On Monday 21 August 2017 US President Trump made his long awaited statement on future US policy in Afghanistan. There was considerable speculation beforehand that as to whether Trump might announce a US withdrawal. The basis for that speculation appeared to be various statements that Trump had made both before and during his candidacy for the presidency.
Even closer to the time of the speech there was further speculation that he would announce an increase of 4000 US troops. The basis for that speculation appeared to be leaks from unspecified sources.
In the event the speech was an anticlimax. Although Trump conceded that his views had changed, there was essentially no change to US policy. Any change would have been a surprise as there are long established continuities as to US foreign policy generally, and in this case to Afghanistan.
The only voice in the administration making a different case was Steve Bannon, and his departure the previous week confirmed not only that there would be no change in policy, but that the takeover of the administration by the generals was now complete. Trumps three closest advisers on national security matters, Kelly, McMaster and Mattis have never shown the least interest in a reduced American military footprint anywhere in the world, much less in Afghanistan.
The figure of 4000 extra troops, although not specified by Trump, nonetheless remains the favoured figure by most commentators. Quite why this number would make any significant difference has never been explained. It is significantly fewer troops than the more than 100,000 the Americans had at the height of their troop engagement, and that number was conspicuously unable to defeat the Taliban or even exercise effective control over more than a small percentage of the country.
Trump’s statement and the mainstream commentaries that have followed have barely mentioned if at all the more than 100,000 mercenaries that are operating in Afghanistan. Perhaps because their role is unencumbered by the normal rules of engagement they enjoy a media silence that is inconsistent with informed debate and discussion about an effective resolution of what is transparently an unwinnable quagmire.
There were two policy elements in Trump’s speech that are worth a further comment. The first was his disclaimer that the United States was engaged in “nation building” but rather was there “to kill terrorists.” Apart from the inherent implausibility of this claim, it creates difficulties for allies such as Australia whose politicians continue to sell this unpopular enterprise on the equally implausible claim that they are there to “train” Afghan troops to a level of self-sufficiency. This claim is maintained in the face of overwhelming evidence that after several years of such “training” the Afghan army remains a byword for corruption, “ghost” soldiers, and a compete inability to sustain any kind of effective military combat.
The second point in Trump’s speech worth noting is that he said that the Rules of engagement would be relaxed. The detail was not specified, but such terminology usually prefaces the commission of war crimes and a war in which civilians are the main casualties. The Afghan civilian population has already suffered years of bombing, drone attacks and being experimental guinea pigs for the first ever use of the so-called ‘mother of all bombs’. The military efficacy of that particular attack has never been revealed.
In short, there was no substantive change at all in Trump’s policy announcement. Nor was there ever likely to be as US policy in Afghanistan is part of a consistent policy being played out around the world. Only some of the details vary to reflect particular local circumstances.
In Afghanistan’s case there are three principal local conditions, an understanding of which is critical to any realistic appraisal of US policy in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, none of these conditions have featured in mainstream analysis of Trumps’ speech.
The first of these is the issue of resources. As even the New York Times acknowledged (25 July 2017) a 2014 report estimated that Afghanistan had as much as $1 trillion of untapped mineral deposits. These mineral resources include rare earth minerals that are essential to a range of high-tech products. At present, China has a virtual monopoly of these valuable resources.
A related resource issue is control of the oil and gas pipeline from the enormous reserves of the Caspian basin. It was the US’s failure to secure the contract for this pipeline in July 2001 that was the reason for the October 2001 invasion, not the fictional narrative of hunting for Osama bin Laden.
The second major issue revolves around the long-standing US policy of confronting China, Iran and Russia. Iran and China share a border with Afghanistan, and three former Soviet republics, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, also border it.
All three of those latter countries have a significant Muslim population, 89%, 79% and 98% respectively. They are therefore prime targets for ISIS and other proxy terrorist groups. It is not a coincidence that ISIS began to play a significant role in Afghanistan at precisely the time when the Taliban were reasserting control over the majority of the country.
The use of terrorist proxy groups in support of US geopolitical objectives in the region date at least from the 1970s when under Operation Cyclone Mujihideen were trained and armed by the Americans for infiltration into Afghanistan, China’s Xinjiang province (also with a significant Muslim population) and the aforementioned former Soviet republics. The Mujihideen el Khalq (MEK) have similarly been used to destabilize Iran.
The third local condition of significance is that Afghanistan supplies 93% of the world’s heroin according to the UN Drug Agency. Opium production, from which heroin is derived, had virtually ceased under the Taliban prior to the invasion in 2001. Production rebounded under American and allied patronage reaching a new record level in 2016.
The use of illegal narcotics to finance CIA and other clandestine operations is well documented (Alfred McCoy The Politics of Heroin 1972, 2003; Peter Dale Scott, Drugs, Oil and War 2003; Scott, American War Machine 2010). Heroin addiction is used as a means of destabilizing target countries, and Russia and Iran have significant addiction problems as a consequence.
Trump’s speech was vague on details, and this was deliberately so. Any discussion of details would risk exposing the whole fabric of deceit upon which the last 16 years of invasion and occupation have been built.
The real underlying message in Trump’s statement was that the US would persist in its policies in the region. Given the above factors, that will inevitably lead to a confrontation with Russia, Iran and China.
Last week the Russian Foreign Ministry issued two statements drawing attention to two areas of major concern to the Russian Federation. The first of these were the activities of unidentified helicopters flying from an Afghan national air base in Mazar-i-Sharif and being used to attack Hazara Shia Muslims without any interference from NATO forces that have total control of Afghan air space.
The second statement drew attention to Afghanistan’s drug cultivation and noted that tonnes of chemicals essential for processing opium into heroin were flown from Italy, France and the Netherlands. All three are NATO countries, and again there was no interdiction by NATO forces. Neither statement received any coverage in the western mainstream media.
At a meeting in Moscow on 18 July 2017 of Russia’s top military command, the Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the conflict in Afghanistan poses a threat to the stability of Central Asia. Any move by ISIS into the Central Asian republics would, said Russia’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, invite a Russian military response.
China is also alarmed, not only because of the ongoing threat posed by the infiltration of proxy terrorist groups into sensitive areas in south-western China, but also because one of the US’s real objectives is to disrupt China’s enormous One Belt, One Road (OBOR) projects that are transforming countries in the region.
Pakistan is a key component of that project, including through the $45 billion China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC) that terminates in the Pakistani (but Chinese controlled) port of Gwador. It is likely that Pakistan’s role in OBOR is the real reason for the threats Trump uttered against Pakistan, rather than their alleged role in supporting the Taliban.
If Trump was serious about bringing about an end to the Afghan conflict he would have taken advantage of the Russian sponsored peace talks with all the other interested parties earlier this year. His failure to do so, and now a speech devoid of real policy substance, but promising more of the same old failed policies, is a truer indication of America’s real intentions.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.