After much delay and debate, the Afghanistan and South Asia strategy has finally been revealed by the United States. At best, the additional troop presence and higher tempo of bombings will help the Afghan government regain some territory it has lost to the Taliban in recent months. The new strategy is old wine in a new bottle, and it may be laced with poison.
Three key aspects were not a big surprise. Firstly, President Trump has not held up to candidate Trump’s promise of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Secondly, he has given in to the Pentagon’s incessant demand of ceaseless war in Afghanistan and linking troop drawdown to conditions rather than an arbitrary timeline. Finally, and this is where things get tricky, Trump has threatened to take a tougher line against Pakistan and made an open invitation to Indian involvement, at least through economic assistance, in Afghanistan.
Previous U.S. administrations have also demanded that Pakistan do more against terrorist groups, particularly the Haqqani Network. Reimbursement of Coalition Support Funds has been linked to these demands and millions of dollars have at times been held back because Pakistan has failed to meet these demands.
Greater Indian involvement will play into fears of strategic encirclement in Pakistan, particularly in Rawalpindi. The Afghan government does not recognize the Durand Line and this has been a historic issue for Pakistan. To ask Pakistan to do more against groups long considered as strategic assets without resolving larger issues is highly unlikely. In fact, hardliners in Pakistan, both in the political and security establishments, will look across the Durand Line and fancy their odds. After all, Pakistan has been trying to secure its strategic interests in Afghanistan since the late 1970s and has stuck to its guns despite the use of both carrots and sticks by the United States. It is folly to think that this time Pakistan will change its behavior without securing its interests on its western flank.
The fact that India does not share a land border with Afghanistan makes it difficult for India to play a major role in the country’s future. Despite efforts by both Afghanistan and India to boost economic linkages, the plans have not taken off: vast quantities of fruit exports for the Indian market have rotted away at Afghanistan’s airports in recent months.
The United States’ interests are at odds, both regionally and globally, with China, Russia, and Iran. All three have vital strategic interests in Afghanistan and will seek to play a role in shaping the country’s future.
The United States recognizes that it needs India as a strategic ally to balance against growing Chinese influence in South and East Asia. However, in Afghanistan, China has been more of a partner than a rival. The Chinese foreign minister has made multiple trips to Kabul and Islamabad to de-escalate tensions, and has played a positive role in finding a political settlement to the conflict. Throughout this process, Chinese diplomats have not tried to undercut the United States and have closely collaborated with Washington. Trump’s failure to recognize China’s positive role, and given his administration’s anti-China bent, China could change its strategy and further complicate things for the United States.
Both Iran and Russia, riding high after outwitting the United States in Syria, will cherish an opportunity to further bleed the United States. Both have increased financial and military assistance to the Taliban in recent months, and this relationship will grow given the increased tempo of military operations in Afghanistan.
The fact is that there is no military solution to this conflict. While sending more troops to Afghanistan and trying to coerce Pakistan may win back some territory, but it will not win the war. The largely Pashtun insurgency has found a way to replenish its ranks despite the loss of thousands of fighters every year for sixteen years. Another 4,000 American troops will not win where tens of thousands have failed.
That leaves us with diplomacy. Given the ongoing upheaval at the State Department, and the complete handover of the Afghan war to the Pentagon, it is highly unlikely that the United States will get its diplomatic act together. What we will get is further escalation of violence: April of this year saw the highest number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan since 2012, and we can expect that record to be broken in the coming months.
Trump began his speech by saying that he was going against his instincts with this strategy. In the coming months, he may realize that the United States cannot bomb its way out of this quagmire. When that time comes, the man who has declared corporate bankruptcy four times may decide to file for Chapter 11 in Afghanistan.
Uzair Younus is an Analyst at Albright Stonebridge Group. Views expressed are his own.