No U.S. Exit Strategy from Afghanistan

Published in Hilal English

Written By: Ambassador Zamir Akram (R)


On the issue of Taliban safe havens in Pakistan which has strongly been denied, the logical answer would be to effectively monitor the Pakistan-Afghan International Border and deny Taliban the use of Afghan refugee camps as bases by ensuring the earliest return of all Afghan refugees. But the U.S. remains reluctant to implement these measures. Accordingly, it is not for Pakistan but for the U.S. to do more in dealing with terrorism and working to bring peace to Afghanistan. As such, it needs a realistic exit strategy from Afghanistan. But so far, such a strategy is absent. On the contrary, the Trump administration’s “strategy” is a recipe for prolonged conflict in search of an elusive “victory”.

For the last 16 years, the U.S. has been fighting the longest war in its history in Afghanistan. However, it still does not have an exit strategy despite losses of USD 3 trillion and thousands of lives. The only American excuse for this stalemate is to blame Pakistan and keep demanding that Pakistan needs to do more to help the U.S. win its war on terror. But to use Pakistan as a scape-goat for American failure is not a strategy – let alone a means to exit from Afghanistan.


During his election campaign, Trump had advocated a withdrawal from the Afghan quagmire. But after becoming President, he was persuaded by the Pentagon and the CIA to continue fighting without a deadline in search for an elusive ‘victory’ against the Taliban. The so-called “South-Asian approach” to Afghanistan announced by Trump in August, is no more than a rehash of past failed policies. The crux of this policy is to put pressure on Pakistan “to do more” by closing down alleged Taliban safe havens on its territory. Another key aspect is to give India a greater role in Afghanistan, thereby implicitly endorsing the encirclement of Pakistan from the Afghan and Indian sides.

 

nousexitstrategy.jpgBut the Americans soon realized that they had gone too far in trying to corner Pakistan, since no amount of pressure can persuade Pakistan to compromise on its own regional security interests and by encouraging India to play a greater role in Afghanistan they would diminish rather than encourage Pakistani cooperation. Moreover, in the absence of any other options, the U.S. still needs Pakistan’s ground and air space for logistical purposes in Afghanistan. As a result, there have been several subsequent efforts to backpedal from the aggressive and threatening stance expressed by Trump.


In their recent visits to Islamabad, Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis, have been at pains to mollify Pakistani civilian and military leaders. The revised approach is to “find common ground” with Pakistan and to recognize Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror. Mattis also reportedly conveyed that “the U.S. is ready to play its role in addressing Pakistan’s legitimate concerns” regarding Afghanistan. In more concrete terms, the U.S. released USD 700 million from the USD 2 billion of held up Coalition Support Funds (CSFs) incurred by Pakistan in support of the war on terror.


While these developments denote a welcome change in the U.S. approach, there still remain major hurdles in the bilateral relationship. For instance, the U.S. still needs to reimburse Pakistan the remaining CSF. It has also reneged on its agreement for sale of certain armaments such as the F-16 aircraft. The size of American assistance to Pakistan has also been greatly slashed. Meanwhile, the typical American good cop/bad cop routine with Pakistan continues with positive comments by Tillerson and Mattis countered by CIA Director Pompeo’s threat that if Islamabad does not close down Taliban “safe havens”, then the U.S. will use all means to do so. Therefore, the “do more” mantra of the past three American administrations goes on.


Such differences between the U.S. and Pakistan do not augur well for either country nor for that matter for Afghanistan or the regional security itself. Continued violence and instability in Afghanistan is not in the interest of any country – the U.S., Pakistan or Afghanistan. There is need for a realistic and pragmatic approach to resolve the Afghan problem. Repeating the mistakes of the past will not generate success for the Americans. The simple truth that emerges from the past 16 years of warfare is that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. The only option is to evolve a political solution involving all stakeholders. This process needs to begin with an American reappraisal of their failed policies and recognize the reasons for the failure.

 

Since the start of its occupation of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has failed to distinguish between Al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban, who claim to fight against foreign occupation of their country. While Al-Qaeda’s fighters can be killed and defeated, the Taliban, belonging to the Afghan Pushtun majority, cannot be wiped out. To make matters worse, use of air power, such as drones, causing civilian casualties among Afghans has actually helped the Taliban recruit more troops. This has been compounded by the corruption and misrule by the U.S. backed Kabul government. Failure to eradicate poppy cultivation and the drug trade, which has actually grown during the American occupation, has further helped the Taliban by providing a valuable source of funding.

