October issue 2017
The Big Question: Will the US ever win the War on Terror in Afghanistan?
Najmuddin Shaikh is a former foreign secretary and has also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran and the US.
The short answer is “Yes it can,” over a period of 7 to 10 years. Let us begin from the fact that the Taliban are not designated as terrorists. Despite our doubts, I believe reconciliation remains the American goal. No sane analyst can possibly believe that the Americans are looking for victory when they commit only 15,000 troops and know that in the past even 140,000 could not bring military success of that nature.
The scenario I visualise unfolding is as follows:
The US government’s announcement that American troop reduction or withdrawal is condition-based, suggests an indefinite stay of foreign troops in case there is no reconciliation. President Ashraf Ghani, while recalling the Taliban claim that “the Americans have the watches but we have the time,” said, “The Taliban should go buy a watch,” because time was now on the government’s side. Further confirmation of American plans being long-term comes from the recently publicised American plan to expand the current security zone in Kabul from 0.71 square miles into a Baghdad Green Zone-like area covering about 1.86 square miles. A further expansion is planned in the coming years, with a ring road being built as an alternate for commuters who currently use the roads through the security zone. There has been no sign of any cutting down on plans to expand the Afghan Air Force as a long-term project.
So far, the Taliban attitude has been defiant but there will be second thoughts. I believe it will lead Haibatullah Akhund and his faction of the Taliban, war-weary as they are, to consider reconciliation against a promise of a fixed date for complete withdrawal of foreign troops (2024-2027). Four factors will drive them (a) New rules of military engagement that remove restrictions of the Obama era and the presence of American advisors at the company and battalion level will make the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) more effective, reducing the Taliban’s chances of making further territorial gains. (b) Loss of control over some Helmand-based Taliban who now keep monies derived from opium for themselves, challenge Haibatullah’s claim of leadership, and present the threat of further splits in the Taliban ranks. Inclination of some Taliban in the north to join IS – hitherto treated as sworn enemies of the Taliban – reflecting a degree of desperation or frustration. (d) The prospect of further devastation in the country.
The Haqqanis (both Siraj individually and the Network) will, like Hikmatyar, be taken off the terrorist list and, along with the Taliban, become the negotiating partners of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah, after opening a new office or shifting their Doha office to a Taliban-controlled area in Afghanistan’s Urozgan province. The role of regional countries in persuading the Taliban to move in this direction will be crucial.
Reconciliation will be a long and tortuous process, but the first agreement between the parties will be local, and then, wider ceasefires. There will be a tacit agreement on isolating the recalcitrant Taliban. Changes in the constitution (including application of Sharia, devolution of authority to local bodies), power-sharing arrangements, election schedules and a Loya Jirga for endorsement of agreements reached etc. will be debated by the High Peace Council and a joint Taliban-Haqqani team. Alongside, there will be an unspoken understanding on treating IS and such affiliated groups as IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and ETIM (East Turkmenistan Independence Movement) as common enemies and, further, on providing such human intelligence to foreign troops as could secure their elimination. Among the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will pose problems since the Pakistani component of the TTP has strong links with the Afghan Taliban but, over time, some way will be found to merge the Pak and Afghan components into the Afghan Taliban, while the foreigners would be eliminated. Other terrorist groups of Pakistani origin or affiliation will melt away or return to their country.
Numerous obstacles will have to be overcome for this scenario to unfold as visualised. The first will be the resistance of the warlords currently benefiting from instability. The second will be the Taliban field commanders, who are securing revenues from opium and illegal mining and would not wish to give them up. The opium economy, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs, was valued at more than $3 billion in 2016. This, by my reckoning, is shared almost equally between the Taliban and the government representatives or the warlords, who operate with tacit government support
Third, Trump’s advisers, sensitive to the mood in Washington, say they will eschew nation-building, but in Afghanistan it will not be enough for them to hold President Ghani responsible for administrative and political reforms. In order to ensure real improvement, they must provide both the financial and other physical and advisory resources that are much needed.
Deft diplomacy and regional cooperation will be needed but terrorism can be eliminated from Afghanistan if not by 2024, then by 2027. It may take a little longer to achieve true stability by reducing, if not eliminating, the many differences in Afghan society that have been exacerbated by the 40 years of conflict.
Pakistan has a role to play in promoting reconciliation. For the rest it must focus its attention on insulating itself as far as it can from the problems in Afghanistan. This means completing the fencing project and regulating travel between the countries exactly as it should be between two independent sovereign states. While we cannot isolate ourselves totally, we should seek no further role as the Afghans and the Americans work towards reconciliation and stability.
Raza Rumi is Editor, Daily Times and visiting faculty at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs and Ithaca College, USA.
