What can or should the US do to change the trajectory of tragedy in Afghanistan?
Washington: The attack in Kabul’s diplomatic enclave that killed 90 people and injured more than 400 others has once again brought the United States’s longest war into sharp focus with more questions than answers about the Trump administration’s future policy options.
As Washington reviews its policy, Afghan intelligence officials have blamed the attack on the Haqqani Network and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. Pakistan’s collusion and complicity in the continuing mayhem in Afghanistan is not news, especially to US officials who know well the ISI harbours the Taliban leadership and has used them as a lethal lever over the years.
The question is what can or should the US do to change this trajectory of tragedy? There is talk of increasing US troop strength by 5,000 but some in the administration are opposed to the idea. Should the Trump administration try to break the deadly partnership or accommodate Pakistan and its proxies? US experts have been struggling to come up good answers.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, was clear in his recommendation – the US should target the so-called “safe havens” in Pakistan. The sanctuaries the terrorists enjoy in Pakistan is the main reason why the “war has dragged on for years,” he said on Wednesday.
There is an urgent need to address the balance of power on the ground and bring it back in favour of the Afghan government with greater use of air power and more US troops, he added. The Pakistan problem should be addressed head on.
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the US should approach Afghanistan by not indulging Pakistan’s fantasies, by understanding history and by taking the long view.
“The only way the US can get out of Afghanistan is by saying we won’t get out,” Haqqani said, adding that any talk of deadlines only gives the enemy the upper hand. The Obama administration’s biggest blunder in the confused and vacillating Afghanistan policy was to set an artificial deadline, which it wasn’t able to keep in the end.
What do Afghan strategists think? Davood Moradian, director of Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies in Kabul, issued an impassioned plea to the world’s competing powers – the US, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – to come together and recognise that the ideology of “Islamo-fascism” can only be fought as the world fought Nazism.
But the US is exhausted, China is obsessed with its ambition to replace it, Russia, as the latest member of what Moradian calls the “alliance of discord,” wants to use the Taliban against the West and ISIS, while Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are too busy trying to outdo each other to become the Islamic world’s “Big Brother”.
The “bickering, naïvete, confusion, exhaustion and cowardice of the Counter-Terrorists” allow the terrorists to win, he wrote in the Indian Express. But to expect East-West unity at this time would itself be naïve.
Wednesday’s discussion among US experts, including a former State Department official, was an example of how determined Washington is not to agree even within its own circle of opinion, leave alone lead the effort to create a united international front.
Ashley Tellis, the Tata Chair for strategic affairs at the Carnegie Endowment, and Jeff Eggers, a member of the National Security Council in the Obama administration, said the US must work for a political settlement and “attempt to end hostilities with the Taliban on acceptable terms” by talking to the leadership directly instead of going through Pakistan.
In a new report titled ‘U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Changing Strategies, Preserving Gains,’ the two experts said Washington should “acknowledge that it is an active participant in the conflict with the Taliban” instead of maintaining the fiction that it’s not America’s war.
The Trump administration should make finding a political settlement a priority while continuing to bolster the Afghan state and its security forces. Direct talks would reduce Pakistan’s importance and its ability to be the spoiler.
The authors suggest the US should be prepared to target the Taliban leadership in Pakistan “whenever required” even as it engages in dialogue. The threat would either push the Taliban leaders to the negotiating table or compel them to stay there.
Pakistan’s calculus in creating an effective stalemate in the Afghan war by sheltering the Quetta Shura is based on a combination of factors – compelling Afghanistan to accept the Durand Line as the permanent border, a hedge against India’s influence in Afghanistan and a source of influence if a settlement is ever reached.
Its steadfast friend China’s main role in Afghanistan has been to oppose any initiative that comes at the expense of Pakistan’s interests.
As for Russia, Tellis and Eggers argue Moscow is engaging the Taliban to checkmate ISIS while containing US influence. But there has been “good cooperation” between the US and Russia on Afghanistan despite their bilateral relationship deteriorating over the Ukraine crisis.
The Trump administration is expected to announce its Afghan policy in the coming days. The hope is that it will be an improvement on the last eight years.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.