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Setback to peace

July 02, 2017

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SIX months into his tenure, US President Donald Trump’s strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan remains crafty and cagey. In a recent tweet, he waxed lyrical about American service members. The president demonstrated great pride in being commander-in-chief of the US army. But the way he handles America’s colossal war machine and deploys men and women in uniform to conflict zones tells a conflicting story.

Trump has given his defence secretary Jim Mattis carte blanche to set troop levels in Afghanistan. Glossing over his responsibility to protect American soldiers, and ignoring disagreements within his administration, the president empowered Mattis to ramp up troop levels in the country from the current 8,800 to more than 14,000. The crafty move has paved the ground for Nato commander John Nicholson’s proposal going forward.

Although the US is far from winning the war, as acknowledged by the defence secretary and many others, pouring more troops into combat represents a callous disregard for the safety of US and Afghan security personnel. The long-anticipated policy does not explain how the bleak security situation will be turned around. It is apparent that no corrective action is being applied to the rotten political system and economic crisis in Afghanistan.

One had hoped that Trump would learn from his predecessor’s flip-flop on ending America’s longest military campaign, but he did not. Instead, he went for even deeper involvement in a war that has already resulted in the loss of thousands of American and Afghan lives and cost billions of dollars. Dismissive as he may be of Barack Obama’s micromanagement of the mission, he is expanding a conflict that continues to fuel instability in a region haunted by terrorism.

Pouring more troops into Afghanistan will not work.

As Trump continues to shy away from tackling the challenge head on, will the new US strategy succeed? Odds are that it will fall flat on its face, because American public opinion has gradually swung against what was previously billed as a good war. Additionally, there has been no constructive debate on the case for a fresh surge — that may not wrest the battlefield momentum from the Afghan Taliban and the militant Islamic State group. Both have lately made more territorial gains in different parts of the benighted country.

Worse still, the Trump team has been reticent on the subject of a viable political settlement with the Taliban, improving governance, combating endemic corruption in Afghan institutions, consolidating the economy and taking Afghanistan’s neighbours on board on how to wrap up the war. Unilateral plans are not going to come to fruition in a country where 120,000 international troops could not vanquish the insurgency some years ago.

Meanwhile, the slot of US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan has fallen vacant. Now that Laurel Miller has gone, there is no indication of any diplomat with policymaking experience filling the key position. Planned staff cuts in the State Department, where several offices are vacant at the moment, suggest relations between the estranged neighbours will continue to be on the rocks.

Trump may delegate authority to his defence secretary to deal with troop levels, but he cannot be allowed to escape blame for failure. If the gambit does not succeed, who will be the fall guy? The buck will eventually stop with the commander-in-chief, not the Pentagon chief. What is Trump trying to achieve? And mission creep is unlikely to help Afghan security forces keep the emboldened militants at bay.

For this new tactical shift to be successful, the US will have to forge a more efficient regional approach, including cooperation from Pakistan. Many in Washington and Kabul accuse Islamabad of aiding the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. At the same time, Afghanistan’s political institutions have to be bolstered as well, a long-drawn-out process that needs to be spearheaded by the White House and the State Department, not the Pentagon.

To ensure Pakistan’s support for a political solution in Afghanistan, the US will have to convince Islamabad and New Delhi to initiate a substantive dialogue to resolve their long-running disputes. Pakistan’s soft corner for the Afghan Taliban is ostensibly aimed at offseting growing Kabul-Delhi links. Revival of the Quadrilateral Coordi­nation Group would be a giant stride to­­wards aligning regional efforts for stability in Afghanistan.

If regional actors are sidelined, the Resolute Support Mission will be in trouble. A change for the better will not come about in the absence of a cohesive vision for reconciliation. For now, the lack of commitment to a meaningful regional peace push conti­nues to cast doubt on the validity of the surge, an option that failed under Obama.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2017