While the process of peace negotiation is underway between the US and Taliban interlocutors to end 18 years of war and news reports suggest that the process is on its last leg, violence in Afghanistan continues unabated contrary to the claims that agreements between the two parties as regards the substance of the peace deal have been reached.
The recent attack on Pol-e-Khomri which occurred just one day after Taliban militants launched a major assault on the northern city of Kunduz points to this. Washington seeks a partial exit (troop reduction) from Afghanistan on the condition that the Taliban would prevent Afghan soil being used against it.
Similarly, the insurgent group pursues its agenda in the peace process. The peace process is far from being Afghan-led and Afghan-owned thus far as the Afghan government and civil society groups are clearly outside the process.
The US appears to have entered into peace talks from a position of weakness in a hasty attempt to end the prolonged Afghan war. Arguably, it is pursuing peace talks at a time when the Taliban’s sway is unfathomable both concerning territorial expansion and confidence following successive ground operations.
Continuing attacks by the group aim at pushing the Afghan government further to a position of weakness. While Washington seeks to bring the Afghan government on board in a bid to enhance legitimacy and acceptability of the peace process, the insurgent group clings to a strategy of keeping the government off the table.
Obama Administration’s Strategy
American strategy of war and peace in Afghanistan kept shifting with a change in government from Obama to Trump administration. While the Obama administration’s peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan shifted to a hardened stance towards the concluding phase of its term, Trump administration’s coercive approach was quickly switched over to direct talks between the US and the Taliban on the Afghan peace process.
Neither the Obama’s policy of aiding Pakistan nor did the Trump’s policy of withdrawing aid worked. The US government under the leadership of President Barrack Obama followed an Afghan policy under the rubric of ‘AfPak’ strategy which focused on Al Qaeda as its target and called for substantial military and economic aid to Islamabad not only to prop up Pakistan to bolster the American counterterrorism efforts, it also aimed at building schools, roads, and hospitals in the Pakistani side of Af-Pak border areas to undercut support-base of Al Qaeda as conceived under the Kerry-Lugar bill.
The administration drew down the number of American troops stressing on a timeline for American troops’ withdrawal and pushing for an exit strategy based on political reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban.
On the other hand, it intensified air war in the form of drone strikes to liquidate the Al Qaeda militants in the border areas. So far as data on US drone strikes are concerned, the highest numbers of drones to date were fired in 2010.
While the Obama administration was successful in dismantling the Al Qaeda stronghold, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network replaced Al Qaeda as the primary threats to US forces within Afghanistan. It was towards the concluding phase of the administration that some of the earlier strategies were reversed.
The plan of withdrawal of troops as was previously conceived to continue was given a pause, the policy of lavishing aid to Pakistan was rolled back. For instance, the US assistance to Pakistan scaled down from $2.177 in 2014 to $1.118 billion in 2016.
The American Congress refused to subsidize the sale of eight F-16 fighter aircraft in 2016 which the administration had committed itself to earlier. Though the frequency of drone strikes reduced drastically, selective strikes were conceived to dampen the strength of the Afghan Taliban based on robust intelligence information.
For instance, an air strike was conducted in May 2016 resulting in the killing of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in Balochistan while he was allegedly returning from Iran. The concluding phase of the Obama administration also witnessed two US Congress legislators undertaking efforts to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism following the terrorist attack on Uri military camp in India.
The Obama administration’s stringent behavior towards Pakistan towards the end of its term perhaps stemmed from Pakistan’s alleged support for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. The Trump administration’s Afghan strategies although marked a departure from the strategy adopted by the previous administration led by Obama, the new strategy did not present a paradigmatic shift.
Trump Administration’s Strategies
The Trump administration decided to begin where Obama left off on the Afghan issue. It preferred to adopt a coercive approach towards Pakistan from the beginning by suspending military aid following a freeze of $255 million with the conditions that Pakistan must show commitment to fight terrorism. It believed in a coercive strategy to ensure Pakistan’s compliance with the Afghan war efforts and undercut its alleged support for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
The incumbent administration also authorized an increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan and resumed drone strikes perhaps driven by the belief that negotiations with the Taliban could only be pursued from a position of strength as the insurgent groups were still a resilient force even after so many years of reconciliation efforts.
It is noteworthy that the Taliban declined an offer of the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani in February 2018 to abjure violence in return of political recognition, release of prisoners, issuing of passports and relocation of their families while the insurgent group accused the government of being an American puppet and demanded direct talks with the US administration.
However, notwithstanding the Trump administration’s efforts at tightening screws over Pakistan, his coercive Afghan strategy did not prove fruitful as there was a surge in the incidents of terror attacks allegedly propped up by Pakistan as a retaliatory response to US action and in a bid to show its influence over the insurgents in Afghanistan.
For example, after Kabul ambulance bombing death toll reached beyond hundred, the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, National Directorate of Security (NDS) Masoom Stanekzai stated that these actions were deadly attempts by the Pakistani backers of the insurgency to show they could not be sidelined.
The American Afghan gestures tilted towards pursuing peace talks directly with the Afghan Taliban. By quickly switching over to peace talks from a coercive strategy, the Trump administration also indicated palpable failure of the US in forcing Pakistan to commit itself to fight terrorism.
Peace talks and negotiations approached from a position of strength could have nudged the Taliban to bring to the table pursuable objectives within the framework of a stable and inclusive Afghan polity and society.
Further, the US preferred to pursue peace talks with the Taliban unilaterally without efforts at engaging regional powers like Iran and Russia and assuaging their geopolitical concerns which kept its bargaining position vis-à-vis the insurgent group weak.
The new strategies conceived under President Trump’s South Asia policy did not seek to engage Iran and Russia in Afghanistan whereas Obama administration opened up avenues for their cooperation by forging a nuclear deal with Iran and attempting to reset relations with Russia although conflicting claims and roles in Syria and Ukraine stifled such possibilities.
The Obama administration adopted a dual strategy of cooperation and conflict with these two countries in his apparent and continuous overture of resetting relations. However, Obama did not assign any prominent roles to Iran and Russia on the Afghan theatre except expecting limited cooperation as and when it considered necessary.
For example, the US sought Russian collaboration in supplying lethal and non-lethal goods to American troops in Afghanistan through Northern Distribution Network which included several transit corridors running through the Central Asian states. Russian cooperation was necessary as it not only enjoys significant influence in the Central Asian region; it considers the region as its strategic backyard as well. On the other hand, the Obama administration cast Pakistan in a vital role to fight terrorism and anchor the reconciliation process to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
The Trump administration pursued specific policies and was engaged in overtures which excluded the possibility of Iranian and Russian cooperation on the Afghan problem. President Trump not only reversed the previous administration’s nuclear deal with Iran by withdrawing from it, but he also slapped new sanctions against Iran to build economic pressure on Tehran as part of his containment policy.
Further, the administration took an interest in pursuing a trans-Afghan pipeline project to supply Central Asian natural resources bypassing Iran. The administration also accused the Russian government of its alleged role in destabilizing Afghanistan undercutting American influence in the country.
Along with this, lack of any American policy of engagement, dialogue, and consultations with these powers on the Afghan issue has contributed to complicated atmospherics within Afghanistan.
With the American presence near the Iranian border, mounting economic pressure under American sanctions cutting down Iran’s oil supplies, and looming long-term geopolitical threat in the form alternative pipeline routes, Iran would be inclined to contribute to instability in Afghanistan to build pressure on the US and force it to co-opt Iranian interests in the region.
With Russia and America kept jostling for influence in Ukraine, Syria and Central Asian region, it is not farfetched to believe that Russia would also be interested to see a diminution of American influence in Afghanistan.