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Reading The Tea Leaves On Trump’s Approach To Afghanistan and Pakistan

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York on November 9.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York on November 9.

Afghanistan and Pakistan figured prominently on the foreign policy agendas of two U.S. presidents during the past 16 years.

George W. Bush launched the United States’ longest war in Afghanistan in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

His successor, President Barack Obama, spent most of his eight years in office trying to bring that war to an end.

Still more than 8,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan, and Washington’s aid and support are vital for keeping Afghan institutions and the state they constitute and serve functioning.

Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid says President-elect Donald Trump has said little on Afghanistan during his 18 months on the campaign trail, which makes it difficult to read or even speculate on his strategy.

“Afghanistan doesn’t seem to be on his agenda. He doesn’t know about it -- as to what is going on there,” Rashid said. “But he is now confronted by the fact that the U.S. troops are on the front line and he has to have a policy on Afghanistan.”

In an optimistic sign for Kabul, Afghanistan-born former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad is being touted as one of possible picks for Trump’s secretary of state.

Nonetheless, the 15-year war in Afghanistan is overshadowed by several ongoing crises such as the complicated struggle against the Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, immigration, climate change, and Washington’s relations with Russia, China, and other major powers.

Going by his campaign rhetoric, Trump has cast himself as an isolationist who has publicly questioned U.S. spending on the war against terror in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East region where seemingly intractable conflicts continue to fester.

The issue of terrorism and security threats, however, is likely to preoccupy the Trump presidency and might entice him to pay close attention to Afghanistan and perhaps more to its eastern neighbor Pakistan.

During his campaign, Trump said he would keep 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan because of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

“I would stay in Afghanistan. It’s probably the one place we should have gone in the Middle East because it’s adjacent and right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons,” he told Fox News in April. “So I think you have to stay and do the best you can; not that it’s ever going to be great, but I don’t think we have much of a choice,” he said.

Rashid, who has followed Washington’s role in the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the early 1980s, says Trump is likely to tap into a lot of international frustration with Islamabad because of its perceived support for the Afghan Taliban and the fact that so many Taliban leaders are still based in Pakistan.

In recent years, Pakistan’s alleged support for the Haqqani network, the Taliban’s deadly military arm, has provoked criticism from both major U.S. political parties.

Trump is likely to be more tough in arm-twisting Islamabad to give up its alleged support for the jihadists.

“He will be quite tough on Pakistan -- perhaps tougher than the Obama administration,” Rashid noted. “Pakistan should expect a lot of pressure, not only from the U.S. but also from Europe and the West in general.”

Rashid says Trump is expected to further strengthen Washington’s mushrooming relationship with Pakistan’ archrival, India. Cooperation between New Delhi and Washington has grown exponentially in the economic, political, and economic spheres in recent years.

“Remember that India is a huge destination for American investment also, and that is something that will interest Trump very much,” Rashid said. “So we are seeing a real shift toward India, which I think will be much more marked during Trump’s time.”

Islamabad is keen to counter allegations that its supports extremist groups.

Last week, Pakistan’s foreign office said that the recent killings of Haqqani network leaders in Afghanistan show that allegations that Islamabad is aiding the group are misplaced.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was quick to offer Trump his congratulations.

“Our deep-seated conviction is that a strong partnership between the two countries remains critical to promoting and sustaining peace, security, and stability in the wider region,” he said.