Trump's “principled realism” | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 24, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:42 AM, August 24, 2017

Trump's “principled realism”

It has taken President Donald Trump exactly eight months into his presidency to accept that running a corporate house and running a country are two different ball games, something that he must surely have realised the very first day after he was sworn in as president. It is interesting to see how quickly he has adjusted his judgment, in so far as his views and decision making on foreign policy issues are concerned, from citizen Trump to candidate Trump to President Trump—and thus the “principled realism” that he has based his arguments on and offered to the world as a prop up for the new Afghanistan and South Asia policy that he pronounced on August 21.

President Trump has realised, after all, that making decision as a president is not quite like making decision as a corporate head. And he says, that was what compelled him to study Afghanistan and prevented him from giving in to his instinct of pulling out of Afghanistan lock stock and barrel. But if one goes a bit deep into his stated policies—which narrates what he would be doing in Afghanistan henceforth, but not how—one is not sure if he has drawn the proper lessons from the history of a country that has gained the moniker as the “graveyard of empires”.

Afghanistan is a country that has never been subdued. If Alexander would have kept a diary we might have had the benefit of knowing why, contrasted with Persia that took only six months for him to conquer, Afghanistan resisted him successfully for three long years. The three Anglo-Afghan wars show who came out the worse of the two contestants, and the Soviet venture which ended in total disarray for the Soviet army compelling its withdrawal from Afghanistan, is a clear testimony to the truth that technological superiority has no correlation with the final outcome of a war fought against, and resisted by, a people, no matter how much socially incoherent they may be. And this fact has been reconfirmed by the continued involvement of the mightiest country in the world in Afghanistan, and providence only knows when that will end, if at all, because the new strategy enunciated by the US President on August 21 makes a shift from time-based approach to condition-based one. And “condition” lends itself to very wide interpretations.

It is true that the American people are “weary of a war without victory” as Trump says, particularly a war that has gone on far longer than any in American history, exactly 16 years and several trillion dollars to boot. But then what victory in wars is Trump talking about? One can recall only one single war after the end of World War II that went America's way. Except for “Desert Storm” the Korean War was a stalemate and the consequence of which is a region that is constantly on razor's edge. The Vietnam War was an unmitigated disaster, and Iraq and Afghanistan continues to and has cost the US heavily in terms of American lives and money and has bleed the two countries under its occupation.

It is a maxim in military strategy that one can determine fairly accurately the day to initiate a conflict but cannot say with certitude when that will end or if ever the author can end it. While America dictated the factors before starting the wars in the two countries, once the dice was rolled, the unpredictable factors are dictating American policy now.

And if war is extension of politics, one wonders if the political objectives of launching the wars have been met at all. Except for in Iraq where the end of Saddam, a thorn on the side of Israel, and the control of the Iraqi oil—the two objectives—have been secured, the political scene in both countries contains the recipe for further destabilisation of the region. And if it is “enduring outcomes” that the US is seeking to attain, policies guided by ulterior motives have little chance of securing that.

Certainly the Trump administration has taken some lessons from the continuing debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan which is reflected in the new policy. No war can be fought on predetermined time-line as Obama wanted to do. But Trump is adding—even if by only 4,000 soldiers—to the so called “Obama Surge” which has failed to deliver. But a situation based approach is more realistic than a time based one.

Trump wants to do away with the US nation building programme in Afghanistan. It is true that “nation building” in a country whose people are yet to congeal as a nation produces very little result on ground. And nation building as a development matrix cannot be infused by an occupying army nor can it be done in the image of the occupying country. There is much more to nation building than building of physical infrastructure. The social-political aspect cannot be overlooked in this exercise.

But the third aspect of the new US strategy, which is directly related to South Asia, has serious strategic implications for the region. It is understandable that the US would seek alternative partner in the region to address the Afghan mess, given the duplicitous policy of Pakistan of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. But changing “allies” and developing strategic partnership with India would surely initiate a modern “Great Game” in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, Afghanistan is its strategic depth and it is this compulsion that forces its Afghan policy. Pakistan has to be in good terms with whoever controls Afghanistan, and it is certainly not Ashraf Ghana's government whose writ runs in that country. On the other hand, India would never allow Pakistan's influence in that country to go unchecked. That is why India has, reportedly, invested billions in infrastructure building in Afghanistan and has so far built 2,500 kilometres of road there, the soft power approach.

We have to wait and see how the new US policy, the so called “Path Forward in Afghanistan” is implemented and how the American “global war on terrorism” is readjusted to stop resurgence of terrorism which is the core US objective. It bears repetition that the US war on terror has been a dismal failure. Realisation of strategic folly needs serious recalibration of strategy. The latest policy, stemming from “principled realism” gives little indication of that.


Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc, (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.


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