Trump’s New South Asia Policy: the Obama Redux

While US President Donald Trump’s much-awaited televised speech on August 21 was supposed to lay down his administration’s Afghanistan policy, what really transpired eventually from his speech was a South Asia policy, largely denouncing Pakistan for harboring militants and calling on India to step up its efforts in the region, including Afghanistan.

Trump’s policy ruled out any scope for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. It seems his administration does not want to alter anything that its predecessor under Barack Obama took on with regard to South Asia; rather, it seems the Trump administration is willing to intensify them.

Both for staying in Afghanistan

Both Trump and Obama decided to stay in Afghanistan, though both had talked about withdrawal in the past.

Trump, prior to his bid for the US presidency, claimed that the US involvement in Afghanistan was a waste and that American troops must be pulled out of the country. But that same Donald Trump, in his recent speech, talked about stepping up efforts to win the long-drawn-out war in Afghanistan, opening the door for deploying more US troops. Trump seems to be no different in this regard from Obama, who too pledged in 2013 to end the war in Afghanistan, but eventually failed to order a total withdrawal of the US troops from the country.

Furthermore, while Obama sought more troops in Afghanistan from allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his tenure, Trump too has called for the same, saying, “We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own. We are confident they will.”

Both embraced India, denigrated Pakistan

Obama’s embrace of India and dissatisfaction over Pakistan only got an advanced outlook under Trump; that’s that, nothing new.

In his speech, Trump referred to India as a key security and economic partner of the US, and urged a bigger Indian role in South Asia, particularly centering on Afghanistan in the area of economic assistance and development. It was under the Obama administration that the US walked toward a strategic partnership with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India in an effort to counter the rising Chinese influence in the greater Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. It is now the Trump administration that has decided to continue in the same direction.

Trump’s speech further reflected his administration’s intention to take a more hardline approach toward Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, which he said provided safe havens for terrorists. “No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials,” was his blunt message to Pakistan.

Ever since Obama’s time in the White House, Pakistan has been facing criticisms from different influential corners in the US on various grounds, including its inability to combat militancy in the region. Although the Obama administration’s words were not as cold as Trump’s, it was slowly moving toward creating a stage for its successors gradually to cast off Pakistan as the attempted to embrace Islamabad’s arch-rival New Delhi and put indirect pressure on China, which is Pakistan’s strategic partner against India.

Although Pakistan had been an ally in the United States’ “war on terror” since the September 2001 attacks on US soil, Trump has – and Obama had – a negative outlook toward Pakistan due to two factors.

One factor is that these two successive administrations have translated the discovery of Osama bin Laden in a hideout in Pakistan (where he was killed in 2011) as Pakistan indirectly sheltering someone who was waging a war against the US. The other factor is Pakistan’s ever-growing intimacy with China, a country the US perceives as the major threat to its interests in the greater Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

Islamabad’s growing love affair with Beijing had already been earning Pakistan a bad name in the US policy-making structure during Obama’s tenure in the White House, and America’s displeasure with this relationship is now clearly reflected in Trump’s policy.

All in all, it seems the overtures Obama was making toward India and the silent retreat his administration was making from its old ally Pakistan have only received an advanced – but not new – outlook through the Trump administration’s South Asia policy.


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