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

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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 is an international affairs analyst and columnist, and regularly writes on greater Asia-Pacific, Indian Oceanic region and greater Middle East geopolitics. He also - infrequently - writes on environment & climate change and the global refugee crisis. Besides Modern Diplomacy, his articles have appeared at The Diplomat, Global New Light of Myanmar, Asia Times, Eurasia Review, Middle East Monitor, International Policy Digest and a number of other international publications. His columns also appear in the Dhaka-based national newspapers, including Daily Observer, Daily Sun, Daily Star, The Independent, The New Nation, Financial Express, New age and bdnews24com. He previously taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and worked at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development.

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South Asia

Afghanistan: the US and NATO withdrawal and future prospects

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On April 14, the United States of America announced that it would withdraw all its troops stationed in Afghanistan from May 1 to September 11, 2021. On the same day, NATO also said it would coordinate with the White House military to initiate the withdrawal.

The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Afghanistan, a conflict that has actually been going on since the Soviet invasion of that unfortunate country on December 24, 1979.

What are the plans of NATO and the United States? How will the situation in Afghanistan change in the future?

Regarding the US announcement of the deadline for troop withdrawal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that the Afghan government respects the US government’s decision to withdraw its troops by the agreed date.

According to the Associated Press, there were 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan before May 1, far below the peak of over 110,000 in 2011.

According to the websites of the Financial Times and theDeutsche Welle, some ten thousand soldiers from the 36 NATO Member States and other US allies are currently stationed in Afghanistan, including as many as 895 Italian soldiers, as well as 1,300 Germans, 750 Brits, 619 Romanians, 600 Turks, etc.

President Trump’s previous Administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan in February 2020, setting May 1, 2021 as the deadline for NATO to begin withdrawing from that country. The Washington Post reported that after the current US government issued the withdrawal statement, the Taliban immediately said that if the United States violated the peace agreement and did not withdraw its troops in Afghanistan, the situation would get worse and one of the parties to the agreement would take responsibility for it.

This year is the twentieth since the United States started the war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The war in Afghanistan is the United States’ longest overseas war, and has killed over 2,300 US soldiers and wounded some 20,000 people, at a cost of over 1 trillion US dollars.

Although the United States and its allies attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the situation in Afghanistan has been turbulent for a long time, with over a hundred thousand Afghan civilian casualties in the fighting.

According to The New York Times, both Parties’ members of the US Congress have differing views on the consequences of withdrawal. According to the newspaper, Republicans and some Democrats believe that the troop withdrawal will encourage the Taliban insurgency, while others believe it is necessary to put an end to this indefinite war.

But what considerations can be made for the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan?

It is well known that the purpose of the United States in taking the war to Afghanistan was a very heavy measure of retaliation against al-Qaeda, which had organised the terrorist attacks of September 11, and against the Taliban regime that protected the top leaders of that terrorist organisation. Although al-Qaeda has not been destroyed, it is unlikely to create similar problems. The United States has achieved its strategic goals and is no longer involved in East Asia’s tactics and strategy.

The interests of NATO (considering its individual Member States) in Afghanistan are fewer than those of the United States. As a military alliance with the United States, the achievement of US strategic goals means that NATO’s equal strategic goals have also been achieved. Hence, rather than continuing to run the risk of confronting the Taliban and al-Qaeda after US military withdrawals, NATO is more willing to remove the “political burden” as soon as possible.

While announcing the terms of the withdrawal, the White House has stated that the threat of extremist organisations such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and ISIS is spreading globally and it is therefore meaningless to concentrate forces in Afghanistan, with a steady expansion of its military cycle. At the same time, however, the White House has stated that after withdrawal, diplomatic and counter-terrorism mechanisms will be reorganised in Afghanistan to face security challenges. Hence, from the US perspective, there is currently a greater terrorist threat than al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The prospectsfor advancing the Indo-Pacific regional strategy to oppose China also means that it would be counterproductive for the United States to remain in Afghanistan any longer. Even after the troop withdrawal, there will be insecurity in Afghanistan. That being the case, however, the United States will still find ways and means to support the Afghan regime and the armed forces of the Kabul government.

