing India into the peacekeeping equation.
This approach is, in short, a definite rejection of the previous administration’s approach to the issue and a clear indication that the US will continue to play a major role in the region, albeit on its own terms. It has major ramifications for the United States, Pakistan, India and, as will be evident, China.
Some of those ramifications will be examined here.
President Trump, when he turned to the issue of Afghanistan in his speech, began with an explanation of why he had changed his mind about retaining US troops there. For an individual who notoriously does not admit to doing so, this was in itself a startling admission. Referring to the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, he said:
… nearly 16 years after September 11th attacks, after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history – 17 years. I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.
That is why, shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defence Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia.
My original instinct was to pull out – and, historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office; in other words, when you’re President of the United States.
He appeared to offer to his supporters a reason, no matter how weak or at odds it may appear to his previous statements, to explain to them why he had changed his stance and gone back on a key campaign promise not to expend money and lives on an issue that appeared remote to them.
The foundation having been laid, he went on to explain the rationale for retaining US personnel in Afghanistan, offering three reasons for his change of mind:
First, our nation must seek an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.
Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th. And, as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.
Third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense.
It would appear, in the first reason he provided, that there was more to it than first meets the eye. The reasoning is that of the military commanders with whom he has staffed his immediate advisory group. It is, moreover, a sign that the “isolationists” among his advisors, including his Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, had lost the policy battle and that the US was to remain engaged in world affairs. The reason provided, that of vindicating the US lives lost in Afghanistan, would appear to be, therefore, little more than a cover for the policy in-fighting that had taken place in the White House.
He appeared to be on firmer ground with his second reason. There could be little doubt that the 9/11 attacks on the US did originate with bin Laden who was in Afghanistan at the time. It is equally certain that he received the support of the Taliban government there. The President was on even stronger ground, however, in stating that the situation in Iraq was a direct outcome of the too-rapid withdrawal of US forces from that country, which led to the creation of a power vacuum and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group. It is remarkable that he did not mention the fact that, in addition to the rise of Islamic State, Iran was emboldened to spread its influence into Iraq and further into the region, thus giving rise to several of the other conflicts seen in the Middle East today.
The third reason he offered, again innocuous at first glance, is arguably the most important in this context. The President appeared to be acknowledging that the Afghanistan issue could not be seen in isolation. If Afghanistan had regional ramifications, the issue needed a regional response. He, moreover, changed the US mission in the country.
He spoke very clearly, and in plain language, to differentiate his approach to Afghanistan from previous administrations, saying:
Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen. America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field. Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists. [Emphasis added by author] … When America commits its warriors to battle, we must ensure they have every weapon to apply swift, decisive and overwhelming force. Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.
In other words, President Trump appeared to be indicating to his support base that while he may have had reason to change his mind, he would approach the issue on his own terms. He appears to have placed the onus of nation-building squarely on Afghanistan, its politicians and society. By declaring that America would remain ‘a partner and a friend’, he seemed to hint at assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its economy but that the US military there would not be involved in recreating Afghan politics; that task was left to the Afghans. The influence of his military advisers is also plain to see here. Military personnel would remain in Afghanistan solely to eliminate terrorists. They would, furthermore, be given the ability to make decisions locally, a facility that was removed from the troops on the ground by the previous administration, which required all military actions in Afghanistan to receive explicit permission from the White House to be carried out.
As the President said to his military personnel:
… my administration will ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly. I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war-fighters that prevented the Secretary of Defence and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, DC does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.
That’s why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide; that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful.
This led Afghan Ambassador to the US Hamdullah Mohib to call it a ‘shift away from talking about timetables and numbers to letting conditions on the ground determine military strategy.’
The more radical part of his speech was that which referred to the possibility of ‘a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan’.
President Trump seemed to be flagging the possibility of talking to the less-hardline elements of the Taliban groups in an effort to bring them to the negotiating table. Implied in this statement was the threat “Join the Afghan Government in rebuilding the country or be eliminated by our troops”. This begs the question: why would a president, self-admittedly prone to making decisions based on “gut instinct”, take the major step of virtually inviting the Taliban to take part in a future Afghan government?
