August 25, 2017
President Trump’s remarks on the strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia did not break new ground. The principal challenge, as before, remains Afghan leaders forging a united front not only to fight the Taliban, al-Qaeda, tribalism, warlordism and corruption but also to achieve better governance.
The criticism Mr. Trump directed at Pakistan was more strongly worded than that of his predecessor who stated the following before a joint session of the Indian Parliament on November 8, 2010:
“… And we’ll continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks must be brought to justice…”
Although President Obama left it at that, his choice of venue for those remarks must have caused deep consternation in Islamabad.
In that very speech, President Obama also mentioned a historic opportunity to make the relationship between India and the US “a defining partnership of the century ahead”. He said that he looked forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member. And, he also addressed the question of economic cooperation saying that as global partners India and the US could promote prosperity in both countries. He had avoided getting into figures.
And, this is what President Trump had to say on India, last Monday at Fort Myer:
“… Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India — the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States. We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but 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…”
These remarks represent a certain continuity in Washington’s Asia policy under an unpredictable president. They also constitute a message to China over India.
The day after President Trump delivered his remarks, Chinese Foreign Spokesperson Hua Chunying strongly praised Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts. In response to a question she said:
“… As for whether the development of the closer US-India relations will affect China-India relations, the growth of friendly relations between China and any other country will not target any third party and we hope the growth of US-India relations will not target any third party, either. I hope the trilateral relations among China, the United States and India can constitute a virtuous interaction since this serves the common interests of the international community and the fundamental interests of the people in the three countries…”
This is in line with the Chinese tradition of reserved statements on foreign policy. Ms. Chunying’s response to questions regarding new US sanctions on Chinese and Russian companies and individuals trading with North Korea was also measured. These sanctions are unlikely to achieve much, but would probably lead to countermeasures.
At Fort Myer, President Trump stated that the US will no longer use military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in its own image. “… We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward” he said. Regardless of the objectives of past American external interventions, this again is a continuation of the Obama approach.
Secretary Tillerson brought clarification to President’s remarks on “principled realism”:
“… this entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you. And so at some point we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.
“… And Afghanistan, as the President said, can choose its form of government that best suits the needs of its people – as long as it rejects terrorism, never provides territory in Afghanistan to provide safe haven for terrorists, and accommodates all of the groups represented inside of Afghanistan, ethnic groups and others. How they want to organize themselves is up to them…”
Thus, it is clear that should they ever change tack, Washington would have no objection to negotiations either with the Taliban or Pyongyang. The question is whether the Afghan government would ever be able to match the Taliban as a credible interlocutor at the table.
At Fort Myer, President Trump reiterated America’s resolve to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Should Washington decide at some point that this has proved to be mission impossible, worse may follow for the Afghan people because they may then be left in the crossfire of an even more destructive war. In brief, Kabul needs to energize itself sooner than later.
A word on Turkey: During his remarks to be press last Tuesday, Secretary Tillerson said:
“… even in the transition in Afghanistan, as Ambassador Hale transitions out, we’ve nominated Ambassador Bass, a very experienced diplomat; been chief – been running the embassy in Ankara, Turkey – very complex place…”
And this is what Heather Nauert, US State Department’s spokesperson said, in response to a question, during the press briefing on August 23, 2017:
“What we do here each and every day – and you all hear me talking about that and many of my colleagues here at the State Department – is talk about not only free and fair elections and the importance of that, but the importance of free speech, including speech that can be uncomfortable to governments and nations. We talk about that from Turkey to Cambodia to you name the country – Venezuela, et cetera…”
It was only eight years ago that President Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament and heaped praise on Turkey’s vibrant, secular democracy and Turkey was being referred to as a source of inspiration if not role model for the world of Islam (*).