Paving the road to Kabul

President Trump, as Commander in Chief of the United States, put forward a long-awaited strategy for resolving the conflict in Afghanistan and tried to give a clear definition of ‘victory’ in the first of his statements marking the US policy on the embattled region. Soon after taking office in January 2017, the Trump administration began a review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan. It seemed obvious to many that the administration was positioning a shift away from his predecessor , who had been at the front line of his criticism on accord of using billions of dollars of taxpayer money on a war despite his promises of a complete withdrawal.

President Donald J. Trump and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan at the United Nations General Assembly (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Unsurprisingly, Trump has zoomed out of the Afghan periphery into a broader South Asia review. Though the statements culminated into a decision on further involvement within the troubled region, Trumps previous stance upon withdrawing troops vis-à-vis a neat pullout seemed to have been backtracked in favor of looking for a decisive ‘military’ win for both the US and the region. Shrouded within the speech was a hard lined approach to Pakistan, that many within the political spheres of both Islamabad and Washington, saw as an inevitable. This was highlighted by recent developments which saw the US move towards stricter monetary sanctions against Pakistan just a month prior. A recent study, authored jointly by, former envoy, Hussain Haqqani and Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, also suggested stopping US assistance to Pakistan, particularly to its defense establishment. This would be to force Islamabad to follow US policy guidelines given that the growing sentiment in Washington finds Pakistan guilty of accruing safe havens to ‘agents of chaos’.

It is unclear whether President’s Trumps new strategy has truly offered any new alternatives.  The Afghan Taliban won’t be eliminated on the battlefield. Nor can they run Afghanistan over like they did in the 1990s. This may be the reason for the increased urgency in the Pentagon to connect with regional allies to identify and emphasize upon mutual interest in the stability of the South Asian terrain. The bad news is that this is a solution being floated at a time when attitudes on both sides are as uncompromising as they have ever been. Washington’s discourse on Pakistan is consumed by finding ways and means to punish Pakistan; Pakistan’s US debate is focused on a perceived US effort to use Pakistan as a scapegoat in Afghanistan.

The US blames Pakistan for the Taliban’s resilience and that if the militia did not have the state’s support and monetary backing, they would have long run out of steam. Perhaps, this is an over-simplistic evaluation for if the former were true, it posed two overarching questions : Is the ISI still covering up for the Haqqani network, and/or the Quetta and Peshawar shuras? Second and more poignantly, is it plausible to think that the Taliban are a force that can be eliminated from Afghanistan simply by cutting off alleged Pakistani state support for it? Whether or not the latter is possible is dependent on the Afghan political legitimacy or whether they too can be lumped together with Al-Qaeda and ISIS, or be treated as a Native trial Afghan response to the Soviet invasion and Mujahidin in-fighting? It’s a complex question which arises from a complex situation.

In the backdrop of the perilous questions regarding Taliban legitimacy also lies the deeply pervasive narrative of the fundamental lack of legitimacy of the Kabul regime , installed by the US government then led by President Bush. What emerges as most troubling in this diplomatic quagmire is that Trump wants Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist havens it harbors in its midst. But simultaneously President Trump in his statement surrounding India encouraged the long standing arch-rival to its neighboring Pakistani counterpart, to ‘do more’ in Afghanistan. This may have end up creating strong tensions with an already wary Pakistan that has deep-rooted reservations about India’s covert and overt military involvement in Afghanistan. In this regard, it has always been a question of open channel of communications and a hesitance on how to re-open the conversation. Pakistan on its front should accept that its Afghanistan policy continues to be driven by its anxieties about Indian presence in Afghanistan and must be clear as to how it views previous US attempts to initiate the peace process within Afghanistan.

Pakistan must be open to the following : India is there to stay in Afghanistan. Not only has POTUS given greater voice to the burgeoning rhetoric within the US for a deeper Indo-American strategical alliance as well as  an economic partnership, but this development could be seen as perhaps one of the bigger departure from previous administration’s approaches. India is the fifth largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan and an important economic and development partner. India could be involved more closely in consultations about Afghanistan, and the region’s future. From Islamabad’s lens, it has much to believe that a long-term political solution or even a peace mandate is realistic to envisage – President Ghani had been relentless in his lambasting of Pakistan’s involvement in Afghan internal disturbances and Pakistan too retaliated with less than re-conciliatory policies. Recent policy choices – forceful return of Afghan refugees in the territory and border fencing— made it clear that Pakistan too had given up trying to salvage a working relationship between the two increasingly estranged neighbors.

But the truth of the matter remains. For stability of the region, neither can work without the other. Neither can Afghanistan articulate a way to peace without Pakistan being on board, nor can Pakistan do anything to avoid a spillover of continued instability in Afghanistan .

On the US front, clearly there is settled air over the futility of winning the war in Afghanistan, militarily. Questions have been raised as to how a few more thousand troops added to the mix will catalyze the process of attempting to find a diplomatic solution in the South Asian region. The Afghan Taliban – now controlling more land than they had ever previously been in ownership of since 2001, are a force to be reckoned with. A timeline of the escalating terror attacks in the country show a sharp increase in Taliban backlash. Thousands of locals have been killed in strikes that occur alarmingly, on daily basis. NATO, US soldiers and the Afghan army have lost many soldiers during the mass relentless rampage by both ISIS militia and Taliban personnel.

