GIVEN US President Trump’s initial opposition to continuing the Afghan war, his new policy — to escalate the US military campaign in Afghanistan and blame Pakistan for the stalemate and threaten it with penalties — represents a serious political setback for Islamabad. After its anticipated angry response, Pakistan’s senior diplomats have rightly advocated a continued effort to engage the US and simultaneously develop a regional response to the new US policy.
Islamabad and other regional capitals no doubt realise that America is embarking on a ‘new’ war in Afghanistan, after its initial ‘war of revenge’ (2001-2004); ‘nation building’ ( 2005-2009) and Obama’s various combinations of a ‘fight, talk, pacify and withdraw’ policy. Trump’s new policy can be described as ‘stay and fight’.
The immediate US goal in Afghanistan is to prop up the pliant Kabul regime militarily and prevent its overthrow by the Afghan Taliban. The US generals, who are driving this policy, know that neither complete victory nor an acceptable political settlement is likely.
The US is no longer interested in a political settlement unless the Afghan Taliban accept America’s terms.
The strategic purpose of staying on indefinitely in Afghanistan is not to pacify it but to use it as a base for the promotion of America’s broader objectives in the region: one, to impose a ‘Pax Indo-Americana’ in South Asia, including by securing Pakistan’s acceptance of the status quo in Kashmir and severe restraints on Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence capability; two, to reverse Iran’s ascendancy in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and neutralise its perceived threat to Israel; and, three, to limit the influence of China and Russia in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood and impede China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative including the CPEC project.
The US is clearly no longer interested in a political settlement in Afghanistan unless the Afghan Taliban accepts America’s terms. Washington is not asking Pakistan to persuade the Afghan Taliban to agree to talks. It is demanding that Pakistan fight the Afghan Taliban itself and thus make it ‘easier’ for the US to prevent a Taliban victory and ‘stay on’ in Afghanistan.
The Americans know full well that almost all the Afghan Taliban fighters are in Afghanistan. Some may try at times to hide in border valleys and forests. Some Taliban leaders cross over to the large refugee camps and Afghan ‘neighbourhoods’ in and around Pakistani cities. Their periodic presence there has been used in the past by all parties, including the Americans, to facilitate inter-Afghan contacts and dialogue.
If Pakistan were to capture or kill the Afghan Taliban leadership, they are likely to forge an alliance with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other militants who are attacking Pakistan. This will severely exacerbate Pakistan’s security challenges, including from the India- and Kabul-sponsored TTP and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) militants.
Second, with the elimination of the Afghan Taliban leadership, negotiating an Afghan peace settlement will become virtually impossible. US generals may not mind a never-ending war; but the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan deserve a strategy that leads to peace, not perpetual war.
Third, eliminating the Afghan Taliban, whose political agenda is limited to Afghanistan, will strengthen the extra-territorial terrorist groups in Afghanistan: the militant Islamic State (IS) group (against whom the Afghan Taliban are fighting); Al Qaeda, with whom the Afghan Taliban have renounced past links; and Al Qaeda associates TTP, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim) which are mainly threatening Afghanistan’s neighbours Pakistan, Russia, China and Central Asia. It is for these reasons that these neighbours have opened channels of contact with the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan’s energetic new prime minister has offered intensified counterterrorism cooperation and joint border patrols to the US and Kabul. Pakistan’s ongoing programme to fence and closely monitor the border can be effective in preventing cross-border attacks. The US should convince Kabul to support it. Pakistan’s cooperation would encompass joint action against IS, Al Qaeda and their associates. Islamabad can undertake further steps to promote dialogue between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. Naturally, Pakistan would expect reciprocal US and Afghan action against the TTP and BLA safe havens in Afghanistan.
Even if Pakistan were to accommodate the US on Afghanistan, it would not be satisfied. Its demands include calls for action against the pro-Kashmiri groups (Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad) and for acceptance of one-sided constraints on Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.
Under US pressure, previous Pakistani governments agreed to put the LeT and JeM on the Security Council’s ‘terrorism’ list. Islamabad has outlawed them and seized their assets. The US and India want Pakistan to eliminate the iterations of these organisations and incarcerate their leaders. It would be unwise for Pakistan to accept the onus for putting its ‘house in order’ and enable India to subvert the legitimate Kashmiri struggle for self-determination and continue its brutal repression in occupied Kashmir.
Pakistan is also unlikely to entertain American demands to halt the development and deployment of short- and long-range nuclear-capable missiles, especially when the US is promoting Indian armament, not disarmament, and is known to have formulated plans to neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence capabilities in a crisis.
Consequently, the proffered engagement with the US is likely to prove infructuous. Pakistan should prepare itself to bear the ‘pain’ of the threatened US sanctions. It should draw its own ‘red lines’. Any sign of weakness will intensify, not ameliorate, US coercion.
The Pakistani foreign minister’s consultations with China, Turkey, Iran and Russia will hopefully yield a regional consensus that would be valuable in resisting America’s new and aggressive posture. Such a regional consensus could: one, accord highest priority to eliminating IS, Al Qaeda and ‘associated’ militants TTP, Jamaatul Ahrar, Etim, IMU; two, extend support for a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban; three, endorse Pakistan’s plan to fence and closely monitor the Pak-Afghan border; and, four, demand strict respect by all, including the US-Nato forces, for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan and other regional states.
Ultimately, as history attests, an external military solution cannot be imposed on the Afghans. Like others, the US will leave the ‘graveyard of empires’ in ignominy if it does not depart in dignity.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2017