Does America have a strategy to end the longest war in its history? After 17 years, a trillion dollars in costs and thousands of casualties, Americans do not appear to be anywhere near a solution in Afghanistan. More importantly, there is a lack of clarity about American objectives. The much-awaited Trump administration’s Afghan and South Asian policy has added to the confusion and controversy. America’s endgame in Afghanistan, therefore, remains a matter of intense speculation.
Ever since the 2001 American intervention in Afghanistan, the lack of a clear political objective has undermined its war effort. President George Bush sought elimination of terrorists but then got into nation-building. He also shifted focus towards the war in Iraq, providing critical space for the Taliban to regroup. The Obama administration sought a phased withdrawal by 2014, preceded by a troop surge and enabling Kabul to take over the fight against the Taliban, while paying lip service to a political solution. Trump has added to this mess.
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While there are various interpretations of Trump’s policy, most observers argue that it essentially amounts to more of the same — to stay the course towards a military “victory”. The coterie of former and serving American generals along with the intelligence community seem to have got their way in persisting with the only option they know — use of military force. Trump acknowledged that he has been persuaded by them to abandon his earlier conviction to withdraw.
But within 24 hours Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasised the need for dialogue to evolve a political solution in Afghanistan. While this may have been an afterthought, it has added to the confusion about America’s Afghan strategy.
Neither Trump nor Tillerson have provided any specifics about how the military or the political option would be pursued especially in view of past failures on both tracks. Trump’s boast that “win, we will”, presumably by adding 5,000 more troops, seems unlikely since the much larger surge under Obama failed to deliver. Since the US military effort at full strength failed to defeat the Taliban or to eliminate terrorists, how will it succeed now at much lower troops levels?
On the contrary, the Taliban have expanded their influence to nearly half of Afghanistan while a new terrorist threat by the IS is fast emerging. Blaming this failure on Pakistan’s alleged support to the Taliban is a lame excuse, not a strategy. The fact is that neither the Taliban nor the IS need Pakistani sanctuaries since they already control vast areas of Afghanistan from where they operate. The parallel objective of building up Afghan security forces is also untenable given the extent of corruption, lack of discipline and inadequate funding that plagues the Afghan forces.
Similarly, Tillerson’s advocacy of a political solution is a hallow claim. The stated option of weakening the Taliban to the point that they are willing to accept a political solution on American terms is unrealistic because the Taliban will not fight and talk at the same time. Also the US will not be able to win on the negotiating table what they have failed to achieve on the battlefield. The American expectation that Pakistan will compel the Taliban towards an eventual dialogue is misplaced as well since Pakistan simply does not have the requisite leverage with them.
The other main elements of Trump’s policy — to punish Pakistan for allegedly harbouring the Taliban and inviting India to play a greater role in Afghanistan are red lines for Pakistan. In response, it could shut down US supply routes through its territory, cease intelligence cooperation and begin supporting the Taliban.
What Americans have failed to grasp apparently is that Pakistan’s Afghan policy has always been a function of its relations with India. Indo-Afghanistan collaboration, such as support to TTP terrorists based in Afghanistan, poses an existential threat for Pakistan. And on the issue of its national security, there will be no compromise, just as in the case of the country’s nuclear programme. Consequently, pursuit of Trump’s policy will make matters only worse.
Moreover, Pakistan is no longer dependent on the US as in the past. Actually, its policy for an Afghan political solution is supported by major powers like China, Russia, Iran and Turkey, with whom it can pursue this option independently of the US. Pakistan’s economic and military reliance on the US has also declined with new options emerging with China and Russia.
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It beggars belief that the US security establishment is incapable of recognising these ground realities and persists with the failed option of continued war in Afghanistan. This gives rise to the alternative argument, that the American establishment is really not interested in withdrawing but prolonging the Afghan conflict, in order to justify their continued military presence in the region. This also explains the justification for the six American military bases in Afghanistan which the Obama Administration forced on the Afghans in 2014, complete with wide-ranging extra-territorial powers. Such presence is not only meant to “monitor” Pakistan’s nuclear assets, which has already been acknowledged by the Americans, but also to check Chinese, Russian and Iranian influence in the region, apart from interfering in the internal affairs of all these countries. The US has also evinced its interest in Afghanistan’s mineral wealth which it wants for its exclusive benefit. Keeping the Afghan pot boiling also favours India in order to continue trying to destabilise Pakistan. Hence the Indo-American convergence in Afghanistan. With Kabul’s forces in the forefront of the fighting, US causalities would be manageable so as not to create any domestic backlash while the high cost of the campaign will continue to be profitable for the American military-industrial complex. The US can, therefore, afford to fight till the last Afghan.
Is this then the real American endgame in Afghanistan? Pakistan needs to consider this possibility seriously and work with regional partners like China, Russia and Iran, to protect shared security interests in the long war ahead.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2017.
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