As the new US administration mulls over how to best deal with the Afghan imbroglio, the Taliban have sent an open letter to Trump advising him to completely pull US troops out of the country. The chances of US withdrawal from this unfortunate country, however, seem slim.
While the US may be nonplussed by how to save face in what has become the longest war in its history, it doesn’t mean that Trump is ready to pull out of Afghanistan and leave the country in the hands of an unpopular president, who hasn’t been able to bring about elusive stability to his country.
The new defense secretary had planned to formulate the new Afghan strategy by mid-July, but recent developments show that administration is deeply divided over future course of action in Afghanistan including how to engage regional powers, and if or not to use private security contractors instead of US troops.
Frustrated with US President Trump’s failure to come up with an Afghan war strategy, this past week, Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Arms Services Committee, presented his own plan for the US to ‘win’ the Afghan war. The plan endorses the need for more US troops in Afghanistan, and makes allowances for use of increased air power to break a stalemate in the war against the Taliban. McCain’s strategy in terms of dealing with Pakistan is not very encouraging. He has proposed graduated diplomatic and military costs, if Pakistan continues to provide support and sanctuary to terrorist and insurgent groups.
The Pakistani state and intelligentsia may consider that the current administration is making Pakistan a scapegoat for its own failure in Afghanistan. However, they haven’t been able to make a convincing enough argument to convince US policymakers to revise their myopic Af-Pk strategy, which has descended from a transactional approach to ensure Pakistan’s compliance, to an increasingly punitive one.
The current US approach to the problem in Afghanistan fails to address the strategic insecurities prevalent in the region. There seems to have been a gradual shift in the mind of US policymakers, who seem convinced that Washington must be less concerned with the Indo-Pak relationship, or its own role in that relationship. Instead the US is trying to create distinctive bilateral ties with Delhi and Islamabad. In effect, however, the US has been increasingly relying on Delhi to counter-balance China, and not done enough to curb India’s encroachment in Afghanistan, which doesn’t do much to alleviate Pakistani concerns.
It was the Obama administration which began to view Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theatre of operations by appointing a special representative to Afghanistan-Pakistan. With the Af-Pk hyphenation, Pakistan began being viewed as a problem as much as a partner in the ‘war against terror’.
While the US adopted the rhetoric about strengthening and supporting Pakistan within the post-9/11 context, it ended up mainly buttressing Musharraf’s military regime. For its part, the US has undermined its own strategic goals by ignoring the interlinked pattern of subcontinental security issues.
Pakistan, however, also did itself a disservice by its India-centric obsession, and use of the problematic concept of strategic depth, in the attempt to sustain its antagonistic tussle with its larger hostile neighbour. Charges of nuclear proliferation and the discovery of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, and continued allegations of Pakistani duplicity in dealing with terrorist outfits haven’t served our cause, or won us much sympathy, despite the immense human and economic toil paid by our country for the past several years.
As the current Indian PM has gone from being on a blacklist to repeatedly receiving a red-carpet treatment within the US, Pakistan has been compelled into a tighter strategic embrace with China, which too is nervous about US-backed Indian ambitions. The hostility between the US and China, and lingering rivalry between Pakistan and India, means that Afghanistan will also remain difficult to stabilise, no matter what new militaristic tactics this new US administration adopts.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2017.