Fighting his instincts, reneging on campaign promises, and disregarding his anti-globalist advisers, President Trump told America he changed his mind about Afghanistan. It is the kind of reversal he hates because it dilutes his brash brand.
But true to his gut, he won't be nation building, constructing hospitals, or making sure girls can once again wear miniskirts to school. The Trump strategy instead is to make sure Afghanistan doesn't further devolve while he looks to hand off the problem to someone else.
Like a distressed property, Trump wants to offload the war and Afghan reconstruction at the right discounted price in a handshake deal.
His ideal buyer is not a mercenary band, though he was pitched and considered the idea. It’s not to a still incapable Afghan government or even to tired and distracted European allies. They aren’t buying. No, Trump figures that with a mini-surge of patching and fresh paint, he can sell this problem asset as an opportunity to someone in the neighborhood with interest in the location, location, location.
India tops the list.
India was recognized and flattered in President Trump’s speech as “the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.” The president then threatened New Delhi with punitive trade as an incentive for India to increase its investment in an Afghan solution.
Pakistan, however, was also part of the deal. Not in a good way. Told that it had to buck up and play ball, Pakistan’s untested new leadership and its suspect military and intelligence services were put on notice – as they were by the Obama administration – that the country cannot work against American interests, harbor Taliban, and, at the same time, take American arms and money. The president said all that must “change immediately.”
In presidential summary: India good, Pakistan bad.
Outsourcing solutions and seeking OPM (“Other People’s Money”) to do so is a respectable business strategy. However, the practice usually doesn't apply in geopolitics. It rarely involves entire nations, risks military and civilian lives, or holds the potential of escalating into adversarial thermonuclear exchange. Changing the fragile South Asian power balance is a dangerous game. India and Pakistan are bristling with bombs and jonesing for a fight.
America First is an outsourcing and OPM foreign policy that allows the president to punt on difficult strategic decisions and commitments abroad. It minimizes American military and financial costs. It has the added benefit of providing the commander-in-chief deniability while relieving him of responsibility for any failures. The new Trump Afghan strategy both dilutes risk and absolves him of duty.
Colin Powell famously applied the Pottery Barn rule to war, where “you break it, you own it.” That rule has been overridden by a new Trump doctrine that simply says any deals made by previous administrations are breakable — whether the Paris climate accords or the multilateral Iran nuclear deal. Afghanistan is no different. The just announced Trump Afghan strategy is another manifestation of the Trump doctrine — a doctrine that blames previous administrations for all “messes” and does not bind the United States to any previous commitments or policies. Ever.
This blame, defame, and game routine is, indeed, Trump’s tactical negotiating approach to all global problems. In North Korea, he blames China and places a bigger burden on Japan. Back home, immigration is blamed on Mexico, which is then told it must underwrite an American-built border wall. This is what candidate Trump promised. This is President Trump’s “America First” approach.
In this instance, he is blaming Pakistan and relying on India for a positive Afghan outcome. He thinks it will buy him time and allow him to cut American losses, spend little more, and achieve the strategic objective of avoiding total collapse. Here, as elsewhere, the Trump Doctrine reflects America’s rapidly evolving global retreat.
It is in this renewed policy environment, where America is betting on India's friendship, funds, and favor to do its bidding in Afghanistan, that Trump has chosen sides and a strategic direction. India good.
Since coming into office, the president has been shopping around for Grand Bargains. With Russia to solve Syria, China to rein in North Korea, and now India to manage Afghanistan and the Taliban. Variations on these bargains have been attempted at various stages by previous administrations, but this time they are being sought by a tempestuous leader who favors big gestures, bets, and deals and is allergic to “losing.” The Trump brand remains undiluted, but the real cost of his strategy is hard to reckon.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.