External Affairs

Strong Words from James Mattis on Afghanistan, But Will They Hold?

In a clear articulation of a new Afghan  policy, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson have virtually ruled out any political settlement with the Taliban.

US defence secretary James Mattis (left) and secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Credit: Reuters

Washington: The Trump administration appears to be inching towards a clear commitment to Afghanistan devoid of deadlines and fuzziness – a development that will be welcomed both in Kabul and New Delhi.

US defence secretary James Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson laid out the broad contours of the new policy, virtually ruling out a political settlement with the Taliban. It was the clearest articulation so far of the trajectory Washington intends to follow.

If the policy review currently underway sustains this line of thinking, it would be a definite break from the Obama administration’s policy of promoting a peace process with the Taliban in the belief that a military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan was impossible.

This line of thinking was also promoted by Pakistan, which has harboured the Taliban leadership over the years to serve its own ends and not the cause of peace, according to independent analysts.

But it now appears senior officials in the Trump administration want to end what the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, described as a “stalemate” in testimony before the US Congress in February.

Speaking in Sydney at the annual US-Australia inter-ministerial dialogue, Mattis described the “bottom line” in Afghanistan in these words: “We are not going to surrender civilisation to people who cannot win at the ballot box.”

Tillerson, standing by his side, added, “what we do understand is we can never allow Afghanistan to become a platform for terrorism” and the US commitment is to “ensure that it never becomes a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks against the civilised world or against any other part of the world or any of their neighbours.”

Casting the Taliban as uncivilised by implication is in itself a shift because US state department diplomats and their contractors have been at pains not to describe them in pejorative terms. Certain Taliban leaders were never put on the UN terror list in the hope that they would come to the negotiating table.

Several years on, however, the peace process hasn’t materialised. US analysts believe Pakistan has been leading Washington down a garden path for years, claiming at times the Taliban leaders don’t live there, when they clearly do, and at others pretending it has no control over them – this, even as it organises and oversees the leadership succession of the Quetta Shura.

But now indications are that Washington may be shifting gears.

The strong statements from the two top Trump officials came as Kabul was recovering from one of the worst terrorist attacks in the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave, which claimed 150 lives. Afghan officials said the May 31 attack was carried out by the Haqqani network with help from Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.

On March 8, terrorists had targeted a military hospital in Kabul, killing 49 people in an attack lasting hours. Although the Islamic State claimed the attack, Afghan officials believe it was the Haqqanis. General Nicholson called it “an unspeakable crime.”

The upsurge in attacks on Afghans has lent an element of urgency to the ongoing war. Nicholson has argued for more US troops and it appears that Mattis, a retired general who was commander of CENTCOM in the Obama administration, may be listening.

Mattis said in Sydney the US was “up against an enemy that knows they cannot win at the ballot box … that’s why they use bombs, because ballots would ensure they never had a role to play.” He promised to “stand by” the Afghan people.

As Mattis and Tillerson were in Australia, their deputies, Lisa Curtis and Laura Miller, were returning from Kabul after meeting President Ashraf Ghani, a leader stuck between the impossible tribal politics of his country and relentless bloodletting by terrorists.

Ghani sent out a series of emotional tweets on June 6, including one in which he wondered about Pakistan’s motives. “Our challenge is that we cannot figure out what is it that PAK wants. What will it take to convince PAK that a stable #AFG helps them?”

Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani American analyst who knows Afghanistan well, called the statement by Mattis “a tectonic shift” in US policy of the last 16 years. “Stalemate is not just in the battle theatre but also in the policy arena. Pakistan has effectively held the US to a draw in Afghanistan,” he said at the Hudson Institute on Tuesday.

It is time to stare reality in the face and stop tolerating Pakistan’s “duplicitous policy” as the Obama administration did, Taqi said. “Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, ISIS are fifty shades of jihadist grey.” And none is amenable to a political solution.

The US has to recognise that Pakistan’s strategic calculus sees Afghanistan as a “client state.” The rest is “feigned paranoia,” especially its claims about being squeezed from sides – India from the east and Afghanistan from the west.

He urged the US not to “appease” Pakistan because no amount of Fulbright scholarships or rotations at CENTCOM will change Rawalpindi’s security paradigm.

US policy must reflect that “Afghan lives matter,” said Taqi.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The politicians of USA are realising their flawed policies on Afghanistan which ‘have created a mayhem in the country. The fundamentalists are trying to control the government and continue their battle against Western installations. The US should, at least now, withdraw it’s forces and stop funding the ‘ terrorists’ on the pretext of protecting ‘ US interests