The Associated Press reported on June 16 that Washington would soon add 4,000 more troops to the 14,000 U.S. and NATO troops already stationed in Afghanistan. This development would be the result of the U.S. interagency review process and corresponds with proposals from the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson. But increasing troops alone won’t solve the Afghanistan conundrum.
The dominant discourse regarding the Afghanistan crisis is often centered around U.S. war in Afghanistan and its strategic implications. This reductionist approach ignores the fact that Afghanistan is home to not one, but five distinct conflicts. Interestingly, four of these conflicts precede the U.S intervention in 2001. Nonetheless, the U.S. strategy is often oblivious to the region’s historical intricacies, thus complicating the situation further still.
Afghanistan’s first war is ethnic in nature. It is an age-old political power struggle between the country’s dominant ethnic community, the Pashtuns, and the other ethnic groups: Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks, Aimaqs, and a modicum of other small ethnic groups. Historically, Pashtuns have almost always been at the top of political power in the country, despite the fact that they constitute less than half of the total population. They have vehemently struggled to preserve their favored position, which has consequently generated resistance, and their opponents have created a web of shifting alliances to counter Pashtun power.
This was most vividly evident in 2004, when the new constitutional framework sought to stabilize the government by concentrating power effectively in the office of the president. This generated persistent opposition and hostility from non-Pashtun factions, so much so that, in 2014, President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, was forced to reach a power-sharing agreement with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik, under a National Unity Government.
The result of this settlement is a government that is stable enough to sustain but too fragile to govern effectively. This division of power has created room for disagreements between Ghani and Abdullah to turn into political deadlock, particularly over political appointments. The inability of the government to hold or reschedule the planned parliamentary elections in October 2016 expressly manifested this deadlock.
These ethnic ruptures subsequently trickle down to the level of military platoons and local municipal government officials. It has created a patrimonial state apparatus whereby the patrons keep their subordinates in line with money and promotions, and the bureaucrats, in turn, fleece the people to repay their superiors. Thus, in a place where ethnic association is a principal source of political legitimacy, nepotism and corruption becomes rampant and pervades all sections of society. All of the efforts on part of international community to curtail corruption in Afghanistan have failed miserably. As proof, Afghanistan ranked 169th in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.
To make matters more complicated, there is also political strife among Afghanistan’s Pashtun community. This is the second conflict, inter-ethnic in nature, that runs along tribal lines and stretches back to 18th century. The primary antagonists are the Ghilzai tribe of rural east and the elites of the Durrani tribe in the south. The Afghan state was founded in 1747 when the Ghilzai were defeated by the Durranis. Since then, the Durranis ruled the country, with a few brief exceptions, until 1996. Later, the Taliban seized power under the leadership of Ghilzai Mullah Mohammed Omar. The subsequent U.S. intervention handed country’s rule back to the Durranis by making Hamid Karzai the interim president in 2002. Today, the violence in Afghanistan’s east is the continuation of centuries-long power play between these two tribes. The majority of Taliban foot soldiers are Ghilzai who deem themselves as fighting a holy war against Western “invaders” allied with a hostile Durrani-led government.
The third conflict is a cultural war between the cosmopolitan progressives in Afghanistan’s urban centers and religious conservatives in the rural areas. This conflict also stretched back hundreds of years. In the 19th century, Afghanistan’s emir, Abdur Rahman Khan, undertook a series of reforms to liberalize the country and delegitimize the ecclesiastical authority of religious leaders. Consequently, there were around 40 insurgencies during his reign.
In the 1920s, when his grandson Amanullah Khan sought to advance modernization and women’s rights, the clerical mullahs engineered another rebellion that culminated in his abdication. In 1979, the communist leader Hafizullah Amin attempted to include women in a national literacy program, which sparked conservatives to rebel in the country’s west. The movement spread across the country when Amin tried to suppress the rebellion with force. This subsequently led the Soviet Union, which feared it was a CIA plot to destabilize the southern border of USSR, to invade Afghanistan. Gallons of ink has been spilled to note the chaos that followed thereafter.
The fourth conflict in Afghanistan is one that pervades the whole South Asian region: a cold war between Pakistan and India. Since decolonization, Pakistan has viewed its foreign policy through a security prism vis-à-vis India. In fact, both India and Pakistan have each used Afghanistan to gain strategic depth and asymmetric advantages over the other. The spillover effect of this cold war in Afghanistan resulted in the creation of yet another insurgency — the Pakistani Taliban, who have operated primarily in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. This extremist upsurge is connected to the larger Taliban movement, and both countries have been accused of using Afghanistan’s soil to prop up insurgencies in each other’s territories.
Layered on top of these four conflicts is the ongoing U.S. war against the Taliban in the country, which has, in turn, accentuated all other conflicts. These forces are pulling Afghanistan apart. Deploying 4,000 more troops would not end the long-standing ethnic conflict between the Pashtun and other communities, nor would it mitigate the centuries-old tribal hostility between the Durrani and the Ghilzai. Rural communities would keep resisting any form of “foreign” invasion or attempts to alter their traditional culture. More than 15 years of scrupulous U.S. diplomacy has been unable to change Islamabad’s strategic calculus in Afghanistan and the country won’t cease being the theater of an India-Pakistan cold war anytime soon.
By adding more troops, Trump will be making the same mistake his predecessors did. At best, the Trump administration’s latest surge will partially inhibit the Taliban’s momentum. It won’t contribute to creating a conducive environment for establishing sustainable peace in the country. Instead, the Trump administration should pursue a containment strategy — a minimalistic approach that protects the U.S. homeland from terrorist networks in Afghanistan and prevents regional destabilization that could encompass its neighbors. In the context of these multiple conflicts, the goal to turn Afghanistan into a modern, liberal state is neither achievable nor sustainable.
Abrar Ahmed is a political analyst and a specialist in global democratic affairs based in Lahore, Pakistan.