Diplomacy and cooperation are missing ingredients – and why the Afghan war drags on into its 16th year.
By Ehsan M. Ahrari*
Donald Trump wants to focus on his “America First” slogan, with budgetary priorities that center on job creation and quick wins in foreign wars. But the lingering war in Afghanistan – both the struggles to defeat extremists or organize peace – will detract from other military endeavors.
The trouble with foreign wars is that, while easy to start, they are hard to finish. The United States learned the bitter lesson after invading Iraq in 2003: Operational victory was easy, but strategic victory defied even the world’s most powerful military. And after sweeping the Taliban from Kabul with a dramatic campaign, the mighty United States remains stuck in Afghanistan
The United States did not learn from George W. Bush’s experience. Barack Obama recalled American troops from Iraq in 2011, but gradually returned, periodically inserting Special Forces, as if that tactic was not part of America’s involvement in the ongoing Iraqi ground war. In the case of Afghanistan, for Obama and now Trump, there is no likely victory for the American military in Afghanistan. The country offers a grim and uneasy choice – lose now or later.
Some forbidding facts:
- The Afghan war is in its 16th year, and no victory is in sight.
- General John Nicholson, the current and 12th US Commander since the beginning of the Afghan war, gave his best assessment during a recent congressional hearing by using an Orwellian phrase, “The war in Afghanistan is at a ‘stalemate.’”
- General Nicholson, reviving memories of General Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 request to then newly elected President Obama, asked newly elected President Trump for more troops to conduct “hold-fight-disrupt operations.”
- The growing presence of the so-called Afghan-Pakistani Daesh franchise – also known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province or ISKP – is a source of worry, using territory as a base to terrorize Afghanistan and conduct terrorist operations inside Pakistan.
- Another source of apprehension are reports of “direct talks” between Russia and the Taliban. Russia is reported to regard the Taliban as a “strictly national movement that did not intend to spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders.” An assessment from the American side is that Russia, by directly negotiating with the Taliban of Afghanistan and also reportedly providing weapons, wants the United States to fail in Afghanistan.
After US forces dropped the country’s largest non-nuclear bomb – colloquially known as MOAB, or the “Mother of all bombs” – on an ISIS tunnel network in the Achin district of Nangarhar, Trump called the mission “very successful.” But he has offered little strategy on the Afghan war. A logical assumption is that he will either fulfill General Nicholson’s request for more troops or ignore it.
While the stated US reason for dropping the MOAB was to destroy the tunnel network, the expectation in Washington was to increase the fear factor and encourage the Taliban to return to the negotiating table. Those expectations were dashed when the Taliban carried out their own massive attack against the army base in Northern Afghanistan, killing more than 100 Afghan security personnel.
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The United States must watch such developments closely – since Russia is taking steps to widen its influence in areas traditionally or recently part of America’s sphere of influence. Afghanistan could easily become a part of that gamesmanship.
Russia, in its growing presence in Afghanistan, is following the classic zero-sum game of the Cold War era: envisaging its potential gains as a potential loss of America’s influence. Putin could enable the Taliban to escalate attacks on the Ghani government with the expectation that the already-besieged Afghan government would be forced to invite Russia and its preferred partners – India and Iran – to the negotiating table.
There are three problems related to the Russian-preferred negotiations. First, Pakistan would oppose India’s inclusion. Second, the United States would be equally resolute against inviting Iran. Third, even though the Trump administration has not yet announced its own strategy for resolving the Afghan conflict, it’s hard to imagine that it would welcome Russia to negotiations for determining future modalities of stability in Afghanistan. The United States has learned the hard way about how adroit Putin is at transforming a minor strategic opening for his country into a major strategic advantage, as he did in Syria after Obama agreed not to take military actions against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against its civilian population in 2013.
These developments underscore the fact that Afghanistan’s security situation is not likely to improve.
One option available to the Trump administration is to ask Pakistan to become America’s gendarme for Afghanistan. Its purpose would be to minimize, if not to eradicate, the presence of the Islamic State in the region. Since ISIS is also targeting Pakistan by using Afghan territory, Pakistan might be talked into playing such a role.
It should be understood, however, that from the perspectives of Afghanistan and India, America’s potential reliance on Pakistan would be a highly provocative option, and groundwork would be required in preparation for the following reasons:
- Diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are currently strained. Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of not only supporting terrorist activities of the Taliban of Afghanistan, but also using the Haqqani group to launch terror attacks on Indian personnel stationed in Afghanistan. And lately, Pakistan has accused Afghanistan of allowing ISIS to launch terrorist attacks on its territory, which Afghanistan denies.
- Afghanistan remains an unwitting player in Pakistan’s maneuvers to use the country to make up for the lack of strategic depth against future Indian attack.
- Afghanistan remains a place where both India and Pakistan play their own versions of a great game, with Pakistan trying to undermine any Indian maneuvers to use the Afghan territory to strengthen the longstanding insurgent movement in Baluchistan, a charge India denies. If India is indeed in Afghanistan to destabilize Baluchistan, then that underscores the possibility that Afghanistan is no longer an unwitting player in the Indo-Pak great game.
Given the complicated nature of Afghanistan’s role in the Indo-Pak great game, the Trump administration has its work cut out – if it wishes Pakistan to play any role in stabilizing Afghanistan. This role could range from serving as an intermediary in any peace negotiations between the Taliban of Afghanistan and the Ghani government, or by taking direct military action to eradicate ISIS in Afghanistan.
Depending upon how important it is not to lose the Afghan war without initiating a ground war, leaders like US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser General H. R. McMaster are likely to push for at least trying the Pakistan option to stabilize Afghanistan. Given the experience of these two individuals and, in the case of Mattis, knowledge of South Asia, this option holds considerable promise.
Realistic incorporation of any aspect of this option also requires substantial cooperative interaction between India and Pakistan. The United States would have to use a substantial amount of its diplomatic capital in persuading India to at least not stridently oppose it. At the same time, even before agreeing to become a player, Pakistan would insist on concessions from the United States in its longstanding desire to continue the so-called strategic dialogue with the Trump administration.
There is a tremendous potential of US-China cooperation in Afghanistan. China has already been involved in pushing for a negotiated peace in that country, and a peaceful Afghanistan would be helpful to China’s “One-Belt-One-Road” strategy. More to the point, the United States would have no objection to China’s role in pushing for a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict.
The many All the foregoing intricacies involving the drawn-out and complicated process of stabilizing Afghanistan through the peace process must be weighed against the dreadful alternative of using military force in Afghanistan. And that most likely would not guarantee victory and only postpone America’s certain defeat.
*Ehsan Ahrari is adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, VA-based foreign and defense policy consultancy. He specializes in Great Power relations, strategic affairs of the world of Islam and anti-terrorism. His latest book, The Islamic Challenge and the United States: Global Security in an Age of Uncertainty, is published by the McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017. His website is: www.ehsanahrari.com. Views contained in this essay are strictly private.