Deaths of civilians in Afghanistan from US airstrikes increased 70% in first six months of 2017, compared to first six of 2016. This steely realization of a war that can no longer be fought, much less won, has led President Trump to employ the language of an all encompassing plan and terminology vis-à-vis his speech whic hinted at conjoined diplomatic, economic and military efforts with greater emphasis on the political autonomy of the Afghan government .

This comes as a trite unconvincing proposal considering that at the moment, there is no special envoy for either Afghanistan or Pakistan in the Trump administration. More poignantly, the lack of specifics of Trump’s ‘winning’ strategy gives the impression that for one, it is hard to threaten Pakistan without specifics on what is to happen differently – the Foreign Office of the state is not new to tough rhetoric and it will be hard to threaten or coax the state without specifics on what is to happen differently.

Pakistan is not new to tough talk and it is inevitable that sanctions or budget cuts will be counterproductive if US wishes Pakistan to reciprocate and work with it, within the region. It also must be seen, that budding from Trump’s urging to India to ‘do more’, how much more aid is India willing to throw in a massively insecure situation. Furthermore, with no timeline for withdrawal, Trump’s speech has been viewed even by his populist political base at home as non-interventionist rhetoric at best, and an open-ended, condition-based promise to many, at worst. There is no advocacy for political settlement.

What is envisioned now is a US counter terrorism strategy centered on increased combat on the ground culminating into an eventual peace process that seeks to bring the Taliban into the political fold. Potent concessions to the Taliban could include their recognition as a political force, some share in power, and negotiations on the timeline for a US troop withdrawal. In return, they would agree to accept the Afghan constitution, end terrorizing the state, accept the frame of the Afghani constitution and act squarely within its ambit.

What is more pertinent is the deadening absence of any special envoy for either Afghanistan or Pakistan on account of the Trump administration. Overlooking the significance of diplomatic counsel presence in the South Asian region will come at a heavy cost, considering that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other Trump officials have already begun to alienate the region further and use their monetary ‘leverage’ over Pakistan as a bargaining chip, whose COAS and foreign ministry has reacted strongly and profusely offered rebuttals to said allegations, emphasizing that the US not forget its sacrifices and losses amidst the war on terror, in the past two decades. Nothing good can come out of a collusion – a hard-line, punishment oriented approach to Pakistan will get the US nowhere and Pakistan cannot pretend any longer that while China offers a comfortable retreat of both friendship and strength, losing out on arguably one of its most significant allies would hurt. The prognosis, in both Washington and Pakistan, has seen the worst critics of either side take lead, and for once, real talk surrounding actual implications of threats and cutoffs is starting to pan out, with a relationship breakdown dangerously sparring much further than just the conflicting statements on Afghan policy.

But beyond the Af-Pak and US-Indo hegemony, commentators have also noticed the deafening absence of US foreign policy on vital states bordering the Afghanistan region, Iran and China. The India-Iran Agreement for the development of the Chabahar Port in Iran, allows India key access to Afghanistan directly while circumventing Pakistan, linking both states to a network of lucrative trade corridors such as the International North South Transport Corridor that would allow access to Europe vis-à-vis Central Asia. Thus, it is being conceived as a wasted opportunity if POTUS’ foreign policy will be seen to lack the strategic foresight to recognize Iran’s critical role in the region.

Perhaps, another focal measure by the United States should be premised on its regional support mechanism for states that neighbor the Afghan territory – the Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising of the United States, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan – bringing together the regional actors in a significant alliance that could catalyze the process of stabilization of the area.

To the naysayers, opposed to sustained presence in Afghanistan, it is plausible to consider that this time post-2001, Washington wants to avoid leaving a free space in Afghanistan for terrorist groups to increase settlements, plan and execute attacks against the US. Any counter-terrorism strategies must be built out on solid communication and alliance with Afghan forces, themselves. It is pertinent to also consider that a goldmine opportunity presents itself to President Trump’s administration now that it has chosen to stay rooted. While Al-Qaeda and ISIS seek to expand their presence in Afghanistan, but realistically none of the Afghan groups — including the Taliban — support them. They can be defeated in Afghanistan just as they are being pushed out of Iraq and Syria. This natural extension of the Iraq/Syria campaign would help consolidate the victory against the Islamic State. The challenge will then be to preserve the victory and help the Afghan people stabilize their country so that the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda do not return. This can be done with a political/diplomatic strategy that seeks an inclusive settlement among all Afghan political factions.

What must also be delved into in hindsight must also be this – The US from the embers of the ashes of its failed, ailing intervention in Iraq must realize that Trump may be able to avoid the mistake of his predecessors by refusing to unconditionally empower corrupt and divisive Afghani leaders that do not enjoy the backing of the mass Afghan populace or their voices, in the hope that they will somehow create a regime of stability.

Perhaps, the only way forward for Afghanistan is now that its neighbors and well wishers forego any mechanism to internally influence the country’s already deeply battered domestic political front and instead, with reliance on constructive engagement with each other, rise above the embittered talk of threats and stone-walling, so as to not lose out on key alliances with each other without which, the Afghan cause will fall pray yet again to petty, diplomatic games of its self-appointed saviors.

This is an OpEd piece from a contributor and reflects her opinions on the geopolitical situation in South-Asia. 

Fatima Ayub

Fatima Ayub

Contributor at InPRA
From Lahore, Fatima is a law student at the University of London.

She's worked for several legal institutes, newspapers and international forum including Dawn, The Friday Times and is a contributor for InPRA
Fatima Ayub

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