The Washington Post has also reported statements by a Pentagon official who has stressed that Afghanistan is a landlocked country: consequently, once US and NATO forces withdraw, one of the biggest challenges will be how to effectively monitor and combat extremist organisations and resist threats to US security: at that distance it will be even more difficult without sea landings.

According to Reuters, the CIA predicts that the possibility of a further US-Afghan peace deal is little and has warned that once the United States and its allies withdraw, it will be difficult to stop the Taliban.

The Afghan government forces currently control Kabul and other large cities, but the Taliban are present in more than half of the country’s territory and rural areas. In the future, the possibility of a Taliban counter-offensive cannot be ruled out.

Great Britain’s The Guardian has commented that the years of war have generally made Afghans feel a strong sense of insecurity and the withdrawal of troops will not bring much comfort to the local population. According to the London-based newspaper, for the United States this is yet another war that cannot be won.

According to experts, there are two extreme possibilities in the future situation in Afghanistan. The excellent situation is the one in which the less extremist wing of the Taliban mediates so that, once the United States withdraws, the Taliban can gradually move from being an extremist organisation to being an internal administrative one and then negotiate with the legitimate government supported by the United Nations: this would mean a long-term peace after forty-two years of war.

Under extremely unfavourable circumstances, instead, the Afghan government forces would overestimate their military strength and intend to continue the war alone against their traditional opponents, at which point peace negotiations between the two sides would break down.

This would mean falling again into a prolonged civil war and into eternal war.

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Bhashan Char Relocation: Bangladesh’s Effort Appreciated by UN

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Bhashan Char. Image source: dhakatribune.com

Bhashan Char, situated in the district of Noakhali, is one of the 75 islands of Bangladesh. To ease the pressure on the digested camps in Cox’s Bazar and to maintain law and order, Bangladesh has relocated about 18,500 Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps to the island since December last year. The Rohingya relocation plan to Bhashan Char aligns with the Bangladesh government’s all-encompassing efforts towards repatriation. The initial plan was to relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the clogged camps to the island. From the onset of the relocation process, the UN and some other human rights organizations criticized the decision pointing to remoteness and sustainability. UNHCR showed their concern over the island’s susceptibility to seasonal storm and flood. They proposed for a “technical assessment” of the Bhashan Char facilities.

An 18-member UN delegation visited Bhashan Char Island on March 17 this year to have a first-hand assessment of the housing facility for the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Shortly after the UN’s visit, a team with 10 diplomats including heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands also went to the island on April 3 to appraise the facilities. All the members of the technical team opined that they are ‘satisfied’ with the facilities in Bhashan Char. The experts of the UN told, they will hand over a 10-page report of their annotations and they have already submitted a two-page abridgment. On April 16, they released the two-page synopsis after a month of the visit.  After the three-day study of Bhashan Char by the UN delegates, they recommended the Bangladesh government to continue the relocation process to the island in a ‘phased manner’. The team twigged three points – education for Rohingya children, increasing heights of the embankments and better communication system. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A. K. Abdul Momen concerted to take the necessary measures to create a safe and secure environment for the Rohingya refugees until the repatriation takes place. The relocation is not the solution of the Rohingya crisis rather the over emphasis of the relocation and facilities inside Bangladesh is protracting the crisis and distracting the attention from the broader emphasis on the repatriation to Myanmar.

The UNHCR and other concerned parties should plan for a long run repatriation process. Repatriation is the only durable solution, not the relocation of the Rohingya refugees. For the time being, resettlement under the Asrayan-3 project is an ease for the FDMNs but in the long run the Rohingya crisis is going to turn as a tremendous threat for regional peace and stability. Besides, resentment in the host community in Bangladesh due to the scarce resources may emerge as a critical security and socio-economic concern for Bangladesh.  It is not new that the Rohingyas are repatriated in Myanmar during the Military rule. Around 20,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the 2000s. The focus of the world community should be creating favourable conditions for the Rohingyas to return safely regardless who is in the power seat of Myanmar-civilian or military government. The UN should largely focus on repatriating the Rohingya refugees in a “phased manner”, let alone deciding their concern in the camps and the Bhashan Char. After the praiseworthy relocation plan, they should now concentrate on implementing speedy and durable repatriation. Proactive initiatives are essential from all walks for a safe and dignified return of the FDMNs. To be specific, the relocation is a part of the repatriation, not the solution of the problem. 

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Afghan peace options

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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