America’s New Approach To The Af-Pak Region

America’s New Approach To The Af-Pak Region

U.S. President Donald Trump who supported the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan throughout his candidacy gave a speech to the American people Monday night regarding his new strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia.

Though prior to his address many suspected that President Trump would call for a specific increase of troops in Afghanistan, the President instead outlined a more broad-based policy approach. A “core pillar” of the new U.S. strategy is a shift from a time-based approach, such as that used by former President Barack Obama, to one based on particular conditions on the ground. The President explained,

“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.”

This nuanced shift was likely influenced by senior members of the U.S. military, which signals that President Trump is, in fact, listening to his advisors. Nevertheless, the more aggressive position that the President is suggesting for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is clear, “I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

President Trump’s more assertive stance towards Afghanistan was also visible in his departure from strategies of previous American presidents towards holistic infrastructure development. He plainly stated that the American military would no longer be involved in the establishment of democracies or the rebuilding of countries in the American image. In his words, “Those days are now over” “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

More specifically, President Trump repositioned his approach towards the Afghan government. He explained that the U.S. Government would work with Afghanistan “as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.” President Trump provided no specific conditions, but he made clear, “The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress, and real results. Our patience is not unlimited.” This is perhaps the first time the U.S. government has expressed a potential issue with President Ghani and his administration.

Where nation-building is perhaps no longer on President Trump’s agenda, pursuing security interests in Afghanistan remains a chief priority. In his speech, the President indicated that 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the highest concentration” anywhere in the world. The President’s priority in the Af-Pak region is to prevent the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America and American interests, including preventing nuclear weapons and materials from falling into the hands of terrorists and being used to attack the United States or elsewhere.

More tame than his “fire and fury” comments directed at North Korea, President Trump asserted, “One way or another, these problems will be solved. I’m a problem solver. And in the end, we will win.”

President Trump turned his focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan in an approach that many analysts regarded as more aggressive, if not more demeaning. The President began, “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” He proclaimed that the U.S. Government would “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.” President Trump was also critical of U.S. funding of Pakistan, “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” Vice President Mike Pence echoed President Trump’s statements the following morning stating “we’re putting them on notice” when asked if the president would consider declaring Pakistan a “state sponsor of terror” in the event the state failed to comply.

In his speech, though President Trump was critical of Pakistan’s position on providing safe haven to terrorists, he also acknowledged the suffering and sacrifice of the Pakistani people as well as the position of Pakistan as a “valued partner” and military ally to the U.S. against “common enemies.” He stated that Pakistan has much to gain from a continuing partnership in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, but also much to lose by harboring criminals and terrorists.

In perhaps the most critical of his comments on Pakistan, President Trump stated, “It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.” The implication here is that Pakistan, in failing to live up to President Trump’s statements, would be considered instead, barbaric. The choice of words here is likely not going to sit well with Islamabad, especially when coupled with President Trump’s request to India to increase its role as a strategic partner in Afghanistan.

President Trump’s statements are likely to stoke further bitterness in the tense U.S.-Pakistan alliance. What future roles Afghanistan, Pakistan or India will play in these circumstances, only time will tell. What is clear, however, at this moment is that there is little clarity in this administration’s vision in Afghanistan, only vague assertions regarding future action and a commitment to partner with India. Islamabad will have to critically assess President Trump’s harsher comments and the potential consequences of any future actions in light of reinvigorated American interest in Afghanistan. These statements are not anything Pakistan has not heard before from previous U.S. administrations. However, this new assessment should be coupled with a serious consideration of the nature of President Trump, in light of his quick-draw hostility towards North Korea and all things he perceives as threatening. The last thing the citizens of both the U.S. and Pakistan want is for grandstanding to devolve into actual conflict.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Maira Sheikh

Author: Maira Sheikh

The writer is a lawyer.