US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy statement on Afghanistan was criticized by many as short on details. But as Trump himself said, that was just the intention, indeed part of the policy itself. From now on, the US will not be signaling to its enemies abroad what it really intends to do. It’s all left for everyone to guess.
The Afghan government can find comfort in one thing. The US is not leaving Afghanistan just yet. To be sure, this is not news. Obama, Trump’s predecessor, turned back on his campaign promise eight years before to get the US out of Afghanistan. The Obama volte-face was caused by what happened to Iraq after the US departure and what would likely happen to Afghanistan.
But for how much longer is anybody’s guess. The US Afghan war is entering its seventh year, longer than any war the US ventured into before. The number of US forces on the ground in Afghanistan is the biggest contingent stationed anywhere outside the homeland.
The original purpose of the US adventure in Afghanistan was to force the Taliban regime out of power and secure a free hand in hunting down Osama bin Laden. The US took the opportunity to unravel its high-tech capabilities in aerial bombardment to topple the Taliban from power and flush out Osama and his al-Qaida from the caves only to find bin Laden in a quiet, upscale neighborhood in Abbotabad, Pakistan! The American public’s attention to why the US is still in Afghanistan could have only been diverted by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist attacks at home and Europe and the US President’s unseemly and controversial conduct in office.
The situation on the ground has of late been quite worrisome for the Afghan government and its supporters in the West. US military sources have reported that the Afghan and US forces are in a stalemate. According to a US watchdog organization, the Afghan government’s uncontested control over the country is down to 57 percent from 74 percent, and falling. Afghan security forces are suffering a desertion rate of around 10 percent. Not surprising in a war where one can find oneself fighting one’s own relatives, childhood friends, and tribesmen.
US strategists and planners are apparently mulling if a surge in ground forces is the answer to reverse the deteriorating situation. But no marching orders have been issued. The US tends to be wary of sending ground forces abroad and to rely on military air power in accomplishing US military objectives abroad.
Not a few Afghans believe the US ouster of the Taliban from power was unwarranted. The US demand to the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden was a violation of the Pashtun code of hospitality as well as Osama’s right to due process and a fair trial The Taliban did not exactly crash its way to power. They can arguably claim to have popular support with their reputation as religious students and defenders of the common people against the abuses of the warlords. The world was outraged by the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhist statues of Bamiyan. Among the Afghans, who would care for those statues? As for the Taliban ban on working women and other brutal edicts intruding into private lives, students of the Taliban in power saw a mellowing of Taliban approaches to government. There was talk of adopting the Saudi model where women are segregated from men but have their own banks, schools, entertainment outlets, etc. The Taliban was not a rigidly monolithic organization. They allowed the reopening of girls’ schools when community leaders asked for them. Quite expectedly, the Taliban is not campaigning against modernization but its propaganda appeals to the Afghan’s sense of nationalism against foreign intervention and rule.
It is inconstestable that the Afghan governments that took over after the Taliban ouster have made many gains in national reconstruction and development. But these gains have been undermined by widespread rumors of corruption, corroborated by Afghanistan’s ranking almost at the top of the most corrupt governments in the world.
IS: Bigger threat than Taliban
What seems a greater threat than the Taliban to the Afghan people as well as the hundreds of Filipino and other humanitarian and development workers is the emergence of a new element in the Afghan landscape. In the last two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) has established itself in two places in Afghanistan, in Nanagarhar and Kunar provinces, supported by and receiving instructions from central headquarters. Because the leadership of these IS clones is foreign, consisting of former Pakistani Taliban, they are regarded by the Afghans as foreign invaders as much as the Americans. They are calling on Afghans fighting in the Middle East to return to their home country and join the IS operations there while continuing recruitment via the Internet.
While the Talibans generally target military and police outposts and personnel, the IS has claimed credit for sectarian attacks as the recent one on a Sh’iite mosque. Based on IS behavior in the Middle East, the IS apparently imagine themselves to be like the Central Asian conquerors of old, overrunning territories, annihilating their populations and erasing all traces of their existence. The IS in Afghanistan can derive inspiration from the history of Afghanistan as the cradle of great empires. Because of its strategic location, at the crossroads of Eurasia, South Asia, and the Middle East, it is not unlikely that they will realize that Afghanistan is an ideal center for their caliphate. In IS pictures of Tomorrow Afghanistan, everyone who is not an IS follower, including the hundreds of Filipinos working in Afghanistan, is in peril.
Trump’s explicit goal
In his foreign policy statement on Afghanistan, Trump does not show much concern whether the current Afghan government or the Taliban prevails. Indeed, he has manifested disdain for nation-building in other countries as a motivation for US engagement abroad. The leitmotif as everywhere in Trump’s foreign policy is America First. As he manifested during the election campaign, foreign policy should stop seeking regime change (or for that matter regime survival) in any country. The focus of US foreign policy is the killing of terrorists before their threat to America emerges.
This goal is the only other detail that Trump explicitly reveals in his foreign policy statement. In the context of the looming IS threat in Afghanistan, maybe there in no need to know much else. But with Trump’s earlier unveiling of the Mother of all Bombs, civilians, including Filipino workers in Afghanistan, must exercise the necessary caution in order not to become collateral damage. After decades of war, one can only wonder how much more devastation can be inflicted on this hapless country.
But Trump has still to show his true worth as a killer. Despite the tremendous self-praise he heaped on himself, in the last display of Trump grit at an airfield in Syria, the only casualties were some old planes.