Afghanistan: no simple exits

Published August 30, 2017
US President Donald Trump announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan.
US President Donald Trump announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan.

PESHAWAR: When on Aug 19, US President Donald Trump tweeted, “Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan,” there was little doubt what his much-anticipated policy on America’s longest war in Afghanistan would be.

Exactly a month earlier, on July 19, Trump had fumed that “we are losing” the war. The frustrated president suggested firing the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, Gen John W. Nicholson. In the same meeting, Trump grumbled that while US soldiers were fighting, the Chinese were making money off rare mineral resources — with a value estimated at $1 trillion — in Afghanistan.

He then vented over the lack of a strategy and the time it was taking to formulate one, drawing a comparison with an elite New York restaurant, 21 Club, whose owner had hired a consultant to salvage his failing business. The consultant, Trump continued, took a year to recommend that what the restaurant really needed was a bigger kitchen. By Trump’s reckoning, that was a waste of time and money.

So why would a realtor risk putting more money and resources into a war which, by his own admission, the US is not winning, particularly when his own intuition dictates a pull-out?

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Recons­truction in its 36th quarterly report released on July 30 estimated that the total American spending on the war and reconstruction in Afghanistan stands at $714 billion, including $675bn obligated for the Department of Defence in the last 15 years.

In his speech, Trump shared his “frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money and most importantly lives trying to rebuild countries in our image instead of pursuing our security interests.” The “path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia” is much the same.

There are two distinctions, however. Unlike the past, Trump’s way forward singles Pakistan out for the mess in Afghanistan. And, in a broader regional context, it allows a greatly expanded role for India not just in “economic assistance and development” but also in “peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.”

The surge in troop levels, broad authorisations, and changes in the rules of engagement to allow for greater freedom of action at the field and tactical level, have been tried in the past in 2009 under the Obama administration; they did not work.

Much is being said about Trump’s shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions on the ground, and his refusal to give a timetable for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump made it clear that the American “commitment is not unlimited and our support is not a blank cheque …. our patience is not unlimited.”

So, while the president avoided repeating Obama’s mistake of announcing a troop pull-out date, he must have made it clear to his military leaders that his commitment to stay on hinges on their performance. Even as Trump vows to use the full might of American power towards an “honourable” and successful outcome, and seeks for Pakistan to shut down “terrorists’ safe-havens” including those of the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, it has nonetheless left the door open for a political settlement “that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

But it is the “change in approach in how to deal with Pakistan” that has caused much consternation here. The US president, while acknowledging Pakistan’s contribution and sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and extremism, nonetheless put it on notice for “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” “But that will have to change. And that will change immediately,” he demanded. He also spoke of 20 US-designated foreign terrorist organisations (FTOs) in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which, he said, was the highest concentration in any region.

In its Fact Checker section on Aug 22, The Washington Post said that the State Department had designated only 13 groups FTOs, the latest addition being the Hizbul Mujahideen added two weeks ago.

Even if Trump’s figure is considered correct, nine of those 20 groups are operating in Afghanistan; these include outlawed Pakistani militant groups such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaatul Ahrar. Of the others, the anti-Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to the US, is based in Afghanistan; the Indian Mujahideen are based in India; and the Al Qaeda core and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent leadership could be anywhere in the region, although some of their leaders were targeted in drone strikes in Afghanistan.

Others on the list, including the Haqqani network that the US insists operates from Pakistan, and the Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, are already on the State Department list of FTOs.

This leaves Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad that the US wants Pakistan to take action against, although they are believed to be active in India-held Kashmir and not Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the only group that does not find itself on the FTO list are the Afghan Taliban or the various shuras, that the US wants Pakistan to hunt down — clearly, with the aim of engaging with the group to achieve a political settlement at a later stage.

These are some of the contradictions in Trump’s so-called regional approach to solving the Afghan puzzle. That regional approach has so far elicited a strong reaction from Pakistan, without whose help — as even former American military leaders acknowledge — the US cannot win.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2017

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