U.S. President Donald Trump will unveil his strategy for Afghanistan this week during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels. It is likely that the new strategy will include sending several thousand troops to Afghanistan. On the one hand, this is good news for Kabul, returning the country to international prominence after a long presidential campaign during which Trump rarely discussed the nation. On the other hand, it will alert Islamabad, which has pushed international troops out of Afghanistan, that the U.S. will stay and remain a close ally of Kabul. An increase of troops would also help both Kabul and Washington manage moves by regional players in the country, including stemming the effect of Russian relations with the Taliban.
Under such circumstances, the U.S must consider the following five strategic priorities in order to succeed in Afghanistan:
Strengthen and reform the national security forces that needs tools more than training
The U.S. cannot be Afghanistan’s police force anymore, patrolling the country indefinitely against seemingly endless terrorist threats, which range from Al Qaeda, to the Taliban, to the Haqani Network, to the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP), to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operating in Northern Afghanistan. It is vital then to address current and future challenges through a strong national security force with the support of U.S. and NATO forces.
The international community has provided training to Afghan security forces for the past decade while they still lack heavy weapons and a well-equipped air force. Afghanistan needs strong non-political forces that are highly motivated. The insurgents are driven and prepared to die for their cause while the morale of Afghan forces is weakened by the prevalence of corruption among their commanders. Every day, U.S.-invested security forces perish, fighting against the Taliban. The U.S. has sent more than $70 billion to the Afghan security forces since 2002. The U.S. needs to equip the forces with heavy weapons and other battlefield technology. Empowering the Afghan Air Force will also help decrease the casualties.
Address the narcotics that fuel the Taliban’s war machine
Afghanistan is the world’s top producer of opium, producing 90 percent of the global supply. The opium trade results in the generation of approximately $68 billion in annual revenue. In 2016, opium production increased by 43 percent. The Taliban earns up to $400 million annually from the illicit drug trade, particularly from the restive Southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Nimruz. This income helps fund the Taliban’s war engine, an alarming phenomenon that has continued for well over a decade. Today, around 40 percent of the Taliban’s funding comes from opium, which enables them to fight the Afghan government and the international community.
The drug trade not only supports the Taliban financially, but also garners them political support as well, winning them the backing of local drug lords, drug dealers, and youth who work in poppy fields, lancing opium for $4 per day in wages.
As the connection between the Taliban and opium grows stronger, the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan has become inextricably linked with the fight against the Taliban must. Unless counter-narcotic operations are made a priority in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, the insurgency will continue.
Corruption within the national forces is a major obstacle in fighting insurgents. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is not able to rid the government of well-rooted corrupt individuals. The problem requires international pressure and strong political will.
Afghanistan is ranked third in Transparency International’s corruption perception index (CPI), despite Ghani’s efforts. He established a high commission of procurement in 2015, which was led by him, and a new commission in 2016 to root out corruption in the highest levels of government.
Corruption within the security sector has particularly critical consequences. Corruption within Afghan security forces undermines combat readiness and effectiveness, with direct implications for the U.S. and NATO role in Afghanistan.
Forge a peace deal with the Taliban from a position of strength
The road to a peace deal with the Taliban run through Islamabad since it is Pakistan that is blocking reconciliation with Kabul. Senior Taliban leaders and their families have their roots in Pakistan, which limits their ability to negotiate with Afghanistan. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai conducted frequent visits to Islamabad, trying unsuccessfully to convince Pakistan to allow the Taliban to pursue a peace deal with Kabul. After years of war and millions of dollars spent without result, the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, continue fighting Afghans and the international community. In order to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, it would be wise to put pressure on Islamabad from the United States’ comparative position of strength.
Finally, write a new chapter with Pakistan. Is it an ally or an adversary?
Pakistan has been successful for the past decade in extracting funds from the United States to support its so-called fight against terrorism. However, it is clear that the nation has simultaneously continued to protect the Taliban leaders and their Quetta council, even as the organization is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,300 U.S. troops over the years. The Taliban would not survive a month without Pakistan’s support.
The U.S requires a clear strategy in approaching talks with Islamabad and must determine if it is an ally against the insurgency in Afghanistan. Washington must demand that Pakistan’s military establishment take care of the insurgents and their bases, training camps, treatment facilitates, and safe havens in Pakistan. Only concrete actions can prove Islamabad’s sincerity against terrorism.
Hashim Wahdatyar is analyst based in Washington D.C. He is a former spokesperson and programme officer for the United Nations (UNODC) in Afghanistan. He is also a fellow at the Asia Society. He tweets @hashimwahdat. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.