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The Real Key to Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy

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The Debate

The Real Key to Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy

The president and his team must remember one puzzle piece as they formulate their approach.

The Real Key to Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy
Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

We do not quite know what the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy will be, but it will certainly be different. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted that much in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 13.

We do know that an increase of 4,000 in the troop levels is coming, and that President Trump has allowed the Pentagon to decide the scope of military operations. But what else will make up the overall strategy that is under review? We can only guess, and hope it comprehends the complexity of Afghanistan.

Since the fall of monarchy in 1973, Afghanistan has endured an endless conflict, suffering internal coups, a foreign invasion, the U.S.-led battle against the Soviets, competition for influence by regional countries, and an insurgent ideology’s struggle for power.  It has been a target as well as a source of local, regional, and transnational terrorists.

America’s Second Afghanistan War

With the help of another U.S.-led war, Afghanistan has been trying to pick up the pieces for the past 15 years in search of stability, viable political institutions, and effective structures of governance and security, but with only limited success. The war has had its share of failures, and Afghanistan its own. Afghanistan has been up against serious nation- and state-building challenges it never quite came to grips with in two-and-a-half centuries of history, and its failure to address these challenges has been a big part of the story of this troubled war.

In fact this has been Afghanistan’s unending war that America joined: a war among Afghans, a partly-military, partly-political conflict, whose remote origins go far back into the reaches of Afghan history. And there have been no winners in this war, including Pakistan, which too has been a party to the conflict.

Understanding neither the history of Afghanistan nor of its relations with Pakistan, Washington thought Afghanistan had only one problem: the Taliban. And even they were not defeated; they were just pushed into Pakistan, where they lived to fight another day.

The Risks of an Untried Option

As the White House thinks about a new strategy or at least approach, it might include one option that has not been tried: to deal with the sanctuaries issue head on and force Pakistan to eject the Taliban leadership and to ensure they get no support from whatever quarter.

As tempting as this option might look, it also carries some serious risks. Pakistan will no doubt resist this strategy for the fear of not only losing its strategic assets but also provoking a reaction in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and agitation by the Islamists. There will also be concern the Taliban could simply fracture into more deadly splinter groups.

If they do not get what they want in Afghanistan, the Taliban might also go after Pakistan. A disinherited Taliban would be a great threat to Pakistan and to the United States. The loss of the Taliban as possible allies would stoke greater anxieties in Pakistan about the India-Afghanistan axis and may return Islamabad to the India-centric jihadists. The fact is the Taliban is just one among many challenges Afghanistan faces, and the likely destabilization of Pakistan for the sake of an unlikely stabilization of Afghanistan will be a bad strategy.

Whether Pakistan succumbs to Washington’s pressure or resists and risks being sanctioned and isolated, there will be consequences that will not serve American interests well. If the objective is to end the war and get out of Afghanistan, this course of action will have an opposite effect; it will prolong the conflict.

But that is not all. More broadly, the fact is that the Taliban is not the only issue defining U.S.-Pakistan relations, and so this needs to be kept in perspective when thinking of bilateral ties. Washington has important interests in Pakistan: some relating to Afghanistan and India, some to U.S. security, and others to wider geopolitics. Pakistan’s logistical support to the war in Afghanistan is critical, as is its intelligence cooperation in the fight against terrorism. There is also the long-term threat of extremism within Pakistan that affects its stability.

The safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets also remains important to the United States, as does the issue of non-proliferation. Pakistan’s relevance has also become salient in the geopolitical context because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Russia’s enhanced interest in the region.

The administration appears to recognize this, or at least some members of it say so publicly. Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 14, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “Pakistan and our relationship with them touches on some much broader issues relative to stability in Afghanistan and how we achieve that, but also stability in the Indo-Pacific region. It is a very complex relationship we have with the government of Pakistan.”

Two Problematic Paths

What else Washington might be thinking to help the troubled Afghanistan war? A battle of attrition to wear down the Taliban and force them to seek a political solution? Here, the question is whether a force of 15,000 can achieve what more than 100,000 troops could not. Not to mention that Kabul does not want to talk to the Taliban, whom it brands as terrorists.

The Afghan National Unity Government, especially its non-Pashtun component, simply does not want a political solution. A political solution will simply be a quick fix, enabling the United States to walk away and leave Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban and uncertain international aid, without which the country cannot survive. Kabul wants the Taliban to be defeated militarily and would like Washington to do it on its behalf. And apparently, the Taliban themselves are not keen about a peace agreement as they would not trust it while foreign troops are there.

Does this mean that a political solution is a non-starter?  There is certainly often a talk of a regional approach to facilitate a political solution despite potential obstacles. Mattis himself talked about it when he said in the Senate hearing, “We would have to change the priorities; we would have to put it in a more regional construct.”

But the reality is conditions in Afghanistan do not affect as much they reflect the complexity of relationships among regional countries. It will not be easy to get the regional countries to cooperate on Afghanistan if their own relationships remain conflicted, and objective conditions for a political solution in Afghanistan do not exist.

How can you have a political solution without internal reconciliation in Afghanistan? And keep in mind that Afghans need reconciliation not just with the Taliban but also among the divided National Unity Government, which masks serious internal cleavages and discord including ethnic tensions. Then, both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to conciliate their own areas where Taliban have presence or support. This is a tall order to say the least.

Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations: A Key Puzzle Piece

No reconciliation is arguably more important than the one between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan are not just two sovereign countries with bilateral problems. They have a tortuous shared history that has left a complicated legacy of a divided ethnicity straddled along a disputed border through which invasions and migrations have ebbed and flowed through the ages, alongside sinister ideologies in modern times.

As a consequence, they now face serious challenges, especially the threat of extremism and terrorism to which they have both contributed. The problems of each are now tied to policies and conditions in the other country and neither can solve them alone. These can only be addressed by a fundamentally altered Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship, which has been called the mother of all problems.

Whether we are looking for a military or political solution, that is where we should look for it. The two countries need to start thinking about each other in different ways, and come to a shared perception of the Taliban.

It will not be easy to bring them together. And only China and the United States, the two countries with the most stakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, can make that happen. It would require extraordinary diplomacy, which neither China nor the United States are known for, especially given the complexities of their own relationship. But it may be worth the try.

It would involve their commitment of long-term engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan. But that alone will not be enough. Afghanistan should be made to realize that America will not fight on its behalf with the Taliban, and that its reliance on India is only forcing Pakistan to cling to the Taliban.

For its part, China needs to convince Pakistan that its nexus with Taliban is helping them in the war, which will boomerang on Pakistan. Continuation of the war is keeping the terrorist networks alive and fueling militancy in Pakistan, and holding Pakistan’s stability and even CPEC hostage.

Meanwhile, Washington should also help Afghanistan with state building, economic development, and training, advice, and equipment for the security forces and focus its own military operations on counterterrorism.

But Washington should also relinquish the Taliban war to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Let the war then continue, but with another name, forcing Kabul and Islamabad to realize that the Taliban are their common enemy and must be defeated, politically if possible but militarily if necessary. Only then will they truly have compulsions as well as incentives to do so.

Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador of Pakistan and Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister, is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.