Part of the answer lies in the realm of conjecture. It was reported in 2010, that the Pentagon believed that Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth could be worth around US$1 trillion. According to another report, the Afghan government declared that figure to be around US$3 trillion but that figure is likely an exaggeration. According to the news report, a task force studying the country’s resources found that Afghanistan has significant deposits of copper, iron ore, niobium, cobalt, gold, molybdenum, silver and aluminium, as well as sources of fluorspar, beryllium and lithium, among others. While even the one trillion dollar figure may be exaggerated, the fact remains that the country does have enormous unexploited mineral wealth. Even if another country did not avail of the minerals itself (an unlikely possibility or outcome), there could be much profit to be had in partnering with still-to-be-established Afghan mining companies, by providing the technology and expertise required, for example, in the extraction of those minerals.
Assisting Afghanistan to recover economically could see the US remain as a major economic security provider or partner to Afghanistan. This would give Washington a sound reason to remain in Afghanistan and close to a region that China wishes to develop as its zone of influence.
More specifically, it is the discovery of major lithium deposits in Afghanistan (one source provides an idea of the amounts of lithium available by referring to Afghanistan as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”) that is of consequence. The original Pentagon report, while stating that the main minerals found were iron ore (estimated value US$421 billion) and copper (US$273 billion), was careful to note that the trillion dollar figure did not include known oil and gas reserves or the value of minerals like lithium that have not been verified to an extent that would permit a dollar figure estimation. While two Chinese firms have committed themselves to a US$4 billion investment in the vast Aynak copper mine, south of Kabul, it is the lithium deposits that are of strategic interest.
In the past few years, the demand for lithium has exploded along with the growth of lithium-ion battery technology in mobile phones, personal digital assistants, lap-top computers and, more recently, electric vehicles and batteries that can be attached to solar-powered systems. China, which seeks to position itself as a major electric-powered automobile and solar panel manufacturer, could see its plans disrupted and, more importantly, at the mercy of, for instance, American firms that might come to control lithium production in Afghanistan.
Conjecture aside, assisting Afghanistan to recover economically could see the US remain as a major economic security provider or partner to Afghanistan. This would give Washington a sound reason to remain in Afghanistan and close to a region that China wishes to develop as its zone of influence. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), moreover, passes through Central Asia, which would enable the US to keep a close eye on it. Despite their many joint statements and superficial ties, there is a strong undercurrent of suspicion between Russia and China. President Xi of China would not want the BRI passing too close to Russia’s borders in Central Asia, let alone through it.
If the US were to have a major role in Afghanistan, President Xi would have even more reason to feel uneasy since his legacy BRI would have to pass closely to Afghanistan as well. At a time when the Trump Administration has initiated major enquiries into Chinese trade practices, having its major strategic initiative placed at risk would be calamitous for China. Its situation is not helped by the presence of known China-hawks such as Robert Lighthizer, a veteran trade attorney, who was confirmed by President Trump as United States Trade Representative, and Peter Navarro, an economist who currently serves as the Assistant to the President, Director of Trade and Industrial Policy and the Director of the White House National Trade Council, a newly-created office. The titles of two of Navarro’s books, for instance, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action and The Coming China Wars: Where They Will be Fought and How They Can be Won, provide an indication of his thinking.
Mr Lighthizer is currently examining whether China’s practice of requiring all foreign firms that seek entry to its markets to transfer their intellectual property to a Chinese partner contravenes Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. That section authorises the US authorities to ‘take all appropriate action … to obtain removal of any [trade] practice that is unjustified, unreasonable, or discriminatory, and that burdens or restricts US commerce.’
If President Trump were to invoke that clause, it would lead almost inevitably to retaliatory measures from China and, potentially, to a trade war. Such a war would be disastrous for China, the world’s largest trading nation. This investigation leads China to believe, therefore, that the US is looking for ways and means to constrain its rise. A US presence in Afghanistan would also add to China’s belief that it is being contained by a jealous and suspicious Washington.
President Trump’s speech on Afghanistan may have touched on that country in order to provide a basis for his reasons to retain a military presence there, but the implications of that reasoning extend past Afghanistan.
—By Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst. Indian Ocean Research Programme, FDI
( The views expressed in the article are of the author)