GAYETI SINGH | 15 NOVEMBER, 2016
NEW DELHI: A lot has been written about President-elect Donald Trump’s vague foreign policy plan, as the real estate mogul has failed to put forth a concrete programme regarding America’s future position on the wars in Iraq and Syria, or relations with Russia or China. Amidst this vague foreign policy position, the region of South Asia barely finds mention, as questions regarding the future of American troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s increasingly troubled relationship with the US, simmering India-Pakistan tensions, and the future of Indo-US ties, all remain unanswered.
The Taliban in Afghanistan -- against whom the US led a war in 2001, with US troops remaining in the country ever since -- have already responded to Trump’s victory by issuing a rallying call to fighters. According to a recent report by Reuters, Taliban commanders and Islamic State supporters say Trump's campaign trail rhetoric against Muslims - at one point calling for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States - will play perfectly in their recruitment efforts, especially for disaffected youth in the West. "This guy is a complete maniac. His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands," Abu Omar Khorasani, a top IS commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government, US officials and NATO allies remain uncertain about American policy in Afghanistan, as there is no clarity on whether Trump will match his unpredictable image and reverse decisions or keep to a path that has cost the US billions and kept troops engaged in a hostile country for over 15 years.
The US has spent a huge 115 billion USD in aid in Afghanistan, in addition to other military costs. President Barack Obama had to reverse his promise of withdrawing troops completely from the country, as Afghan forces have struggled to fight the Taliban insurgency -- which now, despite the huge amounts of US money and resources pumped into the country, controls over a third of Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are at an all time high for yet another consecutive year, as the Taliban sees some of its biggest gains yet -- virtually taking control of the important provinces of Kunduz and Lashkar Gah.
While US officials have told their partners in Afghanistan that US aid and assistance will continue, this statement was received in Kabul with the expectation that Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton will win the election.
Trump’s victory, along with his “America first” policy position, has taken Afghanistan, along with the rest of the world by surprise. Many are left wondering whether Trump will continue spending billions of dollars on Afghanistan, particularly after his oft-quoted statement that "we're getting out of the nation-building business". It is understandable, given the above, why many in Kabul are now worried about the future of the country -- especially as the Taliban gets stronger and stronger.
Related to the security situation in Afghanistan is the growing presence of the Islamic State in the country, with a series of recent attacks being claimed by the militant group. Although Trump has put forth a policy of wiping out the Islamic State, there is absolutely no clarity regarding how he intends to do so, and whether the group’s arms and affiliates outside of Syria and Iraq -- in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia (to name a few) -- figure in the larger plan.
Related to the ambiguous position on Afghanistan is Trump’s Pakistan policy, as Islamabad views the developments with caution. Trump has previously asked Pakistan to apologise for sheltering Osama Bin Laden -- deviating from the official position that Islamabad was not aware of the 9/11 mastermind’s presence in the country. Pakistan’s relations with America matter on several fronts. For one, the country continues to receive American aid. Two, the US has played a key role in mediating relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, that have been constrained by various factors in recent years. Three, Islamabad will inevitably be concerned about closer Indo-US ties, especially as tensions between Pakistan and India are at an all time high currently.
On all these fronts, there is little clarity regarding Trump’s position. Although Trump promised that India and the US will be “best friends” at a recent charity event hosted by Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) and proclaimed “I am a big fan of Hindu” -- how this translates into US foreign policy remains unclear.
Nevertheless, many in Pakistan are concerned that the country could become the punching bag for the Trump presidency on the issue of terror, especially given Trump’s overt Islamophobia. “It will depend on how foreign policy experts shape his regional agenda. If he gives space to hawks, it is possible Pakistan may face repercussions over its association with militant groups. On the flipside, he has not spoken about Pakistan that much so there is a chance his Middle East agenda takes up most of his policy space and we end up getting ignored,” columnist Umair Javed told Dawn.
In the same vein, Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC, told that newspaper that “the US-Pakistan relationship was destined to be downgraded regardless of who won the election. But with Trump, the relationship could face some very trying times. Trump will have no patience for Pakistan's approach to terror. He is unlikely to support aid without conditions. At best, we could see a lot of tough love from Trump. At worst, we could see an increasingly tense relationship. The US-Pakistan relationship won't collapse under Trump, but it could face unprecedented challenges.”
Others feel that just as Trump’s presidency will fuel the militant movement in Afghanistan, the same will also happen in Pakistan. "On a serious note: Trump's victory will be an enormous gift to a failing jihadist movement, that will have now have a renewed rallying cry. If jihadi ideology has a source of sustenance, it is the image of the US as the evil anti-Muslim crusader. They will milk Trump's win dry,” said Ammar Rashid, a researcher and political worker, on Twitter.
Meanwhile, in India, there is considerable excitement as many see Trump’s victory translating into a harder stance on Pakistan and China, and bringing the US closer to India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in fact, underscored his own “good relations” with the US leader, adding that he felt that Trump would be well inclined toward India. Numerous media reports have echoed the same sentiment, with analysts putting forth arguments ranging from Trump’s hard stance on Pakistan and China fostering a pivot toward India, to the influx of future Indian entrepreneurs and students to the US. A small group of Hindu nationalists known as the Hindu Sena have been holding a vigil for Trump and even held a birthday celebration for the real estate mogul in June in the hope that he wins. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s key slogan that accompanied him into office, “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkaar” was rejigged for Trump as “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkaar,” with dozens of supporters chanting the slogan as the results were announced. The Hindu Sena’s support for Trump echoes the same rationale that sections of the wider Indian community have put forth while explaining why Trump would be good for India, namely, terror and Pakistan. “Many people criticized Trump’s proposals to stop radical Muslims from entering the U.S. and mocked us for celebrating the man,” Hindu Sena leader Vishnu Gupta told the Wall Street Journal. “But today, we’ve come out ahead.”
However, it will be prudent to remember that predicting a major reversal on US foreign policy toward Pakistan or China is at this point entirely premature. Further, Trump’s “America first” campaign has made direct references to curbing immigration and stopping the outsourcing of US jobs -- two developments that will invariably adversely impact India if they are to eventuate.
As policy makers and the people at large in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India debate which way Trump’s Presidency will go, South Asians in America are increasingly reporting a flurry of racist abuse and attacks. As a section of Trump supporters take to the streets to spray racist graffiti, pull off hijabs, and yell “Apu” -- whether the victim of the abuse is Indian, Afghan or Pakistani ceases to matter.