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Afghanistan: A war tailor made for Donald Trump AND Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon has said that ‘screwing up’ China’s One Belt–One Road should be a priority for the US. In this sense Bannon is as mainstream and as neo-con as they come.

In many ways the moral, logistical and ethical simplicity of the Syrian conflict, meant that it was always destined to be the conflict that would wake up at least some in the west, to the nature of how the US and its allies often foment wars by aligning with the most immoral forces on the planet in order to attempt to achieve a geo-strategic goal.

When ordinary Americans and Europeans saw a secular Ba’athsit government in Damascus which protected the rights of ethnic and religious minorities as well as one which gives full rights to women, such people could hardly internalise the idea that  head-chopping, bomb planting, woman enslaving, minority murdering Wahhabi Sunni supremacists were a more ethical or moral option than the secular Ba’athist government–no matter how many times Obama called them ‘moderate rebels’.

READ MORE: 4 reasons the Syrian conflict has grabbed world attention more than Afghanistan

Donald Trump as a candidate and Steve Bannon as a campaign partner and before that a media ally, realised this and pushed an anti-war message in Syria. The message was one which played on the natural tendencies of most Americans to favour a secular/pro-Christian government over an opposition that includes al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Where Bannon carefully swayed secular/pro-Christian US opinion against Obama’s war in Syria, in respect of Afghanistan, the Bannon/Trump message was far more duplicitous, even before the troop surge.

Long before the 2016 US election, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon expressed anti-war sentiments in respect of Afghanistan. The message boiled down to the line from the Vietnam War era Country Joe McDonald song “What are we fighting for, don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam Afghanistan”.

But while delivering an anti-war message which even in his ‘troop surge’ announcement Donald Trump admitted was his “instinct”, both men were and remain totally in favour of the primary goal of the Afghan conflict: Disrupting China’s One Belt–One Road and specifically the important roles that Pakistan is playing as an important stop long the Belt and Road.

Bannon and Trump are known to hold anti-Chinese views. In a recent interview, one of his first since leaving the White House, Bannon said that one of the primary US policy goals should be to “screw up One Belt–One Road”. 

With Trump’s troop surge in Afghanistan and specifically his threats against Pakistan which includes the stated desire to drag India into the conflict, Bannon just got what he wished for.

The India scenario vis-a-vis Pakistan and China is as follows:

Today, Pakistan is increasingly supportive of proposals by China and Russia which involve a negotiated settlement to the conflict which involves both the current fractious government as well as the increasingly powerful, influential and in many regions popular Taliban factions. Such proposals fit in with Pakistan’s long term strategy in Afghanistan and suit Islamabad’s contemporary regional desire for stability.

While in the 1980s and 1990s India tended to side with Russia, it is looking increasingly likely that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to take a more American approach to the conflict.

 However, it remains far from certain whether India will commit troops to the recently announced ‘Trump surge’ or whether India can offer anything at a peace keeping table beyond joining with the United States to further alienate Pakistan, causing Islamabad to grow even closer to Beijing than it already is. In this context, growing closer to Beijing also means implicitly growing closer to Moscow as China and Russia have offered similar solutions to the conflict, both of which involve fostering dialogue between the government in Kabul and the Taliban.

China is all too aware that The United States is isolated in the region in respect of a peace process. Iran is increasingly seeing things along the same lines as Russia and China and in any case, the chances of Donald Trump working with Iran anywhere are nil. The lone exception to this pattern of isolation is India. Under Modi, New Delhi may use Trump’s offer to try and upset the status quo of the region in which all of the key powers are increasingly cooperating with China’s One Belt–One Road project, India being the lone country which under Modi is increasingly hellbent on antagonising China at every opportunity.

With this in mind, China has issued the following statement:

“Donald Trump talked about close US-Indian relations, we are glad to see the development of normal and friendly relations between these countries if these relations do not harm other countries’ interests and create positive conditions for regional development”.

China’s position is clear, India is welcome in Afghanistan as such a thing is not up to China in any case and Beijing is comfortable with this reality of international law. What China is not comfortably with is India’s presence in Afghanistan acting as a force which could impede the progress of important projects with Pakistan, namely the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The statement above makes this known implicitly.

