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Atlantic Council

SOUTH ASIA CENTER


REVIEW OF
PRESIDENT TRUMP’S
SOUTH ASIA STRATEGY:

The Way
Ahead, One
Year In

Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy


Ambassador James Cunningham
General David Petraeus
Dr. Ashley J. Tellis
Ambassador Husain Haqqani
Mr. Manish Tewari
Ms. Anita McBride
REVIEW OF
PRESIDENT TRUMP’S
SOUTH ASIA STRATEGY:

The Way
Ahead, One
Year In

Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy


Ambassador James Cunningham

ISBN-13: 978-1-61977-566-4

Cover photo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8b/Kabul_Afghanistan.JPG Photo Credit:


Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kabul_Afghanistan.JPG)

This report is written and published in accordance with the Atlantic Council Policy on Intellectual Independence.
The author is solely responsible for its analysis and recommendations. The Atlantic Council and its donors do
not determine, nor do they necessarily endorse or advocate for, any of this report’s conclusions.

October 2018
Contents
Introduction 2

Implementing the Strategy: Recommendations 5

Conclusion 9

About the Authors 10


Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

Introduction

O
ne year after President Donald Trump’s an- fostering the crucial political process required to end
nouncement of his strategy in South Asia the conflict.
and Afghanistan, the authors believe that
the administration is on the right course, but Achieving such a political process will take time, along
that it can, and must, do better. Improved implemen- with a multifaceted and multilateral diplomatic cam-
tation offers the opportunity to end the Afghanistan paign of extraordinary complexity, even as the Afghan
conflict in a way that advances the core US interests and coalition military effort shapes conditions on the
of defeating terrorism and demonstrating that a mod- ground. The Trump strategy corrects the most serious
erate Islamic state, aligned with the international com- weaknesses of the Barack Obama administration’s ef-
munity, can succeed. forts, the most counterproductive of which was the an-
nounced accelerated withdrawal of US forces based on
The Trump strategy is new in important respects: its an unrealistic timeline, rather than according to condi-
focus is to bring the conflict to an end on terms ac- tions on the ground. Commitment to a timeline encour-
ceptable to the Afghan people and their international aged US adversaries to wait out US forces, discouraged
partners; its aim is to preserve the achievements in US partners, and encouraged continued hedging be-
Afghanistan that, first and foremost, contribute to haviors by the countries of the region. Among the
American security; it is conditions-based; it properly counterproductive effects was the psychological im-
views Afghanistan in a regional context, with a re- pact on the Afghans as they strive to rebuild safe com-
newed focus on Pakistan; and it provides Secretary of munities and a functioning economy.
Defense James Mattis and his commanders flexibility
in shaping the deployment and use of US forces in sup- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made clear that
port of Afghanistan and the counterterrorism mission. he is willing to take risks for peace. His government
The strategy intends to enable Afghanistan to become has also demonstrated its determination to defend the
a more stable state—one capable of protecting its peo- country, at great cost. For years, the United States’
ple with limited outside support—as well as to lay the Afghan partners have taken the lead in the conflict,
foundation for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating and done the vast majority of the fighting and dying.
table, and, ultimately, to end the conflict. Continued US funding for the Afghan National Security
and Defense Forces (ANSDF) is critical, as is the long-
Afghanistan is an Islamic partner committed to the term international support demonstrated at the recent
international fight against terrorism. As long as it re- Brussels NATO Summit.
mains such a partner, and continues to pursue better
governance, much-needed reforms, and democratic Afghanistan’s military capabilities are growing, as its air
expression for its people, the United States will be able force comes into being, military reform and new lead-
to advance the strategy through increasing military ership take root, capable special forces expand, and
pressure on the Taliban, and through the concerted use the train, advise, and assist mission moves flexibly to
of international efforts to shape the diplomatic envi- the tactical level, where it is more effective. August at-
ronment, to affect the behavior and calculations of the tempts by the Taliban to seize portions of Ghazni under-
Taliban and other actors, especially Pakistan. score the need for accelerated work on strengthening
ANSDF leadership and coordination. The costs to the
The strategy is still developing after a year, but is be- United States of supporting Afghanistan, in resources
ginning to produce results—even though it has not and casualties, are a fraction of what they were through
yet been adequately explained nor, on the political 2014, with crucial contributions made by NATO, coali-
side, adequately resourced. Doubts remain as to its tion partners, and the international community.
feasibility and ultimate success. However, the authors
believe that it can succeed with a renewed and visi- There is widespread agreement that a military solution
ble effort at comprehensive implementation, and im- to the Afghan conflict is not feasible, and that a politi-
proved alignment of the many lines of diplomatic and cal settlement is required. This report will not address
political effort required to produce results. Success the specifics of military strategy, or internal Afghan
will require demonstrating to all concerned—espe- politics and upcoming elections. Both require careful
cially Afghanistan’s adversaries and neighbors—that management, and work is under way to provide it. That
the United States is committed to the strategy, and to said, it is the responsibility of the Afghan political class

