Donald Trump ups the ante on Afghanistan troops
Donald Trump announced his new plan for Afghanistan this week: carry on up the Khyber. As the British found on the North-West Frontier, keeping heads down among the local tribes is an endless task, passed on from generation to generation of soldiers.
The United States president cunningly set no markers of success. There is no exit strategy, no time line for a drawdown of forces. “Some day, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Trump said. “But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.”
It appears that he’s authorised up to 4000 more US troops, on top of the 8400 that remained after Barack Obama’s withdrawals. How his generals worked out this figure and what the troops are supposed to do is not explained. What we do know is an effort is under way to expand Afghanistan’s special forces from about 21,000 soldiers to 30,000 and to build up its air force.
There is a vague call for NATO and other allies to add to the 4500 troops they still keep in Afghanistan. Australia has 270 troops there, engaged in protection duties and training. Malcolm Turnbull recently pledged another 30, anticipating Trump’s call, but Defence Minister Marise Payne says there are no plans to rejoin fighting. If we did, it would be special forces joining the 2000 Americans who currently go out on missions if insurgent commanders are located.
The plan was worked out by Trump’s generals, hence the emphasis on a military solution. Trump does call for more pressure on Pakistan to stop harbouring elements of the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network. Yet the administration lacks some key interlocutors. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, abolished the post of special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. No ambassador has been sent to Kabul.
The Pakistanis are upset that Trump called for more civil aid for Afghanistan from India. There is no mention of enlisting other powers around Afghanistan. A riled Iran, hit with new US sanctions after agreeing to nuclear restraint, has been engaging the Taliban in south-west Afghanistan. New types of Russian-made weapons have been turning up in Taliban hands. China has replaced the US as Pakistan’s economic and military mainstay.
Xi Jinping’s drive for total control of China knows no bounds, it seems, and the efforts to keep the Chinese economy pumped up become more desperate.
Many of the country’s best-performing private sector companies are being dragooned into buying large minority share holdings in debt-burdened state-owned enterprises, thereby helping reduce the threat from the expanding domestic debt bubble, now about 300 per cent of gross national product.
Getting companies to comply has been made easier by a drive to have them amend their corporate charters to allow a greater management role for the Communist Party, requiring internal party committees to be consulted ahead of major decisions. By the end of July, 288 of the 3314 companies listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen had complied.
The crackdown on dissent and criticism gets worse. Cambridge University Press complied last week with Beijing’s orders to block about 300 articles on its The China Quarterly website dealing with topics such as Tiananmen, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the Cultural Revolution. It reversed the decision on Monday after a worldwide backlash from China scholars.
In Hong Kong on August 17, an appeals court accepted the argument of the Beijing-acquiescent government’s lawyers and jailed young democracy activists Alex Chow, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong for between six and eight months for “unlawful assembly” during the 2014 “umbrella” protests, making them ineligible for public office for five years. Earlier, 13 others were also jailed. Last Sunday, 22,000 people turned out to protest against the severity of the sentences.
The trials go on, with police scouring the law books for extra charges. Avery Ng, leader of the League of Social Democrats, is up this week on various alleged offences including “assaulting
a police officer with a sandwich”.
The realisation that Kim Jong-un is unlikely to agree to giving up his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, whatever is offered, is stirring South Koreans to think the unthinkable too: acquiring nukes of their own.
Public opinion polls are showing majorities in favour of acquiring nuclear weapons as a counter to North Korea. Some members of President Moon Jae-in’s Minjoo, or Democratic Party, have supported the idea.
A bit short of that drastic step, the main conservative opposition party is calling for the US to bring back the short-range nuclear weapons it withdrew in 1991. The Liberty Korea Party’s Chung Woo-taik, which was the ruling party until Moon’s recent election win, this month declared the time had come for “bringing back tactical nuclear weapons”.
But developing a local nuclear deterrent may actually be more politically palatable than a return of US weapons. Even the deployment of a US anti-missile battery on a golf course south of Seoul, to protect against North Korea’s threatened attacks, raised a storm of leftist and nationalist protest. But matching Pyongyang with an independent deterrent is something that has appeal among both conservatives and liberals.
The idea, pushed by some American strategists against the Trump administration’s denial that North Korea can be contained by nuclear deterrence, doesn’t go down well in Seoul. “Even if the North has effectively become a nuclear power, acknowledging it as one without South Korea itself going nuclear is politically untenable,” the Sejong Institute’s Paik Hak-soon told The New York Times this week.
We can expect questions on “extended deterrence” – the US nuclear umbrella – to spread beyond South Korea, as it did when new types of nuclear weapons were introduced in the past and doubts were raised as to whether Washington would respond to a nuclear attack on a distant ally.
The most well-known case is the panic about intermediate-range missiles posed by Leonid Brezhnev against western Europe in the early 1980s, leading the Americans to base nuclear-armed cruise missiles in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. Less known is the practice of nuclear “sharing” started under the Eisenhower administration, as an alternative to selling nuclear weapons to worried allies. Nuclear bombs were positioned at airfields in Germany, Italy and Turkey for last-resort use by their forces. Some are still there, as the recent concern about the safety of the nuclear armouries at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base indicated.
Peter Layton, a former RAAF group captain now at Griffith University, tells me the bombs had a “permissive action link” that requires a code to be entered to make them live. This would come in wartime through the NATO chain of command, which always has an American at the top. “In the Cold War, when the bombs were regularly loaded onto NATO quick reaction aircraft, at least two American soldiers stood by each aircraft,” Layton said. “Their instructions were to shoot the pilot if an unauthorised takeoff was attempted: i.e., the aircraft started to taxi.”
It meant all involved in the various NATO air forces had to become nuclear qualified in maintenance, training, security and personnel checks.
Australia’s latest Defence white paper, issued last year, expresses utmost faith in the US nuclear umbrella. “Only the nuclear and conventional military capabilities of the US can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia,” it says. More recently, Australia voted against a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons. With Pyongyang now warning Canberra that supporting the US in Korea is a “suicidal act”, perhaps Strangelovian days are ahead of us.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "Trump ups the ante on Afghanistan troops". Subscribe here.