The Establishment Wins. Trump’s Policy Is Increasingly Mainstream
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Dmitry V. Suslov

Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Valdai Discussion Club

Less than nine months after Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp in Washington DC,” he is chin-high in its mud. The rule of continuity of US foreign policy has again proven its worth. It is another matter that his concessions to the establishment, renunciation of many election promises and dismissal of campaign allies will do nothing to strengthen his hand. On the contrary, he is rapidly retreating from his positions, while his already shaky domestic policy standing is getting worse. For the Establishment, he will in any event remain an outsider and even an enemy, no matter how hard he toes the line. At the same time, he is losing the protest electorate that wants changes and voted for him in November last year. By all evidence, both America and the world should prepare for new Trumps and new upheavals.

In August, the establishment continued its resolute assault on the considerably weakened President and the remnants of his anti-establishment team and emerged victorious from both the bureaucratic infighting and the struggle to define US foreign policy.

At the bureaucratic level, the White House has been cleansed of all influential supporters of dramatic foreign policy change, renunciation of imperial policies, and promotion of narrowly egoistic national interests. The cleansing culminated in the dismissal of White House strategist Stephen Bannon, the main force behind America Above All policy and the architect of the Trump 2016 victory. With Bannon out of the way, the presidential staff has been swallowed by the traditional establishment. His six-month-long confrontation with National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster, who represents the traditional military establishment and has been seeking to convert the Trump administration to a “normal” Republican administration steering a “normal” Republican foreign policy, has ended in a complete victory for the latter. The inner circle of the rogue president now includes not a single influential supporter of a “roguish” policy. The takeover of Trump by the establishment has been accomplished and what is ostensibly “his” administration is currently dominated by a tandem of the traditional Republican political bosses and the traditional brass.

This has immediately influenced US foreign policy which, at the tactical level, is rapidly returning to its habitual mainstream rut. In late August, Donald Trump announced a return to the former policy on Afghanistan, a very indicative step. For at least five years in the past, he favored an early and complete withdrawal of the leftover US contingent whose presence in Afghanistan for 16 years (the longest war in US history) has cost 2,500 American lives and over $1 trillion. By all standards, this is a total failure. Leaving Afghanistan was a (and Steve Bannon’s) key election promise. But on August 21, Trump said he had changed his mind. This was a clear departure influenced by the now all-powerful establishment. Incidentally, both National Security Adviser McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis were against leaving Afghanistan.

Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy includes the following: first, to keep the US military presence indefinitely and transit from Obama’s time criteria (withdraw troops in 2014 and then in 2016) to condition-based criteria (depending on developments in Afghanistan). These conditions have not been defined – intentionally. Thus, the US will remain in Afghanistan for a long time, at least for as long as Trump is President. Second, to make an insignificant increase in the US contingent’s strength (according to experts and insiders, by 5,000 to 10,000 officers and soldiers); third, to urge the US’ European allies and other US partners to increase their contingents proportionally; fourth, to lift most restrictions on US military operations in the country; fifth, to call off the plan to build a US-style democracy in Afghanistan or any plans of state-building for that matter; sixth, to put more pressure on Kabul to implement reforms and fight corruption (these two goals are already mutually contradictory); seventh, to envisage the possibility of incorporating some “moderate” Taliban factions into the national government sometime in the future and to seek the weakening of the Taliban, rather than a complete rout, so they are ready for a political settlement on terms dictated by the US and Kabul; eighth, to bring tougher pressure on Pakistan, which is helping the Taliban by wittingly or unwittingly giving them refuge in its territory; and ninth, to intensify security and economic cooperation with India for the benefit of Afghanistan.

Though described as “new,” this strategy is not really new. In fact, it is only a slight adaptation of the Obama administration’s approach in 2011 (when the pullout of the bulk of the US contingent began).

First, it was Obama who began by increasing the US contingent to 140,000 but withdrew most of the force by 2016, leaving only 8,000 (that are in Afghanistan now) indefinitely. Trump continues this policy, but the extra force he is sending will not change the situation in any way. It seems clear that a force of 13,000 to 15,000 will not be able to do anything whatsoever, even if allowed greater operational latitude, where 140,000 US troops (plus allied forces and coalition partners), all engaged in active warfare, failed to defeat the Taliban and other Islamists, who currently control about 40% of Afghan territory.  

