‘Straight as a jalebi’

Updated 20 Oct 2018


The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

IN his latest book, Fear, Bob Woodward notes Trump had initially insisted “Afghanistan is a total disaster. We don’t know what we are doing. Let’s get out".

After becoming president he found his generals opposed his views. National Security Adviser Gen McMaster sought to “align military recommendations for Afghanistan with the president’s goals” but he discovered “this president’s only goal was to get out”.

Since then, the generals and civilian hawks have controlled Trump and got him to stay on in Afghanistan indefinitely.

A State Department official asked the generals some “fundamental questions”. Why do we think we need a counterterrorism base in Afghanistan to prevent another (9/11) attack? What do we think the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan really is? Why do we think thousands of US troops and intelligence specialists are needed when we have drones and everything else?

An enduring US presence in Afghanistan, he said, could cause “further instability from not only insurgents, but also regional players, such as Pakistan”. Moreover, when the US invaded Afghanistan it did not want to establish a permanent presence. Why did it want to after 16 years?

A sensible and far-sighted Pakistan policy could significantly assist a time-lined Afghan settlement.

The military denied it wanted a permanent presence in Afghanistan. The official accordingly asked: when would the US military presence end? Or was the search for a political settlement “a way to sell continued US military engagement in Afghanistan?” Senator Lindsey Graham answered a similar question from Trump by saying “It never ends.”

Did US Special Representative Khalilzad recently indicate a US willingness to withdraw to the Afghan Taliban? If not, how would Pakistan persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with Kabul utterly dependent on a continued US military presence? That does not mean Pakistan should assist an insurgency against an Afghan government it recognises. The Taliban are no 21st-century option for Pakistan.

Pakistan, however, cannot broker a peace settlement between a Kabul government that deeply mistrusts it and the Taliban insurgency that is suspicious of Pakistan’s motives and reliability. Reports that Pakistan now wants US forces to stay in Afghanistan until peace is achieved would confirm Taliban suspicions and the success of US pressure on Pakistan to realign its Afghanistan policy.

Should the US be willing to consider a time-based, instead of a conditions-based, withdrawal from Afghanistan, a sensible and far-sighted Pakistan policy could, in concert with other regional countries, significantly assist a time-lined Afghan settlement. So far, this has not been Pakistan’s preferred policy option. Moreover, the US is looking beyond Afghanistan — to making Pakistan the weak link in China’s strategy.

President Ghani “dangled the possibility that the US would have exclusive access to the vast mineral wealth” of Afghanistan saying “there’s so much money to be made. Don’t walk away. Rare earth minerals, like lithium, etc worth several trillion dollars!” An impressed Trump said, “[the Afghans] have offered us their minerals. Offered us everything! Why aren’t we there taking them? The Chinese are raiding the place.” McMaster pointed out that “a lot of [the minerals] are in Taliban-controlled areas”.

Ghani also promised Trump he would allow “as many counterterrorism troops as he wanted plus CIA bases wherever he wanted”. But Kabul failed to regain Taliban-controlled areas because, as the US Directorate of National Intelligence reported, “Pakistan was not playing ball or responding to pressure. Any settlement was premised on Pakistani participation". Moreover, “a drought was coming, and with it a crisis of food security”. In addition, Pakistan was about to send back “one or two million Afghan refugees”.

It is still not clear whether Trump wants to include Pakistan or exclude it from an Afghan peace process. The US needs Pakistan. But it prefers to see Indian influence prevail in Afghanistan.

It also wants an Afghan settlement that forestalls Chinese influence. Pakistan needs the US to adopt a more balanced policy towards it. But not at the cost of its strategic relationship with China.

In turn, China realises Trump is a dangerous and destabilising foe, not the global partner for regional and international stability it had hoped. For India, a Pakistan-Afghan rapprochement is a strategic nightmare.

Regarding Afghanistan, almost everyone is “as straight as a jalebi”.

Woodward notes McMaster proposed a R4 strategy: Reinforce (Kabul); Realign (concentrate on areas under its control); Reconcile (with the Taliban while killing and dividing them); and Regionalise (essentially bringing in India).

This was to reinforce his four frames policy: achieving political stability through a political settlement with the Taliban; building institutions to counter the Taliban; increasing pressure on Pakistan which was playing a “double game”, and maintaining allied support.

Trump believed “things will work out with Pakistan”. But, according to US intelligence, “Pakistan has not changed since 9/11 and they won’t".

The only option in Afghanistan was “a new House of Broken Toys” (the CIA’s reference to Iraq when it was planning its invasion). In other words, the US needed a CIA or US Army-run Afghan insurgency against the Taliban insurgency (and Pakistan).

The “House of Broken Toys” in the Afghan context alludes to expanding Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams (CTPT) made up of “the best Afghan fighters, the cream of the crop” who are “paid, trained and controlled by the CIA”.

Could this “CIA paramilitary force” make a US troop increase unnecessary? CTPTs had previously “conducted dangerous and highly controversial cross-border operations into Pakistan”.

The CIA now wanted to hit two High Value Targets in Pakistan! Moreover, Senator Graham warned Trump that pulling out of Afghanistan could lead to another 9/11 for which he would be condemned.

To conclude, US Afghan policy is focused on containing China. Staying on in Afghanistan, having military/intelligence bases, and disengaging Pakis­tan from its embrace of China are part of the US strategy. So are its threats, sanctions, FATF and the IMF’s focus on “China debt”. These are ultimately aimed at CPEC and the Belt and Road Initiative.

An intelligent and sustainable Afghan policy is an urgent strategic requirement for Pakistan. It would need to be situated in a broader set of domestic and external policies.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2018