Sixteen years after a protracted and costly war, the writing on the wall is clear. The United States cannot win in Afghanistan. For that matter, no big power has been able to do so in recent history. Pakistan’s alleged perfidy or not, the age of occupation is over.
The US invaded Afghanistan with the twin goals of decimating Al Qaeda and liberating Afghanistan from the repressive Taliban regime. Exporting democracy and its ‘freedoms,’ and purported state building were the cornerstones of the discourse used to justify a war with shaky legal foundations – and one that was not going to get anywhere. After spending trillions of dollars in Afghanistan alone, the US is ready to negotiate with the Taliban. And that is what a ‘victory’ has now come to – talking to the erstwhile enemy from a position of strength. That is perhaps what the US military intends to achieve: creating the kind of conditions on the ground that will force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table for a peace agreement.
However, this is hardly a new strategy for winning the war. The Obama administration tried it in 2009. The ill-fated Obama ‘surge’ increased the number of US troops in Afghanistan to more than 100,000. But the Taliban continued to resist. By the end of 2014, the US withdrew a large number of troops and the Taliban managed to get hold of territory in Afghanistan – a situation which has gradually deteriorated in favour of the Taliban.
Washington might be moving towards this tried and tested strategy, perhaps with different tactics. It can double down on local militias and private security contractors to push back against Taliban advances. With concerted military efforts, the US army can, at best, achieve a ground situation, which is akin to a stalemate, and which hurts both sides. Such a stalemate will pinch the Taliban and might compel the latter to open talks with the US and Afghan government.
But negotiations towards a settlement – closest to a victory – are not possible without Pakistan, Iran and, by extension, China, being on board. President Trump has invited India to formally be a part of his Afghanistan strategy, but there are serious limits to what India can achieve or do. The only effect that will have is to rile up Pakistan’s powerful military and push it more towards embracing Chinese economic and security goals in the region.
Pakistan’s security goals, largely India-centric, are not in sync with American aspirations for South and Western Asia, where it wants India to play a bigger role, possibly as a counterweight to China. We also know that Iran, despite its ideological anathema to the Taliban’s worldview, has been supporting factions of the Afghan Taliban in the past. Therefore, Iran is a player that needs to be on the drawing board.
Above all, it is the ethnically diverse Afghan society, its fractured and partial state, which must, ultimately, arbiter these competing interests. Power in Afghanistan is distributed among factions, clans, local bigwigs and cuts across ethnic fault lines. An illustration of this can be seen from the record of Afghan security forces that not only betray high rates of attrition, but also unpreparedness. For any nation-state project, the imperatives of a viable state with monopoly over coercive powers, cannot be dispensed with.
Containing the Taliban insurgency and moving towards a semblance of face-saving for the US requires Pakistan’s support and involvement. And both Rawalpindi and Beijing know this well.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst and author of Military, State and Society in Pakistan.
Sixteen years down the road, Afghanistan continues to defy a workable solution to ensure the country’s internal harmony and stability and its confidence-based interaction in the region. President Donald Trump’s long-awaited new Afghanistan policy, announced on August 21, 2017, has attempted to inject some changes in the policy inherited from Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but it hardly engenders the hope that the US will win the war in Afghanistan.
President Trump’s new prescription for Afghanistan underlines five major principles. First, a rejection of Obama’s policy of giving a deadline for the withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, because “a hasty withdrawal” would create “a vacuum that terrorists, including the IS and Al-Qaeda, would instantly fill.” This implies that the US will maintain its military presence in Afghanistan for an indefinite period. Second, the Trump Administration has decided to increase its troops in Afghanistan. Later, an announcement suggested an increase of about 4,000 personnel, adding to the current strength of about 10,000 troops and support staff. Third, the US will not spend its resources on economic development and nation-building in Afghanistan. It will only go after the terrorist groups based there. Fourth, President Trump was more categorical than President Obama in criticising Pakistan for providing safe-havens to terrorist organisations. He said, “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will have to change immediately.” Fifth, by declaring India a “strategic partner,” President Trump expected India to continue contributing to Afghanistan’s “economic assistance and development.”
The new American policy of emphasis on military means to cope with violence and disorder in Afghanistan hardly has a chance of succeeding now. When the US and the NATO could not completely humble the Taliban and their allies with over a hundred thousand troops prior to 2016, how could such a strategy work with around 14,000 troops? The US wants to pursue this strategy at a time when all of Afghanistan’s neighbours favour a diplomatic solution. China, Russia and Turkey have been striving in their own ways for the last couple of years for a political solution of the Afghan problem, in consultation with other states of the region and the Afghan government. President Trump has preferred to ignore these efforts.
