All eyes were on President Trump on Monday evening when he laid out his plans to fight terrorism in Afghanistan. It wasn’t as headline-worthy, but Trump also spoke about his strategy for South Asia.
News outlets throughout the world had much to say about our influential president’s speech, but Saad Mohseni, chairman and CEO of Moby Group, which operates Afghanistan’s most widely watched media outlets, wrote in the Hindustan Times of India that he was particularly impressed with Trump’s dedication to addressing issues throughout the South Asian region, not just Afghanistan.
Stating that President Trump “holds out the promise of transforming South Asia’s dynamics for the better,” Mohseni pointed out that by approaching the Afghan strategy as a South Asian one, Washington is recognizing that this is a regional challenge.
He wrote, “For the U.S. to have withdrawn from Afghanistan would have prompted the collapse of the state and most likely resulted in greater factional violence. India, Pakistan, Iran and others would have been forced to increase support to their chosen sides in the conflict, exacerbating regional tensions and perhaps setting the scene for a disastrous showdown in the region. Pakistan and its 120 nuclear warheads would have become more vulnerable. Already Iran, Russia and China have been looking to exert greater influence in Afghanistan given Washington’s silence (perceived as absence) thus far.”
Mohseni further noted that by specifically mentioning India in his speech, Trump was acknowledging New Delhi’s deep ties to Afghanistan. “India remains Afghanistan’s most important regional partner, contributing to the construction of key dams, roads, power infrastructure and even the Afghan parliament building; committing $200mm in small development projects; and providing food aid, educational scholarships and other in-kind support. Its Afghanistan-friendly tariffs have transformed India into one of Afghanistan’s primary export markets,” he explained.
According to the White House, President Trump directed Secretary of Defense Mattis and the national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia right after he took office. After dedicating many months working on the issue, the president finally came up with three fundamental conclusions about America’s core interests in Afghanistan:
- First, our Nation must seek an outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made. The men and women who serve our Nation in combat deserve a plan for victory, 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. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as what happened before September 11th and in 2011, when America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.
- Third, the security threats in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. There are 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations currently active in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the highest concentration in any region in the world.
“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter,” said the president.
Based on the premise that it is counterproductive for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options, the president’s new strategy will shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. According to Trump, “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
Focused on a successful outcome, the president nevertheless noted that it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace. It’s certainly a different approach from former U.S. presidents’ attempts to introduce “democracy” to a nation of people who don’t seem to want to embrace the western concept.
President Trump stated that our approach to Pakistan will also change. “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. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists,” he said.
Mohseni agreed with Trump’s assessment of Pakistan, stating, “The Afghans and international partners cannot prevail unless the Taliban’s support networks, training camps and safe havens in Pakistan are dealt with. But Washington now needs to match its words with deeds. Through specific publicly and privately communicated conditions – and through delivering on promised consequences – Washington should this time aim to change Pakistan’s behavior rather than just its public statements. At the same time, it will have to communicate to Pakistan why, and how, playing a positive role in Afghanistan will not be a threat to Pakistan’s own national interest.”
President Trump’s South Asia strategy is also focused on America’s strategic partnership with India. As the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States, Trump acknowledged the need to appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan. “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region,” said the White House.
Mohseni stated that America’s renewed commitment to Afghanistan and increased engagement of India and Pakistan could have an enormous side benefit of improving relations across the region. “If Afghanistan can be used as a cause for all three countries to rally around, there is a real possibility that that cooperation could ease broader tensions between them and potentially result in closer ties,” he said.
The Indian businessman pointed out that President Trump was correct in demanding that the Afghans do much of the heavy lifting and that U.S. support will not come in the form of a blank check. “He was also right to not insist on peace talks with the Taliban; their intransigence and continued terrorist attacks reflect their unwillingness to talk. Only a strong government in Kabul coupled with gains in the battlefield will prompt them to seriously consider a settlement,” Mohseni said.