Since the start of its occupation of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has failed to distinguish between Al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban, who claim for fight against foreign occupation of their country. While Al-Qaeda’s fighters can be killed and defeated, the Taliban, belonging to the Afghan Pushtun majority, cannot be wiped out. To make matters worse, use of air power, such as drones, causing civilian casualties among Afghans has actually helped the Taliban recruit more troops. This has been compounded by the corruption and misrule by the U.S. backed Kabul government. Failure to eradicate poppy cultivation and the drug trade, which has actually grown during the American occupation, has further helped the Taliban by providing a valuable source of funding.


Meanwhile, the U.S. plan to build-up the Afghan security forces with American support has failed. On the contrary, the Taliban have gained in strength, taking control of nearly 40% of Afghan territory, even in non-Pushtun areas such as Kunduz and Herat provinces. Consequently, regional powers with security and business interests relating to Afghanistan, such as China, Russia and Iran, have established contacts with the Taliban. The growing rivalry between the Taliban and emerging ISIS terrorist forces in Afghanistan has further increased the relevance of the Taliban for these countries which perceive ISIS as a growing security threat for them. For all these reasons, it is becoming increasingly important for the U.S. to recognize that their continued military and political opposition to the Taliban is unlikely to succeed. The only way to end this confrontation is to promote a durable political settlement in Afghanistan through dialogue which takes into account the interests of all sides.
Another major flaw in U.S. policy has been the imposition of a unitary constitution on Afghanistan which is inconsistent with the decentralized nature of the Afghan polity, consisting of different tribal, ethnic and sectarian groups. A durable political structure will have to take this reality into account and a government will need to evolve based on power-sharing and greater decentralization.

 

This situation is complicated by the highly dubious U.S. role tolerating Indian sponsored TTP and Baloch terrorist safe havens in Nangarhar, Helmand, and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan, which continue to operate freely despite the presence of U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Moreover, America is unwilling to help Pakistan’s efforts to better manage the Pakistan-Afghan border, giving rise to the suspicion that it wants the TTP and Baloch terrorists to continue with their attacks in Pakistan. This may be to pressurize Pakistan as well as to try and derail the CPEC, which the U.S. has opposed at the behest of its Indian clients as well as to strategically contain China. In these circumstances, the offer by Defense Secretary Mattis to address Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns is hardly convincing, unless proven otherwise with concrete steps on ground.

Another major folly has been the lack of a consistent long term strategy in Afghanistan. Initially, under the Bush administration, the objective was to defeat terrorism. Thereafter, within a few years, the goal was switched to Afghan nation building which was also pursued by the Obama administration. Now President Trump has abandoned nation building and is back to fighting terrorism. Moreover, following initial successes against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Bush turned towards invading Iraq which diverted forces and resources away from Afghanistan and provided the opportunity for the Taliban to re-group and reassert their influence in the country.


Even the nation building effort was half-hearted and misguided, with billions going to American contractors and corrupt Afghan officials, and only a fraction reaching the Afghan people. The irony is that if just a small percentage of the colossal expenditure on the Afghan war effort was used to build the country’s economy and infrastructure, it would have guaranteed popular support for the U.S. and its Kabul allies. As a result the opportunity to win Afghan hearts and minds was squandered, which worked in favour of the Taliban.


To make matters worse, the U.S. consistently relied on the wrong Afghans to achieve their objectives. In their eagerness to defeat the Taliban, Americans relied on the support of non-Pushtun minority groups such as the Tajiks of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, who were given key security, defence and intelligence positions. This not only alienated the Taliban but the majority Pushtun population which continues to harbor serious misgivings about the Tajiks due to their harsh experience during ten years of the Afghan civil war. Even those Pushtuns like Hamid Karzai and others in the government are viewed by the majority as stooges and tools of the Americans.


From Pakistan’s perspective, Washington has consistently failed to recognize Islamabad’s strategic imperatives regarding Afghanistan. For Pakistan, the compulsions of geo-politics and the historical legacies of disputes with India over Kashmir and Afghanistan over the erstwhile Durand Line border (de jure and de facto international border) have combined to conflate the threat of hostile encirclement from its western and eastern borders. Therefore, Pakistan and India have historically competed for influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have, therefore, been a function of its relations with India and of India’s relations with Afghanistan. This triangular relationship will continue in the future. Those Americans, or indeed Pakistanis or Indians, who dismiss this reality as ‘paranoia’ of the Pakistani security establishment, need only look so far at the current Indian and Afghan support for the TTP and Baloch terrorists located in Afghan safe havens from where they carry-out terrorist attacks in Pakistan. This clear and present danger for Pakistan, which has existed in various manifestations such as the Pushtunistan bogey and Baloch insurgencies since independence, requires Pakistan to ensure leverage in Afghanistan. For this reason, it cannot now afford to alienate the Afghans including the Taliban nor fight America’s war on its territory, especially since there are 3.5 million mostly Pushtun Afghan refugees in Pakistan.


