The much-awaited US strategy for Afghanistan has recently been announced. Unfortunately, this strategy does not give much cause for hope for the war-ravaged country, nor for the rest of the region.
Despite his earlier promises to withdraw US troops, President Donald Trump has decided to allow continued American military presence to help train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations. While the efficiency of this tried and tested approach in ending the Afghan conflict seems limited, it is a relief at least to see that Eric Prince’s outsourced ‘mercenary’ approach towards the Afghan war has not been officially endorsed, for now at least.
The Trump administration’s overarching rationale that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, as it did in Iraq, did make sense to a lot of people. Trump’s announcement to end time-barred commitments for US military presence in Afghanistan has also been similarly appreciated. However, most of the other measures announced to deal with the Afghan imbroglio have caused significant disconcertment, especially in Pakistan.
Asserting that Islamabad must crack down on militant groups making trouble in Afghanistan is a message that Pakistan has heard many times before. The Trump administration has, however, offered nothing to allay Pakistan’s fears, instead it has furthered its insecurities by encouraging a more proactive role for India in Afghanistan. Our civil and military leadership has expressed serious reservations over this specific aspect of the US policy on Afghanistan. Pakistan has even signalled that it may withdraw from the US-led efforts in the Afghan reconciliation process, if the Trump administration continues its blunt and increasingly coercive policies towards Pakistan.
Perhaps to temper Pakistan’s response, the US secretary of state has since acknowledged that resolving the Kashmir issue could help bring peace in Afghanistan. Yet, one cannot read too much into a statement by the understaffed and underfunded State Department, which is itself struggling to yield influence within the current US administration. Washington’s policy on Kashmir cannot change meaningfully if it just encourages the two sides to talk, while at the same time adopting a much differentiated policy towards the two countries, with an increasingly punitive approach towards Pakistan, and increasing accommodation of Indian aspirations to emerge as an Asian superpower to rival China.
In the aftermath of the Trump speech, Pakistan has postponed a visit of the US acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, and our foreign secretary has instead met China’s special envoy on Afghan affairs. Our newly-appointed foreign minister is supposed to visit the US soon, and it still seems that this visit is still on track, even if its outcome remains to be seen. It was disappointing however to see Khawaja Asif recently take to Twitter to accuse our former US ambassador, Hussain Haqqani, of ‘authoring’ Trump’s new approach towards Pakistan. Mr Haqqani is no stranger to controversy, with his recent claims that he helped facilitate the US raid which helped kill Osama bin Laden, without knowledge of the military establishment of the country. However, Mr Asif’s outburst is giving Mr Haqqani a bit too much credit. There is a pervasive lobby within the US, which has been working to isolate Pakistan since more than a decade. The fact that we did not even have a foreign minister under our current democratic government, and the fact that our democratic rulers lacked the vision and wherewithal to chart an independent foreign policy, means that the rest of the world does have legitimate grievances concerning Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts, and its role in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is thrust in the middle of a much greater game, involving regional and world powers jostling for influence. It is thus unfair for the US to just hold one country accountable for Afghanistan’s woes. Beyond the rhetoric of wanting to see peace in Afghanistan, a regional consensus on what victory or defeat in Afghanistan looks like is essential. If the new US administration remains unwilling to realise and accommodate regional concerns of Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia and China, bringing stability to Afghanistan may remain elusive for the foreseeable future.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2017.
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