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A complex war

October 22, 2017

A SURGE in violence has bloodily exposed the increasing complexity of the war in Afghanistan. On the enemy and insurgent side, there appear to be three principal actors: the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the militant Islamic State group. Each has claimed or is believed to be responsible for a devastating attack in recent days across Afghanistan. Meanwhile, under the new, looser rules of engagement authorised by US President Donald Trump, US forces in Afghanistan have unleashed a dramatic aerial bombing and drone strikes campaign with the apparent aim of militarily pummelling all three. In addition, the traditional winter lull in fighting may not occur as militants switch tactics away from large raids on towns and towards more devastating small raids and suicide bombings. However, at least when it comes to the fight against IS, the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan can agree that it should be fought urgently and with great intensity. There may not be a direct link between the IS strongholds in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but the severe pressure that IS is under in the former could become a factor in its rejuvenation elsewhere. IS having found more than a foothold in Afghanistan and Pakistan, any state that contributes to the fight against it ought to be welcomed.

Clearly, the fight in Afghanistan against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network presents a trickier international problem. A surge in bombings across Afghanistan attributed to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network will invariably increase US pressure on Pakistan to act against alleged sanctuaries on Pakistani soil. Moreover, the Trump administration’s interest in participating in a dialogue with the Afghan Taliban is in doubt, suggesting that the military aspect of US policy will dominate in Afghanistan, potentially causing ripple effects inside Pakistan. For Pakistan, the challenges are profound: continuing to secure the country from domestic and cross-border militancy; helping advance an intra-Afghan dialogue in the face of either hostility or lack of interest by the US; and fending off the Trump administration’s more belligerent demands that could trigger violence and political upheaval. The recent diplomacy and military interactions that Pakistan has undertaken should be sustained and widened. As past periods of great instability have demonstrated, the absence of high-level and direct communications among Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US tends to worsen tensions. Now is the time for commonsense and calm statecraft.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2017