2 ATLANTIC COUNCIL
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

Poppy plantation in Gostan Valley, Nimruz Province, Afghanistan Photo Credit: United States Marine Corps, Public Domain.

to ensure the legitimacy of the Afghan government, of modern Afghanistan and the Taliban must be an
and to avoid debilitating political conflict as elections Afghan discussion.
approach. The failure of Afghanistan’s political leaders,
both outside of and within the government, to avoid In February, President Ghani made a courageous and
collapse of the political process would likely fatally un- far-sighted effort to open the door to such a process,
dercut the US strategy. announcing the willingness of the Afghan government
to engage the Taliban in a political dialogue without
This report’s intent is to contribute to the implemen- preconditions, and without predetermining how a po-
tation of the strategy by identifying what is required litical process should develop. The international com-
to effectively address Afghanistan in its regional con- munity welcomed his initiative, and has since worked
text, and to mount the diplomatic and political effort through various channels to get the Taliban to engage,
needed to complement the military campaign. The while reaffirming its own long-standing demands that,
military and diplomatic campaign must be in sync if under a political settlement, the Taliban must reject
the conditions are to be set for bringing the Taliban to violence, break with terrorism and al-Qaeda, and ac-
genuine negotiations. cept the Afghan constitution, including its protection
of human rights and the rights of women.
The United States and its partners have long agreed
that the terms for ending the conflict must be deter- The Taliban rejected Ghani’s message, repeating its in-
mined by the Afghans themselves, in an Afghan-led sistence on negotiating with the United States instead
process. The authors fully expect that the Afghan peo- of Kabul. Nonetheless, there have been signs that some-
ple will insist on preserving the many gains achieved thing is stirring among the Taliban. This is likely due, in
in health, education, human and women’s rights, eco- part, to the military campaign, in which the Taliban is
nomic development, freedom of the press, and dem- suffering heavy losses. In June, Ghani announced a uni-
ocratic freedoms. How to reconcile the complexities lateral eight-day ceasefire in connection with the Eid

ATLANTIC COUNCIL 3
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

al-Fitr holiday, to which the Taliban responded with its The situation is further complicated by the depre-
own “unilateral” three-day ceasefire overlapping the dations of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in
Eid weekend. It is significant that the Taliban rank and Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP), or Daesh, in Afghanistan.
file obeyed, and observed the ceasefire throughout the ISIS-KP terror attacks threaten the entire region, and
country. Those three days of peace brought individual impact the government, the civilian population, and the
Taliban members and other Afghans together throughout Taliban. There will be an ongoing need for a counterter-
the country, raising hopes that new opportunities might rorism instrument, as there is no prospect for negotia-
be in the offing. Although the Taliban leadership rejected tion with ISIS-KP, no matter how the conflict with the
an additional ceasefire announced by Ghani after the Eid Taliban unfolds. Indeed, Kabul and the Taliban have a
holidays, as well as Ghani’s subsequent offer of a joint common foe in ISIS-KP—an interest they share with the
ceasefire, the dynamic has produced conflicting signals United States, its international partners, and others in
from the Taliban, and raised hopes that the door to a the region, including Pakistan.
political process might have opened at least a crack. This
moment provides an opportunity to employ both military
and diplomatic levers, as strongly and quickly as possible.

4 ATLANTIC COUNCIL
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

Implementing the Strategy:


