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Fixing Afghanistan

November 19, 2017

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ATTEMPTS to fix Afghanistan have accelerated after the Trump-led US administration announced its South Asia policy in August. Regional actors are realigning their positions to respond to the new US policy as well as to other emerging geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics in the region, which will certainly take time. Pakistan remains at the heart of the new US policy on Afghanistan, although for reasons which Islamabad does not approve of.

The Trump-led US administration seems to have chalked out a long-term strategy keeping in view that defeating the Afghan Taliban militarily is not possible. Apparently, the US objective is to not allow the Taliban to win or to protract the conflict. Washington will try to achieve its goal with minimum increase in troops on the ground.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group — set up in 2015 for talks with the Afghan Taliban and consisting of the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan — would be one component of America’s political strategy. Backchannel efforts to engage Afghan Taliban commanders and to encourage them to join the government are also seen as an integral part of this strategy. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently hinted at the inclusion of ‘moderate’ Taliban in the Afghan government, although he did not elaborate who these moderate elements would be; nor is it clear if the Taliban themselves would accept the US definition.

The US knows the sensitivities involved and will continue exploiting these to get Pakistan to cooperate.

Washington wants certain roles for regional actors and appears to have divided the latter into two clusters — immediate neighbours and stakeholders. In the short to medium term, the US wants Pakistan to take action against the Haqqanis and force the Afghan Taliban to participate in the process of political reconciliation. The removal of the Lashkar-e-Taiba from the US National Defence Authorisation Act provision would have required the US defence secretary to certify that Pakistan has taken steps to “significantly disrupt” the activities of both the LeT and the Haqqani network. That is a significant indication of a palpably changing scenario.

However, it can be interpreted both ways — that the US will increase pressure on Pakistan to deliver more on the Afghanistan front or that Pakistan has convinced the Trump administration it will handle the local groups alone — through coercive ways or reintegration. The removal of the LeT’s name indicates that the Milli Muslim League project has been successful in easing some of the pressure on Islamabad, which does not want to see its Indian-centric strategic priorities confused with US regional politics or its own security calculus.

The US knows the sensitivities and will continue exploiting these to get Pakistan to cooperate. Though the message is clear about what the US expects in return, would it be possible for Pakistan to deliver on the Haqqani front, especially when it is clear that Washington wants the Haqqanis at the table or to confront them on the battlefield in Afghanistan?

President Trump in his policy review speech had announced America would quit the nation-building project in Afghanistan, but how would he then achieve stability in the latter country? Apparently, Washington wants to outsource the ‘nation-building’ project to India and wants it to play a greater role in economic affairs and institutional building in Afghanistan.

Policymakers in Washington know that New Delhi would not put its troops on the ground in Afghanistan. However, the Indian preference would be to play a calculated political, strategic and economic role in Afghanistan without exceeding the strategic and financial costs too much. India is one of the major beneficiaries of the crisis in Afghanistan, and has been trying to replace Pakistan on the strategic and trade fronts in Afghanistan. The US will continue to pursue India for playing a greater role in building infrastructure and institutions in Afghanistan.

Architects of the US policy see a special role for China in Afghanistan as being directly involved in the peace-building process. Regional peace and stability are crucial for the One Belt, One Road initiative but Beijing will not take any lead role in resolving regional disputes, preferring to work in partnership with the US, Russia, Pakistan and Iran.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis criticised Russia and Iran for providing military and financial support to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The US may not have major concerns about Russia’s part in any resolution of the Afghan crisis, but would not like an active role for Iran. It will prefer to give this role to Central Asian neighbours both in political-economic and strategic terms.

America’s Afghan policy appears aggressive and is apparently based on the assumption of semi or unconditional support from regional actors. But it has not considered the interests of other actors. At the same time, it is based on a perception that the Taliban are a divided camp. On the other hand, Kabul presumes the militant Islamic State group to be a lesser threat despite its increasing influence and attacks in Afghanistan. Russia and China are more concerned about the IS but Washington deems fixing the Afghan Taliban will reduce the space for IS though it has killed more US troops than the Taliban. On the other hand, despite reports of possible collaboration between the Taliban and the IS, the potential of the threat has not been assessed as yet.

The US is, nevertheless, not anticipating a complete victory in Afghanistan and is ready to capitalise on partial successes on the military, political and diplomatic fronts. This approach creates doubts about America’s real intentions towards its partners and stakeholders. Recently, the Pakistani prime minister’s adviser on national security, retired Gen Nasser Janjua, talked of the closure of the Afghan war theatre at a ministerial-level gathering in Samarkand. He demanded an honest review of America’s previous approaches as well. It is not clear whether these were his personal views or if the establishment also supports this idea. Nor is it clear what would be the modalities of shutting down the war theatre in Afghanistan. But it is an idea worthy of consideration.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2017

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