Trump’s Foreign Policy Opportunities in South Asia

Tighten your seat belts! South Asia, along with much of the rest of the world, should get ready for a more muscular, business-like, and unorthodox foreign policy under US President Donald Trump. His team of security and foreign policy experts, many of whom have unorthodox backgrounds and credentials, will help him implement a more personalized and business-like foreign relations regime. Trump has wasted no time in seizing the opportunity to reshape US foreign policy to better define and align it with US interests as he sees them.

Other than his self-created crisis in dealing with refugees and immigrants from the Musllim World, two areas will demand Trump’s immediate attention: the war in Afghanistan and foreign aid.

Afghanistan needs help

A prominent question facing Trump will be on the US role in the governance of Afghanistan, so that promised US assistance is best accounted for and utilized. A stable Afghan polity that takes on greater responsibility for its security and negotiates with the insurgents to restore peace to that benighted land is critical for continued US and European assistance.

The United States, having beaten back Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, must not resile from its responsibility to ensure stability in Afghanistan and the region. The Afghan government, too, must deliver on its proimse of good governance to win the confidence of its own public and by doing so push back on the Taliban’s claims that they can offer better or faster services at the local level. The government must also curb excesses by its own members that damage its credibility. A weak and fractured Afghanistan will invite undue interference from near and far neighbors seeking access to Central Asia and indeed to Afghanistan’s own natural resources.

Another important, and related, issue is how Pakistan reshapes its relationship with the Afghan Taliban and their supporting groups, such as the Haqqani Network. For more than a decade, Pakistan maintained an untenable policy of accepting US reimbursement under the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) for expenses related to Pakistani troops sent to the border region, ostensibly in support of the US and coalition war against the Afghan Taliban, and to seal the border with Afghanistan.

For more than a decade, the Pakistani government maintained the fiction that the Afghan Taliban were not using its territory in Balochistan or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as sanctuary. Under pressure from the United States and in the face of rising domestic violence, the Pakistani army and civil armed forces took on the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in the FATA, but not the Afghan Taliban because they believed that the Afghan Taliban could help deny India space in Afghanistan.

However, the United States, recognizing the need for land and air access over Pakistani territory to resupply the Afghan war effort, continued to maintain a facade of friendship, despite constant reminders that militant groups were using Pakistani territory to train terrorists from around the world. These included people from, Afghanistan, China, Central Asia, and even Europe. Notably, some of the recent attacks or plans for attacks by lone-wolf terrorists in the United States have been linked to training camps in the FATA.

With the US-led coalition now winding down its fifteen-year-old operations in Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001, the CSF will be drying up. Any hope in Pakistan that this source of funds will be replaced in order to continue US subvention for Pakistan’s internal battle against the Taliban is likely to be unrequited. There will also be renewed demands from the Trump administration for a quid pro quo, such as the release of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor arrested by his country’s authorities for helping the United States track down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to a hideout in Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces in a raid on his home in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.

Pakistan has conducted a largely successful military operation against terrorists in the FATA, but it also needs to root out terror from its heartland to complete that job. Removing weapons from the hands of non-state actors and de-radicalization are critical parts of that process. US assistance for such action may help normalize the relationship with Pakistan and reduce the regional and global threat of terrorism emanating from that country. The Trump administration should seek clearly defined timelines and benchmarks for such actions for Pakistan to qualify for US assistance. These could include curbs on all jihadi groups operating inside Pakistan, a revamp of the curricula of all educational institutions at the provincial level, and a complete and fully enforced ban on public display of weapons by groups other than the military, police, or paramilitary forces.

Reshaping USAID

On a much larger front, but still relevant for South Asia, the Trump administration can and should introduce a more rigorous regime for management of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Assistance should be provided only when the recipient country prepares a practicable and verifiable project plan complete with identifiable benchmarks and criteria for success. This will create ownership among aid recipients and help the administration better report to the US Congress on the effectiveness of foreign aid.

India is now graduating out of the grant money components of such aid flows, including from the World Bank. However, Pakistan’s economic standing still makes it eligible for subsidized aid flows from the World Bank. In the face of dwindling foreign direct investment, Pakistan still needs foreign aid for development projects. This gives the United States, a major shareholder of multilateral aid and financial agencies, greater leverage for both bilateral and multilateral aid flows to Pakistan.

The United States must demand public recognition of its financial aid, especially in Pakistan where there is a largely negative perception of the United States and the State constrains publicity of US aid efforts. It should also enforce tight controls over the use of such funds and be ready to pull the plug if there is any question about their proper utilization.

On its part, the Pakistani government must do its share by publicly posting all information about aid monies received and whether it is meeting the target dates of each project. This transparency needs to apply to all aid, not just US funds. This is in Pakistan’s own interest, to be seen as honest and transparent in the use of foreign aid. It will also help it get further aid.

The United States is the world’s largest aid donor. By applying the hard-nosed rules of business to its relationships and demanding accountability from recipients of its aid, the Trump administration could play that part responsibly in South Asia and the rest of the Developing World.

Shuja Nawaz was the founding director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, where he is now a distinguished fellow. He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008). His most recent report was a nine-month study of Countering Militancy and Terrorism in Pakistan: The Civil-Military Nexus. (USIP 2016).


Related Experts: Shuja Nawaz

Image: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 11, 2016. (Reuters/Omar Sobhani)