Recommendations

T
his report outlines the political and diplomatic 1. Demonstrate US strategic patience and commit-
lines of effort that the authors believe neces- ment. This is the sine qua non for strategic success,
sary for setting the conditions to end the con- the foundation on which all else rests. Clarity that
flict, and to change the strategic calculations the United States and its partners intend to prevail,
of a range of actors, including the Taliban. The strategy or the lack thereof, drives the policy calculations
requires a continued military instrument to stabilize the of others. Failure to provide that clarity doomed
security situation and raise the cost of conflict to the the Obama administration’s efforts, both to rap-
Taliban. Just as importantly, it will also require a com- idly withdraw US forces and to get to peace talks.
plex diplomatic campaign. President Trump’s decision to adopt a different ap-
proach, despite his misgivings, is to be applauded.
This is not a task only for the United States and
Afghanistan. There is a critical role to be played, under US The world needs to hear, repeatedly and from
leadership, by the members of the international coalition the highest levels of the administration, what the
and the many international partners who share US goals United States and its partners intend to achieve in
and interests in Afghanistan. They include the members Afghanistan, and that they intend to succeed with
of NATO and other coalition partners, the United Nations, a long-term vision for Afghanistan’s future stabil-
the European Union, the World Bank, the International ity. Concerns remain that the United States seeks
Monetary Fund (IMF), and Japan. China has a potentially a short-term solution that will enable it to declare
important role to play, not least because of its increasing victory and leave Afghanistan—again, and with di-
economic stake in the region under President Xi Jinping’s sastrous results. That suspicion must be allayed.
Belt and Road Initiative. India is playing a helpful role, and
there are new, welcome signs of growing engagement by 2. The world also needs to see that the United States
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. is arming itself with the political instruments nec-
essary to succeed. US international leadership
Marshalling the efforts of these parties to maximum is necessary to open doors, and to create the
effect must be at the core of the regional Trump strat- choices and opportunities that strengthen the
egy to reinforce US efforts, and to deter and dissuade prospects for success. The laudable hard work
those who obstruct or oppose them. This requires an of career professionals, acting officials, and ex-
extremely heavy lift, for which the United States has perts cannot take the place of political authority.
lacked adequate diplomatic and policy instruments. Therefore, this report strongly recommends the
Senior officials, throughout the government and in the early appointment of an empowered senior envoy,
field, must develop and implement the complex pol- who clearly speaks for the administration, drives
icy that Afghanistan requires. The authors note recent administration policy, and is charged with the task
progress in that regard, and welcome the appointment of developing and implementing the strategy.
of US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to focus the diplo-
matic campaign. However, many vacancies remain and The appointment of Ambassador Khalilzad will
much time has been lost over the past year, limiting meet that requirement—if he receives clear polit-
the US ability to take advantage of the opportunities ical authority from the State Department and the
embodied in the Trump strategy. White House, which signifies responsibility, credi-
bility, and clout. Previous envoys were hampered
Many of the following recommended actions are under by the lack of such a connection, and/or the task
way, to one degree or another. It is useful to consider of implementing a flawed strategy on an unreal-
them as a whole, to convey the complexity of the task istic timeline. Vacant senior policy positions in
at hand. There is a chance to bring this long conflict to Washington, and ambassadorial positions in the
an end, but doing so will require time, commitment, and field, urgently need to be filled. Doing so will boost
an effort commensurate to the task. To get the Taliban the prospects for Ambassador Khalilzad’s success.
to the table is not sufficient; to secure their genuine Given the many lines of effort, the need for close
participation in a peace negotiation, the following lines coordination with partners, and US engagement
of effort need to be developed and coherent. with multiple actors, success requires constant

ATLANTIC COUNCIL 5
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

and focused leadership to provide guidance and and economic future, a framework that falls far
develop the campaign. short of the active, engaged economic-develop-
ment and counterterrorism relationship that the
3. It follows from the above that an active, public West that can offer—or withhold. If Pakistan will
diplomacy campaign should buttress the strat- not play a positive role, the United States and its
egy, domestically and internationally. It must ad- partners should pursue a tough-minded strategy.
dress friendly, hostile, and skeptical audiences. The discussion with Pakistan must not be delayed,
To date, there has been broad bipartisan sup- especially following the recent change in elected
port in Congress for US efforts in Afghanistan, leadership and given the preponderance of influ-
demonstrated through initiatives such as the ence of the military leadership in Pakistan’s re-
Congressional Women’s Caucus on Afghanistan, gional policies, including in Afghanistan.
which monitors Afghan women’s participation in
and support for US military and diplomatic initia- 5. With regard to Afghanistan’s neighbors, the
tives. This report is intended to buttress that bi- key issue is how to assure them that a stable
partisan support. The American people deserve Afghanistan will advance, and not undermine,
to know why the long-term effort in Afghanistan their interests in the region. This should be an-
is in their interest, and the United States’ adversar- other area of focus. Afghanistan has attempted to
ies and partners need to know, and be convinced assuage Pakistan’s fear of India by making clear
of, its intentions. that its relations with India and Pakistan are not a
zero-sum game, and that India would not be per-
4. Amplify the regional components of the strat- mitted, via Afghanistan, to harm Pakistan and its
egy—especially with Pakistan, which has the most people. In fact, India is playing a positive, mostly
important external impact on prospects for suc- low-key role in Afghanistan, and could expand its
cess. It is widely recognized that the existence of assistance in development, training, business pro-
safe havens in Pakistan makes it extremely dif- motion, and democracy and elections, as a way
ficult, if not impossible, to get the Taliban lead- of strengthening Afghanistan without impacting
ership to seriously negotiate. While Pakistan has Pakistan’s security.
suffered grievously from terrorism, and sacrificed
much in combating it internally, efforts to con- Greater engagement by Saudi Arabia and the
vince it to take needed action against the Taliban United Arab Emirates with Afghanistan and the
and Haqqani network within Pakistan’s borders, United States should be leveraged, as Washington
and to partner with the United States, have not develops closer and more effective cooperation
yet born fruit. with the Saudi leadership.