In a worst case scenario, India could disrupt a peace process involving dialogue with the Taliban that could distract Pakistan from its long term goals in China. However, Pakistan under its current leadership would appear to be steadfast in its commitments to China. Distractions won’t work as well as they would have done even 10 years ago.

Both the governing PML-N and the surging opposition party PTI, led by the charismatic Imran Khan have expressed full support of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Khan in particular seems to be pivoting his traditional views which are deeply sceptical of US power in the region towards one which seeks to equally assure China.

In many ways, the Trump plan could backfire. Pakistan will only grow closer to China and further from the US and likewise, India might feel about the US what many of America’s long-time European allies have felt under Donald Trump. Trump has recently asked the NATO states of Europe to do more for the alliance in terms of both financial contributions as well as ramping up military strength in order for the US to bear less of the costly burden.

Trump has already alluded to the fact that he wants India to ‘do more’ in Afghanistan. Suddenly India’s privilege as a peacemaker (largely unwelcome by Pakistan and China) has turned into a responsibility that realistically New Delhi is not in a position to carry out

Modi may be a man driven by ego more than a pragmatic understanding of economics, but at the end of the day, all men have a price. If Donald Trump asks too much from India, the chips in Afghanistan will fall where they would have fallen in spite of the US and India. The only real result will be India learning that when it comes to geo-politics, America has deputies and servants but never partners or equals.

READ MORE: China tells Trump not to allow India to interfere in regional interests

The stated goal in Afghanistan, to fight both the Taliban and its opponent ISIS simultaneously while propping up an Afghan government which is increasingly unfit for purpose is a goal which the US has set up as a straw-man. Both Trump and Tillerson have stated that they will be willing to negotiate with the Taliban just as soon as they’re done bombing them.

The obvious response from the rest of the world has been, “avoid the bombing and negotiate with moderate rebels within the Taliban now”.

This of course will not be done because it would cease to accomplish the real US goal of prolonging the war in Afghanistan for as long as possible in order to accomplish the following in order from most to least important:

1. Disrupt Pakistan’s progress as a partner of China in One Belt–One Road with a specific emphasis on sowing a lack of confidence over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

2. Disrupt China’s ability to peacefully link Pakistan with Iran as part of One Belt–One Road.

3. Surround Pakistan with Indian troops on all sides with a proposed Indian presence in Pasthunistan (Afghan side of the border).

4. Cause instability in Pakistan with increased drone strikes on Pakistani territory.

5. Make sure that China is out of reach of Afghanistan’s rich resources such as lithium and valuable minerals.  While the US may have to fight blood-for-blood in order to get these resources, in many ways it is more important for the US to prevent China from obtaining them than it is for the US to have easy access to them, a task which is increasingly Quixotic for the US.

6. Keep the CIA’s game of cat, mouse and merchant with Afghan drug lords flourishing for as long as possible.

As geo-political expert Andrew Korbyko writes,

“Trump’s new Afghan strategy is less about changing any of the battlefield dynamics there per se, though it does aim to extract some of Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion of minerals, and more about formalizing the US’ pivot from Pakistan to India, the latter of which became an unprecedented military-strategic partner of the US through year’s LEMOA deal and its official attendant designation as the Pentagon’s “Major Defense Partner”.

What Trump really wants to do is put multi pronged pressure on Pakistan as part of the Hybrid War on CPEC [China Pakistan-Economic Corridor] through the American-backed strategic interlinking of its Afghan and Indian neighbors, with the goal being to influence, disrupt, and then ultimately control China’s game-changing corridor to the Indian Ocean through state and non-state proxy warfare”.

Thus it becomes clear that Bannon has clearly positioned himself to have it both ways in Afghanistan. He’ll claim that he is opposed to war in the Middle East and Asia, which in part may be a sincere and in that case positive statement, but his penultimate goal of trying to “screw up One Belt–One Road” is very much the master plan in Afghanistan. Whether it succeeds is another matter.

In this sense Bannon got what he wished for in the short term, but he ought to be careful what he wishes for in the longer term. China is not going to roll over in South Asia, just as Russia did not roll over in respect of Russia’s Syrian ally.

For Bannon and Trump, the ‘worst’ may be yet to come.

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