This situation is complicated by the highly dubious U.S. role tolerating Indian sponsored TTP and Baloch terrorist safe havens in Nangarhar, Helmand, and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan, which continue to operate freely despite the presence of U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Moreover, America is unwilling to help Pakistan’s efforts to better manage the Pakistan-Afghan border, giving rise to the suspicion that it wants the TTP and Baloch terrorists to continue with their attacks in Pakistan. This may be to pressurize Pakistan as well as to try and derail the CPEC, which the U.S. has opposed at the behest of its Indian clients as well as to strategically contain China. In these circumstances, the offer by Defense Secretary Mattis to address Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns is hardly convincing, unless proven otherwise with concrete steps on ground.


Moreover, Washington’s belated acknowledgement of Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror holds little comfort for Pakistan. Apart from continuing to withhold over USD 2 billion of CSF funds, the U.S. continues to ask Pakistan to “do more”. It has ignored the direct cost of USD 142 billion that Pakistan has incurred in the war on terror since 9/11. More importantly, by asking Pakistan to do more, the U.S. has trivialized the loss of more than 70,000 Pakistanis, both civilian and armed forces personnel, who have died in this counter-terrorism campaign, the highest number of casualties than even the combined losses of the U.S. and its NATO allies in Afghanistan. Moreover, of all the countries engaged in counter-terrorism operations, not just in Afghanistan, the most successful have been the operations conducted by Pakistan, owing to which there has been more than 70% reduction in terrorist incidents in Pakistan. And this is despite the Indo-Afghan support for the TTP and Baloch terrorists.


On the issue of Taliban safe havens in Pakistan which has strongly been denied, the logical answer would be to effectively monitor the Pakistan-Afghan International Border and deny Taliban the use of Afghan refugee camps as bases by ensuring the earliest return of all Afghan refugees. But the U.S. remains reluctant to implement these measures.


Accordingly, it is not for Pakistan but for the U.S. to do more in dealing with terrorism and working to bring peace to Afghanistan. As such, it needs a realistic exit strategy from Afghanistan. But so far, such a strategy is absent. On the contrary, the Trump administration’s “strategy” is a recipe for prolonged conflict in search of an elusive “victory”.


Meanwhile, the dangers of terrorism in Afghanistan are increasing with the growing presence of ISIS and the activities of the TTP with Indian support leading to a ISIS-TTP nexus. Instead of addressing this potent terrorist threat for the entire region, the U.S. remains fixated on fighting the Taliban.


All this gives rise to the question whether the U.S. actually does want to exit from Afghanistan. A counter-narrative has, therefore, emerged even in the U.S. that the real American objective is to prolong the Afghan conflict in order to provide justification for the indefinite presence of American troops there. This argument is supported by the fact that the U.S. has set up five permanent military bases in Afghanistan and is reportedly beginning construction of yet another base. The presence of these bases was agreed with the earlier Karzai government and endorsed by the current regime. Such a high level military presence would be instrumental for the U.S. to monitor Pakistan, especially its nuclear assets – an objective already acknowledged by several Americans including Trump. It would also facilitate American clandestine activities against China and Iran as well as Russian interests through Central Asia. The killing of Taliban leader Mulla Mansoor by a U.S. drone which derailed the dialogue process being promoted by Pakistan indicates American opposition to a dialogue and further supports this view. The cost of such a policy to the Americans in terms of blood and treasure would be minimal. In fact the American military-industrial complex would greatly benefit from this policy.


These developments cannot be dismissed as mere conspiracy theories until the U.S. comes up with a coherent and realistic strategy to resolve the Afghan conflict and pursues a credible exit strategy. Continuation of the Afghan conflict also suits India as it keeps Pakistan preoccupied on both its eastern and western borders while at the same time threatening the implementation of CPEC.


In this dangerous environment, it is imperative for Pakistan to continue with its efforts to defeat terrorism internally while securing its border with Afghanistan. It also needs to work with Iran, China and Russia to ensure its security and to try and pre-empt the U.S. by jointly promoting an Afghan political settlement. This effort may not succeed, given the Kabul government’s reliance on the U.S., but at least it will expose American and Indian objectives in the region and make achievement of these malafide objectives more difficult.

 

The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

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