Second, it was Obama who from the start attempted to force the allied countries and other US partners to boost their contingents in Afghanistan. But he failed despite the Obama craze that marked the start of his presidency. It is highly unlikely that the European NATO countries would like to meet Trump half-way against the background of increasingly uneasy trans-Atlantic relations. More likely than not, this US demand will create yet another irritant.

Third, the former administration likewise did its best to pressure Pakistan and see it as part of the problem. In fact, Obama began by looking at Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single knot of problems and he began bringing pressure on Islamabad. There were threats to strip it of US aid and withdraw its status of chief US ally outside of NATO, as well as drone attacks on Pakistani territory and special operations without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities (Osama bin Laden was killed during one of these). As a result, the US had to discontinue its transit through Pakistan, with the latter increasingly drifting towards China. But Pakistan was no more loyal to America. Nor will it be now, given that Islamabad is firmly in the Chinese orbit.

Fourth, the reason for this is that Trump’s “new strategy” is similar to the Obama policy of intensifying its partnership with India. Both George W. Bush and Obama regarded New Delhi as a preferential partner regarding Afghanistan and Central Asia, seeking to use India as a counterbalance to an increasingly influential China. At the same time, Pakistan has been helping the Taliban and other Islamists in Afghanistan precisely to minimize the Indian influence. This means that the more active New Delhi is in the region, the more zealous Pakistan will be in supporting the Taliban and the Islamists. It is much more important for Islamabad to curtail the growth of Indian influence than to receive US aid.

Fifth, it was also among Obama’s priorities to refrain from bringing Western-style democracy to Afghanistan and pressure Kabul on reforms and fighting corruption. In 2009, he renounced attempts to create a democratic Afghanistan and focused on preventing the Taliban from reassuming power to turn Afghanistan into an oasis of Islamic terrorists. In fact, Trump has formulated this objective of US policy in the same way. Under Obama, the objective was pursued by combining aid to the Afghan government with demands to reduce the scale of corruption and implement reforms. Another vector was to try to weaken the Taliban as much as to make them sign an agreement with the Americans. The result was lamentable. Since Trump does not intend to stage large-scale operations in in Afghanistan, the result is likely to be worse.

Finally, sixth, there is nothing new in Trump’s plan to reach a political understanding with some moderate faction of the Taliban in the future. Obama attempted this between 2010 and 2012 and failed. The likelihood that the Taliban will accept a deal with Washington today, now that they are much stronger and will not be the target of operations, is small, if they refused to negotiate with Washington in a relatively weakened state, when the US was conducting a series of major military operations.  

Thus, the Afghan strategy announced by Trump cannot change the situation in the country for the better. At best, Washington can prevent a rapid collapse of the current regime and the Taliban’s return to Kabul. In the meantime, the general situation in Afghanistan will slowly but surely deteriorate. It will be up to the next administration to clear up the mess and make bold decisions.

But Trump’s proposals could complicate the budding regional cooperation of the five leading regional power centers (Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran) and re-intensify the geopolitical rivalry in Central and South Asia just when India and Pakistan’s accession to the SCO has created favorable conditions for cooperation within the organization and thus for a gradual reduction in friction between India and China and prospectively even between India and Pakistan.

In effect, the US is emerging as a spoiler in relation to Central and South Asia. It will try to take advantage of the Indo-Chinese rivalry, the Indo-Pakistani antagonisms and Pakistan’s gradual reorientation toward China in order to wrest New Delhi from regional cooperation processes aimed at aiding Afghanistan and Central Asia and thus make improvements in the regional security and development situation less probable.

The United States has no intention of cooperating with other key regional players. Indicatively, Trump’s address made no mention of cooperation on Afghanistan either with Russia (while interaction with it between 2010 and 2012 was a crucial component of the positive agenda in bilateral relations), or with China, which plays an increasingly important role in the Afghan economy, or with Iran. This will only perpetuate a situation where parallel, uncoordinated and even controversial processes will develop relative to Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries.

