Nothing new in Trump’s South Asia policy, it’s Obama redux

While the US President Donald Trump’s much awaited televised speech on the 21st of August was supposed to lay down his administration’s Afghanistan policy, what really transpired eventually from his speech was his administration’s South Asia policy, largely denouncing Pakistan for harboring militants and calling on India to step up its efforts in the region, including Afghanistan.

Trump’s policy ruled out any scope for the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. It seems Trump administration does not want to alter anything that its predecessor Obama administration took on with regard to South Asia; rather it seems Trump administration is willing to intensify them.

Both Obama & Trump for no withdrawal in Afghanistan

Both Trump and Obama decided to stay in Afghanistan, though both talked about withdrawal in their past.

Trump, prior to his bid for the US Presidency, claimed that the US involvement in Afghanistan was a waste and the US troops must be pulled out of the country, though it is the same Trump who, in his recent speech, mentioned about stepping up efforts to win the long drawn war in Afghanistan, opening the door for deploying more US troops. Trump seems to be no different in this regard from Barack Obama, who too pledged in 2013 to end the war in Afghanistan, but eventually could not order a total withdrawal of the US troops from the country.

Furthermore, while Obama sought more troops in Afghanistan from NATO allies during his tenure, Trump too has called for deploying more troops in Afghanistan from the US’s NATO allies, saying “We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own. We are confident they will.”

Both embrace India, denigrate Pakistan

Obama’s embrace of India and dissatisfaction over Pakistan only got an advanced outlook under Trump; that’s that, nothing new.

In his speech, Trump referred India as a key security and economic partner of the US, and urged for a bigger Indian role in South Asia, particularly centering Afghanistan in the area of economic assistance and development. It is under the Obama administration when the US had walked towards a strategic partnership with Narenda Modi’s India in an effort to counter the rising Chinese influence in the greater Asia Pacific and the Indian Oceanic region. It is now the Trump administration that has decided to continue in the same direction.

Trump’s speech further reflected his administration’s intention to take a more hard-line approach towards Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, which Trump said provides safe havens for terrorists. “No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials,” said Trump as a blunt message to Pakistan.

From Obama’s time in the White House, Pakistan has been facing criticisms from different influential corners in the US on various grounds, including its inability to combat militancy in the region. Although the previous US administration, under Obama, used less cold words against Pakistan, the administration was slowly moving towards creating a stage for its successors to gradually cast off Pakistan in the US’s attempt of embracing Pakistan’s arch rival India and putting indirect pressure on China, which is Pakistan’s strategic partner against India.

Although Pakistan had been an ally in the US’s war on terror since the 9/11 attacks on the US soil, Trump has – and Obama had – a negative outlook towards Pakistan due to two factors. One factor is that these two successive administrations have translated the discovery of Osama bin Laden in a hideout in Pakistan (where he was killed in 2011) as Pakistan’s indirect shelter for someone who was waging a war against the US. The other factor is Pakistan’s ever growing intimacy with China, a country which the US perceives as the major threat to its interest in the greater Asia Pacific and the Indian Oceanic region.

Pakistan’s growing love affair with China had been earning Pakistan a bad name in the US policy making structure during Obama’s tenure in White House and the US’s displeasure towards this relationship is now clearly reflected in Trump’s policy.

All in all, it seems the overtures Obama was making towards India and the silent retreat his administration was making from supporting its old ally Pakistan have only got an advanced outlook through Trump administration’s South Asia policy.

Bahauddin Foizee

Analyst and Columnist on international affairs, specializes on Middle Eastern, greater Asia-Pacific & European geopolitics. Primarily associated with law practice, formerly taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and was Researcher at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development. Holds law degree from University of London.

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