by Alia Ahmed
In August 2017, President Donald Trump announced a new South Asia strategy based on three basic precepts. There would be a surge of 3,000 additional U.S. personnel that would bring U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to 15,000 soldiers. More robust terms of engagement would require U.S. troops to participate alongside Afghan soldiers in tactical on-the-ground operations with increasing US air support. And U.S. troop withdrawal would be linked to the progress of this new strategy so that U.S. troops would not leave Afghanistan according to any declared timeline.
The new strategy raised the military ante in order to convince the Taliban that there was no military solution to the war in Afghanistan—that the Taliban had no hope of victory either now or in the long term—and that the only path forward for them lay in seeking a peace process at the negotiating table. These negotiations had to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, buzz words for direct talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban.
At the same time, Trump singled out Pakistan as a major problem for the US in Afghanistan. His undiplomatic New Year’s tweet accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and double-dealing, in that Pakistan, an avowed U.S. partner committed to the shared fight against terrorism, was duplicitously providing “safe havens to terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” The U.S. administration raised the volume on its anti-Pakistan rhetoric and continued relentless diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan to take “sustained and decisive steps” against the Taliban.
During the one-year life of the new strategy, U.S. forces dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2018 than at any time since 2001. It undertook some 750 strike sorties and released 3,714 weapons over the country by end of August.
The Taliban offensive this summer, meanwhile, was more vicious and widespread than usual. The deadly wave of violence in diverse parts of the country claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and security personnel, raising speculations that parliamentary elections would be scheduled for later in October. The encirclement and virtual capture of Ghazni, a major urban centre with a population of 270,000 and strategically located a mere 150 kilometers south of Kabul, is a reminder of the capability and the audacity of the militants and a shocking failure for the Afghan National Army and U.S. intelligence.
The Taliban gained complete control of more territory (20% by some estimates as opposed to government control of over 30%) and increased its influence and open presence in over 66% of the country.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells met Taliban representative Stanekzai in Qatar last July, and there are indications at least from the Taliban side of follow up. This is the first face-to-face U.S.-Taliban meeting after the only prior attempt in 2015 that was scuttled by an angry President Hamid Karzai. U.S. Commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson stated in Kandahar on July 15 that the United States was “ready to join direct negotiations with the Taliban in order to end the 17 years war” and The New York Times reported that the “administration had directed diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban.” This is an unmistakable departure from declared US policy. Of course, the United States prefers to frame it as an attempt to encourage Kabul-Taliban negotiations and not as direct U.S.-Taliban talks.
National Security Advisor John Bolton has characterized Pakistan’s co-operation as a matter of “extraordinary importance” for U.S. policy and its ends in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Imran Khan, has taken the stance that Pakistan will be a U.S. partner in peace and not a partner in war. This was conveyed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Islamabad on September 4. The visit relieved some tension in bilateral relations, gave hope of a reset in relations, and ended with the promise of subsequent meetings in Washington. But the respective positions on Afghanistan remained substantially unchanged, albeit couched in moderate and nuanced language. Although publicly available information is limited, a workable common space may have been created in which the cross-border security concerns of both sides may be addressed and, very importantly, the peace agenda properly pursued. Vikram Seth, an aide in the former Obama administration, opines: “Ultimately, the US and Pakistan need to find ways to co-operate despite deep distrust.”
The four main actors in the peace process are the United States, Pakistan, Kabul, and the Taliban. But there are a number of regional players who affect the dynamics in Afghanistan. A resurgent Russia would like to regain some of its influence after its ignominious defeat and ouster in 1988. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a peace conference in Moscow and postponed it only to appease Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who appears more disenchanted with Washington.
China harbors genuine concerns about cross-border militancy infecting its large Muslim Uyghur population. Kabul’s ambassador in Beijing recently stated that China will establish a mountain brigade in the Wakkhan Corridor, train Afghan soldiers, and supply reconnaissance helicopters. There is obvious Sino-Afghan interest in bilateral economic cooperation and the potential benefits of the Belt and Road initiative.
India runs the largest development program in Afghanistan, has a robust military supply and training agenda, and maintains a string of consulates on Pakistan’s western border. A Pentagon report to Congress last January called India “the most reliable partner of Afghanistan.” Analyst Michael Kugelman has correctly assessed that “India being anywhere present on its western flank always rings alarm bells in Islamabad” and that this is an “existentialist threat.”
The contours of a larger game are discernible. The way forward for a meaningful peace process and the stability and durability of a negotiated outcome lies in an elusive internal consensus in Afghanistan, and a multilateral regional approach.
According to General Stanley McChrystal, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, President Trump’s new South Asia strategy is not new at all, rather, to quote Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, it is “more of the same, only doing it better.” It remains to be seen whether bludgeoning the Taliban will make them fold. A Taliban spokesman declared last February: “if the policy of using force is used for another one hundred years, the outcome will be the same.”