It is beyond the scope of this report to address 6. Dealing with the ambivalence of Iran and Russia
how to deal with Pakistan in detail, but a constant is both desirable and complicated. Neither wants
review of messaging to Pakistan is needed, as is the Afghanistan to fail, nor to see the return of the
elaboration of a multilateral campaign of pressure Taliban or the growth of ISIS. However, neither
and incentives—for example, the Financial Action wants the peace process to result in a long-term
Task Force (FATF) gray listing of Pakistan, and the US military presence in the region, and both are
June US killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah engaged in various unhelpful behaviors that
Fazlullah in Afghanistan. should be minimized or eliminated. Nonetheless,
there is a considerable overlap of interests in
A redefinition of Pakistani interests is also needed. Afghan stability, in countering Sunni extremism,
The United States still seeks a healthy relationship and in battling narcotics. These subjects should
with Pakistan, but it and its international partners, be pursued more effectively as Washington and
who have an important stake in this discussion, Moscow seek projects on which to cooperate. The
must confront Pakistani leaders with a choice Trump administration should urge other interloc-
about the future of their country that prevents a utors with better prospects of influence—includ-
continuation of the status quo. ing Kabul itself—to engage Tehran and Moscow.
One goal might be to provide credible US assur-
In response to pressure from the Trump admin- ances that a continued, but limited, US presence
istration, some Pakistani officials have blustered in Afghanistan will not pose a threat to Russia and
that Pakistan can rely on China and Russia. That Iran, nor will eventual Afghan success.
is an illusion inimical to Pakistan’s development

6 ATLANTIC COUNCIL
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

ANA Special Operation Forces Photo Credit: U.S. Army, Public Domain

7. The narcotics trade provides critical funding for 8. Attack Taliban legitimacy. The Taliban craves in-
the Taliban, and feeds criminality more broadly. ternational recognition and legitimacy. Efforts to
The US military has resumed efforts to counter undermine its ideology through Islamic interna-
narcotics operations in Afghanistan, with strikes tional organs are on the right track. Recent Ulema
on production and storage facilities. This is likely meetings in Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Saudi
to have limited effect, unless it is combined with Arabia were important Islamic efforts to drain
renewed attempts to create stronger and more ef- ideological legitimacy from the Taliban and ter-
fective Afghan national capabilities, and regional rorism, and the Taliban’s reaction indicates some
cooperation aimed at both developing alternative impact. For the United States and its international
economic opportunities for Afghans and disrupt- partners, there is still work to be done to dele-
ing the narcotics trade. This is an important area of gitimize the Taliban leadership, and to make clear
shared interest among Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, there is no political future for a Taliban “victory.”
Russia, other regional actors, and Europe. The Taliban must understand there will be no in-
ternational recognition of gains seized by force,
The United States and its allies should attack means and that an Afghan political process and reconcil-
of Taliban financing, through bilateral and multilat- iation are the only way forward.
eral means. UN Security Council authorities to do
so exist, and new ones could be sought, with ad- 9. The time has come for renewal of direct US con-
ditional focus on tracking financial routes, money tacts, though not negotiations, with the Taliban,
laundering, and “legitimate” Taliban business in- with full transparency and in partnership with
terests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf—in- Kabul. The Taliban has rejected negotiations with
cluding mining, private enterprise, and real estate. Kabul, instead insisting on negotiations with the
International influence should be brought to bear on United States regarding the withdrawal of foreign
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf countries to forces. As of this writing, steps are under way to re-
disrupt Taliban finances and fundraising in the Gulf. sume US-Taliban contacts, with proper care taken
not to undermine the legitimacy of the Kabul gov-
ernment, and to make clear that the United States

