The Limits of Hard Power in Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia Strategy

By: Stephanie Pillion, Columnist

Photo Credit: US Department of Defense

In a speech to Congress on August 21, 2017, President Donald Trump outlined his strategy for the Afghanistan and South Asia region. President Trump’s speech focused on three core pillars, which balance the use of hard with soft power in US strategy for the region. However, despite this declaration of an integrated approach, the rhetoric of Trump’s speech, combined with his administration’s actions, actually demonstrates his prioritization of hard power as the dominant tool, and generally dismisses the efficacy of soft power tools. While hard power may effectively stabilize the region initially, the Trump administration ignores the necessity of soft power as part of a sustainable strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia.

President Trump’s strategy relies on three core pillars for US victory in the war in Afghanistan. The first pillar shifts the troop deployment plan “from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.”[i] According to President Trump, the Obama administration caved to domestic pressure and public fatigue from the second war in Iraq to place a time frame on troop presence in this region. On the other hand, the Trump administration plans to make decisions on troop surges or withdrawals based upon the situation on the ground. This pillar is designed to prevent, in Afghanistan, the conditions created by the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2009 that led to a “safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks.”

The second pillar integrates “all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic, and military—toward a successful outcome.” Regarding the first instrument of American power—diplomacy—Trump cited the importance of working with allies, such as NATO and the Afghan government, to “protect our shared interests.” President Trump highlighted the second instrument of American power—economics—by discussing the combination of sanctions and “law enforcement actions” designed to inhibit the ability of terrorist networks “to export terror.” Finally, Trump identified the military as an instrument by emphasizing that “strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” Particular to the military instrument, Trump highlighted a planned increase in defense spending under his leadership.

The third and final pillar plans “to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan.” President Trump chastised Pakistan for harboring terrorists and criticized the Obama administration’s economic support of Pakistan but did not identify concrete policies that will be implemented under this pillar. The one specific action that Trump threatened was closer diplomatic collaboration with India.

Although President Trump acknowledged that a winning strategy in this region requires the “integration of all instruments of American power,” and that “military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country,” the majority of his speech focused on the importance of military power in defeating al-Qa’ida and ISIS. He defined victory in stark military terms: “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qa’ida.” Furthermore, when Trump spoke about defeating these terrorist groups, he warned that “these killers need to know they have nowhere to hide; that no place is beyond the reach of American might and Americans arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful.”

President Trump’s drone strike policy demonstrates his dismissal of soft power and his reliance on hard power to achieve his Afghanistan objectives. For example, for the past decade, the United States has waged a war on al-Qa’ida and ISIS with an increasing reliance on drone strikes. Drone strikes are an effective weapon in military operations; they allow the United States to target and destroy hostiles and enemy resources without risk to US military personnel. President Trump recognizes the efficacy of drone strike technology and has continued its use. However, recent reporting by The New York Times indicates that President Trump has now expanded drone strikes to include not only high threat targets, but also low-level combatants.[ii] While drone strikes are particularly effective at targeting and destroying resources for terrorist groups (for example, ISIS-owned oil fields), or killing high-level leaders, using strikes to kill low-level combatants is ineffective and costly. According to the Small Wars Journal, despite an increasing number of drone strikes, “the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and import new fighters has been able to effectively keep up with their rate of attrition on the battlefield.”[iii]

Drone strikes by themselves are not enough to address the terrorist and insurgent threat in Afghanistan, nor stop its growth. For example, one of the main ways that ISIS grows its membership is from recruitment through social media propaganda, and they have proven capable of replacing their battlefield losses through these recruitments. Social media is a soft power tool. Therefore, an aggressive social media campaign with counter-ISIS messaging should be a key component of the Trump administration’s strategy to reduce ISIS recruitment, and ensure stability in the region. However, Trump’s disregard for soft power measures is hindering this effort. For example, Trump has repeatedly tried to reduce State Department spending, and has been passive in nominating political appointees to serve in diplomatic posts around the globe. Furthermore, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, seems to share a similar disregard for the institutions of diplomacy and soft power through his “reliance on a close coterie of advisors, closing himself off from the rest of the department.”[iv] According to Foreign Policy, “Tillerson’s front office is sitting on memos that would unlock $79 million for the department’s Global Engagement Center to counter Islamic State messaging and narrative. Bureaucratic rules required that Tillerson simply write and sign two memos—one for $19 million from Congress and one for $60 million through the Defense Department—saying State needed the funds. But he hasn’t, leaving some career officials at a loss.”[v] Implementing counter-ISIS messaging is difficult, and often ineffective. However, “any ‘open system’ like Twitter allows for the ‘loudest’ narratives to dominate for a temporary period of time. Thus, it is possible to craft effective and targeted counter-campaigns to discredit ISIS’s narrative and are attractive enough to create waves within social media networks.”[vi] Denying ISIS and other groups a caliphate or safe haven in Afghanistan helps destroy their credibility across the Middle East, and leveraging counter-messaging campaigns to do this should be a key component of US soft power strategy in Afghanistan.

Trump’s emphasis on the use of military power is rooted in his claim that “strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” However, without the rigorous integration of soft power approaches into his strategy, the day that this “peace” is achieved, it will not last. Furthermore, soft power tools take time to implement correctly and sustainably. Soft power resources should be given equal priority to hard power tools in Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia strategy now, to ensure that when the United States, its allies, and their Afghan partners defeat terrorists and militants within Afghanistan using strategic force, the conditions for peace will be lasting. To quote President Obama in his May 2009 strategy speech on Afghanistan and South Asia: “A campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.”[vii]

[i] “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia.” The White House. August 21, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017.

[ii] Reuters. “White House Seen Easing Limits on Drone Strikes: NY Times.” The New York Times. September 21, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017.

[iii] Lippert, Michael T. “Precision-Guided Diminishing Returns: Why Airpower Alone Can’t Win America’s Small Wars.” Small Wars Journal. Accessed September 28, 2017.’t-win-america’s-small-wars.

[iv] Gramer, Robbie, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch. “How the Trump Administration Broke the State Department.” Foreign Policy. July 31, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Glavin, Nicholas. “Social Media and Irregular Warfare: Understanding Insurgent Tactics in the Twitter Age.” Accessed September 28, 2017.

[vii] “President Obama’s Speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan.” U.S. News & World Report. March 27, 2009. Accessed September 28, 2017.

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