The immediate implication of this move is the inevitable centre-staging and involvement of Pakistan in the new realm.
The controversial New York Times bestseller, Fire and Fury, on US President Donald Trump’s quirks and whimsicalities by Michael Wolff, quotes the economic adviser Gary Cohn’s mail, “It’s worse than you can imagine… Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.” While the book was expectedly and personally rubbished by Donald Trump as a “phony book”, the undeniable optics of the mass-exodus of key Trump administration appointees, testified to the inability of the professionals to align themselves with Mr Trump’s fickleness. Even the famous “anonymous” Op-ed in the Washington Times had posited the Trump officials as the “real resistance” within the system who tried to control Mr Trump — however, since that article, the revolving door of the Trump administration has consumed among others, the attorney general, the chief of staff, the interior secretary and most recently, the defence secretary James Mattis. The irreconcilability of the presidential outlook with that of the nuanced perspective of his professional appointees had led James Mattis to allude to the undermining of “international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values”.
Amongst the many policy disagreements that Mr Mattis had locked horns with Mr Trump included the initial war-mongering with North Korea, withdrawal of the Iranian nuclear deal, etc. however the sudden announcement of withdrawing US troops from the Syrian and Afghanistan theatres was the proverbial last straw. Mr Mattis had argued in vain about his contrarian views owing to “four decades of immersion on these issues”, yet Mr Trump was unilaterally committed to troop-reduction in Afghanistan, and basically tied itself and the region into uncomfortable knots. This announcement of withdrawal was without the consent of the Trump officials or the most important stakeholder i.e. the Afghan government in Kabul. The immediate implication of this move is the inevitable centre-staging and involvement of Pakistan in the new realm. After months of very acrimonious accusations of “duplicitous” sovereign-behaviour and insincerity towards the “war on terror” by Islamabad, the US is now forced into seeking Pakistan’s help in negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan would be grinning at its new-found status and role that essentially legitimises its interferences in Afghanistan, which it considers its “Strategic Depth”. Expectedly, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani remains skeptical of the move, especially of the role of Pakistan on terrorism, about whom he recently said at Davos, “We have been promised repeatedly in the past so much as saying that next week they will be changed, and next week, we have seen intensification of the conflict”. New Delhi too is concerned about an emboldened Islamabad in Kabul affairs, which is marked by its consistent infamy in patronising extremist groups and escalating the Afghan civil-war to its advantage. However, the sudden announcement by Mr Trump has forced a complete US retraction on its long-held positions in the region.
Significantly, even the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment report submitted by the US director of National Intelligence, Daniel R. Coats, reiterates the Pakistani recalcitrance by stating, “Militant groups supported by Pakistan will continue to take advantage of their safe haven in Pakistan to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan, including against US interests.” While the expert opinion of the intelligence community still insists that Pakistan will, “almost certainly frustrate US counterterrorism efforts against the Taliban”, the presidential diktat flies in the face of common sense, experts and the historical narrative. The ground situation in Afghanistan is a “no-win” stalemate between the Afghan government troops and the extremist organisations like the Taliban, ISIS, etc. Thus the planned withdrawal of almost half of the 14,000 US troops will decisively tip the scales in favour of the Pakistan-supported extremist organisations. Already the negotiations with the Taliban representatives (supposedly with a nudge from Islamabad) are afoot in Doha, the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has confirmed a “principle in agreement” for a framework of peace with the Taliban. Ironically, a few months back, Zalmay Khalilzad had himself suggested designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and had noted, “Pakistan has provided just enough sporadic assistance to give an impression of helpfulness, while at the same time harbouring, training, and assisting violent extremist groups.” Today he too has to repudiate and recant from his stated position to deliberately carve a crucial role for Pakistan in the future of Afghanistan!
From Tehran to Pyongyang, the repudiation of the official US positions, agreements and policies has been stark and unprecedented —now, the tinderbox of Kabul has been added to the list of flip-flops by the Trump presidency. Afghan President and statesman, Ashraf Ghani, has presciently forewarned on the far-reaching ramifications of the unilateral Trump move, “Afghanistan has national dimensions, neighbourhood dimensions, the regional dimension, from India to Russia, the Gulf, Islamic and international. If we don’t get all the pieces right, one piece alone doesn’t suffice”. Yet the voice of reason and concern in Kabul or New Delhi, as indeed within the expert opinion in Washington itself, will not reach Mr Trump who is given to his own temperamental impulses. The looming General Elections in India will unfortunately distract, downplay and defray the importance of the changing strategic dynamics in the Af-Pak region, even as the import of the same can play havoc with India’s own security calculus. New Delhi has a healthy and trustworthy relationship with the government in Kabul and has multiple common grounds with them — it must leverage the combined voice of concern on the exact contours, nature and role of the Pakistanis in the forthcoming days. Unlike the Pakistan-propped Taliban regime of 1996-2001 that was marked by regressive bigotry, violence and revisionism, the current regime in Kabul that is inimical to Pakistan is both progressive and modern. While the Taliban is not a monolithic entity and that challenges Pakistan’s ostensible control over it, yet a “Talibanised Afghanistan” may be the inadvertent outcome of Mr Trump’s misplaced, heedless and uninformed approach towards global security concerns.