The single factor explanation of blaming Pakistan for the US failure in Afghanistan does not address the complexity of the problem. The Afghan Government must share the blame as it cannot pull in one direction in a coherent manner because of rivalries and mutual jealousies in the highest echelons of the power structure in Kabul. Adding to the problem is the lack of professionalism and discipline, and above all, desertions in the Afghan National Army. Over 40 per cent of Afghanistan is out of the effective control of the Kabul government. In many places, tribal chiefs and warlords function on their own, not to speak of the defiance by the Taliban groups.
The two-way movement of Taliban fighters across the Pakistan-Afghan border has been a major bone of contention. The Afghan Taliban activists cross into Pakistan and stay in this country for some time as they have connections with the two million Afghan refugees living there in addition to some of the local Pakhtuns, before returning to Afghanistan at their own convenience. Similarly, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan fighters, who are based in Afghanistan, enter Pakistan for engaging in violent activities. Pakistan’s sectarian-Islamic groups also seek refuge in Afghanistan. While the U.S. and the Afghan government accuse Pakistan of providing “safe havens” to the Afghan Taliban, they refuse to acknowledge the existence of “safe-havens” of the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan.
It is not always possible to separate the ordinary Afghan Taliban fighters from Afghan refugees and Pakistani Pakhtuns. The best strategy to cope with this unauthorised two-way crossing at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is effective border management jointly by Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US This will gradually bring to an end the cross-border movement of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan and the US should actively engage each other as well as consult the states of the region on how to cope with the Afghanistan situation. A shared approach that also accounts for Pakistan’s concern regarding the situation in Afghanistan rather than Washington’s unilateralism stands a better chance of success.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed
Akbar Shahid Ahmed is a foreign affairs reporter at the Washington D.C. bureau of The Huffington Post.
Once upon a time, an insurgent candidate defeated Hillary Clinton, the most prepared potential president in American history, after a nasty, close and historic race.
That’s the story of 2016. But it’s also the story of 2008. In as much as Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama differ, both prevailed in part by playing to a sentiment that’s only getting more popular: disdain for idealistic US military adventures. The two spent countless hours reminding voters that in 2002, Hillary Clinton helped authorise the US invasion of Iraq. (Trump shrewdly spread the lie that he opposed that move).
In office, Obama spent eight years expanding a global drone war. And Trump is no dove. The new president delights in threats; greenlights the use of the US’s biggest bombs while trashing international humanitarian norms; and cheers military spending, weapons sales and reduced diplomacy. He questions American partners and urges other countries to solve problems on their own, as brutally as they like — while cautioning that he will intervene unilaterally at his pleasure.
Both presidents ultimately expanded US military operations in Afghanistan.
American aggression is alive and well. But the American empire is struggling. US taxpayers want to know that threats from Islamist militants to North Korea are dealt with ― but only by missions carrying no pilots, and therefore unlikely to incur American casualties, or by shows of force. Polls show that few Americans want to take on the troubles of far-off foreigners. Many feel they receive no benefit from Washington’s influence on world order. And almost no one is cheering the news about renewed US violence in Afghanistan, the site of America’s longest war.
For folks stateside, there is no prospect that that entanglement will have a happy ending. Most Americans have no conception — not even a Trumpian illusion — of what “winning” looks like. Instead, there’s a yearning for such a vision that is powerful enough to inspire all manner of fever dreams.
This summer, for instance, Trump’s national security adviser told the president one reason to keep fighting in Afghanistan was that the country could eventually be Westernised. He showed Trump a photograph of women in miniskirts in 1970s Kabul. The subtext: look, they aren’t all scary Muslims! We can (probably) socially engineer a society we like! Is victory that secures the representations of women’s bodies what keeps policy-makers happy?
Blackwater founder, Erik Prince, responsible for one of the worst massacres during the American occupation of Iraq, offered Trump another mirage. Prince proposed a viceroy system and foreign mercenaries embedded in every part of the fight against insurgents. Is victory giving Afghanistan’s Columbia-educated president a farewell handshake and a murmured line about his people being too savage to run their own affairs?
Experts say US “victory” in Afghanistan is about preventing the country from again becoming a safe haven for bin Laden-level international terror or a playground for Chinese and Russian ambitions. The chief problem, they argue, is a lack of US commitment.This invites brutal refutation: Isn’t so much of the world already that kind of haven, and does Moscow taking on a new crisis really hurt American workers in Michigan? Washington’s national security brain trust offers little reason for Americans to try to make the just-right Goldilocks level of investment a 17th time around.
A “win” is nowhere to be found―and even the half-wins being discussed won’t be easily attained. Afghanistan’s long-suffering people confront the same basic prospect they faced in 2001: a range of different pathways to the future. For Americans, there’s only a guarantee of future disappointment.