Moreover, both the continued US presence in Afghanistan and US attempts to step up cooperation with India with disregard for identical cooperation with Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran could intensify geopolitical rivalries and tensions in the region and create two opposing groups of states: the United States and India, on the one hand, and Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran, on the other. Washington seems to be aiming precisely at this.

First, both Russia and China have long insisted on the United States’ final and definitive withdrawal from Afghanistan. They suspect that the indefinite presence of a relatively small US contingent incapable of putting up effective opposition to the Taliban and other radical groups is meant to promote US geopolitical influence in Central Asia. Now these suspicions will again be confirmed. From the point of view of both Russian and Chinese interests, Trump’s decision is the worst of all options, because the US neither “is doing the job” it undertook back in 2011, nor is leaving Afghanistan for good.

Second, the US orientation toward India is a sign that Washington continues to be committed to the Obama-era South and Central Asia concept, which is even reflected in the State Department’s organizational structure. The concept is aimed at merging these two fundamentally different regions into a single geopolitical entity and turning Afghanistan into a bridge of sorts between Central and South Asia, thereby stimulating its development. Its main aim is to break Central Asia from Russia, erode the Central Asian countries’ involvement in the EAEU and the CSTO, and balance Chinese influence in the region with the help of New Delhi. More likely than not, this will induce Russia and China to invigorate their policies. As a result, instead of serving as a cooperation hub, Afghanistan – and Central Asia – once again are at risk of becoming an arena of confrontation between Washington, on the one hand, and Moscow and Beijing, on the other, as well as a component of a new Russian-American and Chinese-American Cold War.

What does this mean for Russia? Primarily this confirms the fact that there are no longer opportunities to overcome Russian-American confrontation and start at least limited cooperation under Trump. Nor will there be any in the near future. Trump has surrendered to the establishment and become its puppet in an important foreign policy area that directly involves relations with Russia. It is highly unlikely that in the foreseeable future the “rogue” president will overpower the “inner state” and have his way in other crucial areas. Accordingly, there is likely to be little change for the better in US foreign policy with regard to Russia (especially Russia, considering its “instrumental role” in US domestic policy). On the contrary, Afghanistan and Central Asia will continue to be an organic element in Russian-American rivalry.

So, what conclusions can be drawn for the prospects of US foreign policy as a whole? And is it true that the traditional establishment’s containment of Trump will make America reassume its traditional globalist and imperial foreign policy aimed at retaining US “global leadership” and expanding a subservient “international liberal order?” On the surface, this is so, and the new Afghan strategy announced by Trump is meant to create the impression that America is committed to its globalist foreign policy and the global understanding of American national interests.

In fact, however, even against the background of the establishment’s containment of Trump, the United States continues changing its role as global hegemon to that of great power which pursues policies not so much in the interests of the system that is oriented to it as in its own, if egoistically understood, interests. Despite the traditionalist and globalist rhetoric, this is basically what we’re seeing in the new (old) strategy on Afghanistan.

First, the logic of American actions is purely selfish. The Trump administration has accepted an indefinitely long continuation of this senseless and hopeless horseplay in Afghanistan in order to avoid a shameful defeat rather than because it wants to promote long-term stability, security and economic development or prove the success of the US presence (neither can be achieved with the help of the measures announced by Trump). In the current situation, an American withdrawal will clearly show that the United States has suffered a fiasco and the initiative on the ground could finally be taken by the regional power centers, including hostile powers like Russia, China and Iran. It may also lead to the downfall of the current Afghan regime. This defeat, both military and political, is a second Vietnam. This is unacceptable for Trump, who has promised to “make America great again,” win victories and act from the position of strength. As a result, the ultimately inevitable decision is simply being passed on to his successors at the White House. In other words, the imperative is to take care of one’s own egoistic political interests rather than regional and international security.

Second, an indicative sign was the wave of criticism raised by Trump’s address on Afghanistan in the United States. It transpired that many members of the political and military elite understood the hopelessness of the US presence in Afghanistan, favored an immediate withdrawal, and even openly recognized that Trump’s initial plan to pull out troops was correct.

When the United States’ transition from the role of global hegemon to the role of great power, even strongest power, is complete, Russian-American relations will get another chance.

Valdai Discussion Club