To ensure a stable Afghanistan, convincing the Taliban to negotiate, the United States must cooperate with China and Pakistan.
By Ehsan M. Ahrari*
President Donald Trump desperately needs to win the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But the Central Asian state of 35 million people continues to offer hard choices and harsh realities written in the blood of hundreds of thousands of warriors from many nations. Trump, much like his predecessor Barack Obama, struggles to understand that the United States and an entity like the Taliban measure victory and losses in different ways. For the Taliban, victory means outwaiting the foreign invader. So the Taliban may be winning, at least for now. But that may not last long as the United States does its utmost not to lose by crushing its opponents in that country and ensuring stable governance that is friendly to the West.
The Taliban know that their capacity to absorb losses in their home territory is near infinite. This is not true for the United States. For a democratic country like the United States, it is imperative to defeat the Taliban, weakening it as a fighting entity so much that it accepts America’s conditions for peace. Such defeat is unlikely. Taliban forces control large parts of Afghanistan. Most Afghans, if asked about the ostensibly unending war, would suggest that the pendulum swings in favor of a Taliban victory. Many top US security personnel would agree, but never say so publicly. So, the grim possibility of losing in Afghanistan now or later remains intact.
In the United States, a huge community of defense and civilian personnel earn a living counting on the endless nature of this war without saying so. Many top politicians understand that there is no victory in sight in Afghanistan. But they have little choice but to curse the status quo, while taking few steps to change it. That might be one reason why the Afghan war never really entered the public debates of 2016 presidential election. As candidate, Trump had no clue about resolving that conflict, while his opponent, Hillary Clinton, could not address the issue without opening a Pandora’s box of criticism about Obama’s own inability to defeat the Taliban.
General John W. Nicholson, Jr., commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, declared his resolve to bomb the opium fields owned by the Taliban, hoping that destroying this financial arm weakens their will to fight. In principle, this conclusion is reasonable though it ignores the Taliban’s fervent resolve to continue the fight. Published reports suggest that the Taliban have stockpiled billions of dollars after years of opium trade and other illicit activities.
Brigadier General Lance Bunch sounded optimistic about fighting the Taliban under the new national security strategy approved by Trump. “The cornerstone of the new strategy is what Bunch called a ‘dedicated air interdiction campaign’ that is designed to deny the Taliban the huge profits it has reaped for years from Afghanistan’s illicit opium trade,” reported The Washington Examiner. “The new authorities allow U.S. commanders to target Taliban networks and revenue sources, as well as back up Afghan forces on the ground in ways they couldn’t before. The other major change is that U.S. military advisers are now embedding with Afghan forces who are closest to combat….”
The plan is to use the same tactics against the Taliban as used against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But the United States must also demonstrate capacity to think critically and differently from past policies, and this requires cooperation with other countries.
The war in Afghanistan must be fought on two fronts – the military front and, most critically, the diplomatic front. From the perspectives of operational warfare, the US military maintains an upper hand in Afghanistan. However, capacity to win strategic victory over the Taliban involves at least two regional actors, Pakistan and China, and a willingness to accept that the Taliban are bound to play a role in any future government for Afghanistan. Such acceptance on the part of the Trump administration would lead to another US policy development: It should encourage Pakistan and China to take necessary steps in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
One of the most promising developments related to the Afghan conflict for the United States is that China is in near dire need to stabilize Afghanistan for the success of its Belt and Road Initiative in Pakistan and Central Asia. China’s government has attached high stakes, making huge economic and political commitments, in this mega-strategy. China recognizes that the Taliban are primarily concerned with winning a role in Afghanistan’s future government. Unlike ISIS, they are not driven by the desire to bring about global jihad. That conclusion is among the chief motivating factors underlying China’s endeavors to engage the Taliban. China, fully cognizant that jihadists from its Xinjiang province have long-established ties with the Taliban, strives to engage this political force.
Pakistan values China as a great power, and the two regard each other “all weather friends.” Pakistan may have decided that, in the absence of traditional US-Pak strategic ties, it should remain focused on Chinese strategic priorities that complement Pakistan’s own desire to play a role in Afghanistan’s peace process. Pakistan is also in desperate need to stabilize Afghanistan without escalating India’s presence there. Pakistan already accuses India of using its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan to destabilize Baluchistan. India categorically denies that charge.
The United States understands that Pakistan regards any increased presence of Indian security and diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan as a red flag. Neither Obama nor Trump took measures to address Pakistani apprehensions related to India’s presence. So, any attempt to reengage Pakistan in the peace negotiations must take these apprehensions into consideration. One option worth considering is to encourage both South Asian neighbors to work on a framework of cooperation.
Trump’s quintessential transactional approach to foreign policy showed its face in the State Department’s January 4 announcement on suspending security aid to Pakistan. Forewarning came with Trump tweeting a few days earlier that his country “foolishly” gave Pakistan more than $33 billion and got “nothing.” If the United States expected Pakistan to buckle under the pressure, the exact opposite happened.
It must be pointed out that even using Trump’s transactional approach to dealing with America’s friends, allies and even rivals requires cooperation from Pakistan and China. The real basis for these two countries’ cooperation is already there: Both want Afghanistan to stabilize and become a peaceful state. The specifics of achieving that outcome necessitate the imminent use of quiet diplomacy instead of public scolding as if Pakistan were a vassal state. Also, any engagement of China and Pakistan to stabilize Afghanistan requires major involvement of the US departments of State and Defense. Trump’s decision to reduce the significance of the State Department at the expense of his reliance on the military for resolving regional conflicts is among the most serious challenges facing the United States. Thus far, the Trump administration has provided little recognition of the need for a nuanced approach in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Reports once suggested Trump could replace US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Chief Michael Pompeo or Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. Neither potential successor has the same diplomatic experience or exposure to Pakistan, South Asia or China as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who would become the logical choice to play a lead role. To be assured of America’s long-term commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China need assured political commitment, which the State Department can provide through patient and intricate negotiations. Tillerson’s removal would signal that the Trump administration is only interested in finding quick resolution to the conflict before leaving the area.
The United States must pursue a multifaceted diplomatic option for resolving the Afghan conflict, or the chances of ultimate defeat remain very much alive.
*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.