Trump's Afghan strategy: old wine, new bottles

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/3 19:43:39

Illustration: Peter C.Espina/GT

For all the weeks the Trump administration struggled to decide on what to do about Afghanistan, its new policy raises more questions than it does answers and hardly appears very new, let alone a path out of the morass.

 After 16 years, the longest war in American history is no closer to resolution. The grim situation on the ground has grown more complex, leaving the Kabul government in disarray and the Taliban controlling more than a third of the country.

Worse still, the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups have become more active.

The new policy outlined in Donald Trump's recent speech called for a more assertive US posture, calling for additional US troops and more air power. Reversing his predecessor Barack Obama's stance, Trump emphasized there would be no withdrawal date, and that the US role would be "conditions-based." The core US interest in Afghanistan remains counter-terrorism.

The policy rests on two main pillars: more pressure on Pakistan to end safe havens for the Taliban, and reform of the Kabul government to reduce corruption. Trump put it bluntly in the August 21 policy speech: "We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond."

The one new element Trump introduced - a larger role for India in Afghanistan - was received with outrage, indignation and suspicion in Pakistan. Ironically, this goal will make it far more difficult for Pakistan to alter its behavior in the direction the US wants.

The goal of US-Afghan counter-insurgency efforts is to retake lost areas and inflict enough damage on the Taliban to persuade them to seek a diplomatic outcome. The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson said recently: "The Taliban cannot win on the battlefield; it's time for them to join the peace process." Trump has effectively given the US military more direct control over the conduct of the war.

But these problems have plagued US efforts in Afghanistan and were repeatedly cited, first by the Bush administration and then by Obama. Even the Obama administration's 2011 surge of nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan failed to turn the tide of the conflict.

The failure to achieve either more counter-terrorism cooperation from Pakistan or a more effective government in Kabul reflect fundamental structural problems, and a conflict of interests that the US has been unable to alter.

For Pakistan, Afghanistan has always been viewed by its military as a question of strategic depth: a buffer against India. This explains why Islamabad has hedged in its cooperation with Washington and worked with anti-Afghan government forces, in what the US sees as a "double game."

Previous US efforts to pressure Pakistan by withholding military aid have not succeeded. Moreover, Pakistan could respond by reducing US logistical access and intelligence if Trump goes too far.

The shortcomings of successive regimes reflect the diverse ethnic groups that comprise Afghanistan with its history of competing fiefdoms, the failure to build an economy beyond dependence on opium and foreign aid, and little tradition of centralized governance. Often, the US fails to see that this is not just a war, but an internal conflict.

There is little in Trump's declared policy different from previous efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations. And the elements that are new - a larger role for India and more autonomy for the US military - are likely to prove counter-productive.

For example, a UN report in July said civilian casualties had reached a record level in 2017. Such tragedies lead to more recruits for insurgents and disdain for the government in Kabul.

The military dimension of what ultimately requires a political resolution appears too prominent in US strategy. There is little sign of increased resources or civilian aid to Kabul, yet a core requirement for successful counter-insurgency is a local partner that is perceived as legitimate and has an ability to govern.

The new US policy will undoubtedly have tactical successes, retaking Taliban-held areas. But will it create conditions to get them back to a political deal? This is where the US intervention in Afghanistan has echoes of Vietnam. Insurgents know that foreigners will eventually leave. Thus, the Taliban don't need to win, they only need to avoid losing.

Trump said, "Our commitment is not unlimited." The US fear is that a hasty withdrawal would leave a vacuum in which terrorists could operate.

Is there a Plan B if the policy fails? One option might be for the US to begin a phased exit, work with China under SCO auspices to have frontline states China, Russia, India, Iran and Pakistan form a contact group to restart peace talks. The US and China could lead counter-terrorism efforts with the principle that any outcome in Afghanistan must not leave any safe havens for IS, Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.


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