ATLANTIC COUNCIL 7
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

will not negotiate Afghanistan’s future with the recognition that peace talks will include the role of
Taliban. The position taken by Secretary of State international actors and forces—was the right mes-
Mike Pompeo during his July visit to Kabul—that sage. The initiation of US-Taliban contacts can be
the United States will “support, facilitate and par- used to facilitate those Afghan-led negotiations.
ticipate” in Afghan-led peace discussions, and the

8 ATLANTIC COUNCIL
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

Conclusion

A
mericans have much to be proud of in historical terms, is an extremely short period of time.
Afghanistan. Though many strategic and The investments of the past seventeen years have paid
tactical mistakes have been made over the substantial dividends. Afghanistan’s education system
years, and the United States must recognize has been rebuilt, providing Afghans greater access to
and learn from them, US interests in Afghanistan en- all levels of education. Over 200,000 teachers have
dure. Shameful as it was, the Taliban regime was not been trained, including more than 66,000 women.1
the reason the United States and its partners went to Economic growth has returned, lifting hundreds of
Afghanistan seventeen years ago. Instead, 9/11 made it thousands from poverty and empowering a new gen-
clear that the threat from al-Qaeda, and now from the eration of business leaders and entrepreneurs. And
other violent extremists it has spawned, was a danger to women are being incorporated into law enforcement
the security of the United States and the civilized world, in increasing numbers, underscoring Afghan-led efforts
as well as a danger to the values Americans share with to achieve peace.
most of the rest of the world. The seventeen-year effort
in Afghanistan is part of a generational conflict with a Overcoming decades of violence in a poor country, even
violent, terrorist ideology—a conflict that, like the Cold with considerable outside assistance, is a task not easily
War, may well persist even after Afghanistan is hopefully achieved. Success in implementing the Trump adminis-
at peace. The Cold War lasted some forty years, during tration’s strategy, and President Ghani’s vision of peace
which many “hot spots” produced thousands of casu- via reconciliation with the Taliban, will validate the many
alties. Its legacy continues, for example, in the Korean sacrifices Afghans, Americans, and the international
peninsula and Ukraine. Hopefully, the conflict with vio- community have made. It will make Pakistan and the
lent Islamist extremism can be quelled in a shorter peri- region more secure and prosperous, enable the with-
od of time; failure in Afghanistan will undoubtedly make drawal of foreign military forces, and—with continued
that victory more difficult and costly. counterterrorism cooperation with Kabul and improved
cooperation with Pakistan—mark a significant advance
Despite the many mistakes and shifts in US strategy in the struggle against Islamist terror. That is an out-
over the past seventeen years, Afghanistan has un- come deserving of continued long-term US and inter-
dergone a remarkable transformation—in what, in national engagement, and the support of those publics.

1 “Afghanistan: Education,” USAID, last updated September 24, 2018, https://www.usaid.gov/afghanistan/education.

ATLANTIC COUNCIL 9
Review of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy: The Way Ahead, One Year In

About the Authors


This study was led by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, direc- ❖❖ Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy,
tor, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council and Ambassador Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council
James Cunningham, nonresident senior fellow, South
Asia Center, Atlantic Council. ❖❖ Ambassador James Cunningham,
Nonresident Senior Fellow, South Asia Center,
Signatories Atlantic Council

Each of the authors of this reports has significant ❖❖ General David Petraeus,
experience dealing with Afghanistan and the region, Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency,
coming from different backgrounds and in a variety General, U.S. Army (retired)
of capacities. Many of the authors have supported the
efforts of both Republican and Democratic presidents ❖❖ Dr. Ashley J. Tellis,
to defeat terrorism and bring peace and stability to Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs, Carnegie
the region, in the interests of US security and that of Endowment for International Peace
its many partners in this endeavor. While perhaps none
agree with every word of this report, all agree on its ❖❖ Ambassador Husain Haqqani,
main observations, on the recommendations above, Director for South and Central Asia,
and on the need for continued, steady US engagement Hudson Institute
and focus.
❖❖ Mr. Manish Tewari,
Distinguished Fellow, South Asia Center,
Atlantic Council

❖❖ Ms. Anita McBride,


Executive in Residence, Center for Congressional
and Presidential Studies, School of Public Affairs,
American University

10 ATLANTIC COUNCIL
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