A new US approach for the region?



M. Ziauddin

A high level US delegation headed by Ambassador Alice Wells, acting US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asia and special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is in the region at present to discuss with the respective authorities in each of these countries including India the contours of the US Afghan policy currently in the making.
The ostensible main purpose of the visit to Pakistan is to get Pakistan’s perspective on Afghanistan and larger issues in South Asia. But the opportunity is likely to be used by Ms. Wells to read the riot act to our military high command and issue perhaps the last warning to Pakistan to ‘stop playing the double game’.
Some influential circles in the US meanwhile, have started suggesting for a qualitative change in Washington’s Afghan policy. According to the details of the proposed suggestion the administration has been asked to provide military assistance only to Afghan army and police units that are free from corruption and human rights violations—an approach, the proposal believes would probably result in a dramatic reduction of the 6,400 U.S. trainers currently in the country.
It is also being suggested to increase US aid and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan’s peaceful areas, while abandoning development efforts in areas that are too dangerous to do such work properly.
The most drastic change that is being suggested concerns Pakistan and peace negotiations. The proposal wants the United States to be more aggressive in its peace negotiations, ‘and that means convincing the Afghan government to be more flexible in accommodating Pakistan’s interests.’
Stating that for centuries, Afghan leaders have ruled primarily by controlling a few population centers and the key roads between them, leaving rural areas alone, it is being suggested that the United States should encourage the current Afghan government to adopt a similarly minimalist approach.
In the opinion of these circles this may result in Taliban control of some parts of Afghanistan, ‘but it would also preserve Pakistan’s need for strategic depth, satisfy the Taliban’s demand for a foreign exit, and grant Afghanistan’s Pashtuns the dignity of living free from foreign influence. It is the least bad of a range of bad options.’
Abandoning Afghanistan’s Pashtun lands would certainly hand the Taliban and al Qaeda a propaganda victory and create new safe havens from which terrorists could destabilize Pakistan. But according to these circles the current approach has already done both of those things.
The presence of Western forces in Afghanistan is propaganda enough, according to them, for al Qaeda and the Taliban, and after more than 15 years of combat, neither the United States nor Kabul has been able to control Afghanistan’s east or south—a point made clear in 2015, when the United States was surprised to find a large al Qaeda base just 70 miles from Kandahar.
Harking back to Afghanistan’s history these circles contend that without the unifying force of a foreign invader, Afghanistan’s various Pashtun factions will fight each other instead of the West.
New terrorist bases, these circles claim, can be destroyed with cruise missiles, air strikes, and Special Forces raids. On the other hand they said if the United States sought to occupy and liberalize every terrorist safe haven in the world, it would run out of troops long before the terrorists run out of land.
The last sixteen years have shown, these circles point out, that the best tools for fighting terrorism are strikes against terrorist leaders, sparingly used; financial tools that find and freeze terrorist accounts; and a strong and sustainable homeland defense. It is time, they said, for the White House to acknowledge that most of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan are doing very little on any of those fronts, at the considerable cost of $23 billion per year. Doubling down on an unsuccessful war, they believe, is not an act of strength or persistence: it’s trying the same thing again and expecting a different result.
In case additional troops do not yield the desired results, say within a reasonable time frame, these analysts are suggesting that the United States should quietly change course.
It is a miracle that the need for changing the course has finally dawned on some of the US policy making quarters which have been doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result other than the one these policies have been yielding all these 15 years. According Albert Einstein it is a sign of insanity if you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.
Ambassador Wells is likely to brief Pakistan’s Army leadership on the latest thinking among the US policy makers on the issue of escalating Taliban terror activities in Afghanistan. While the Pakistani Army leadership is expected to listen attentively, it is hardly likely to be persuaded to agree with the US view of developments in the region.
The US Senate, meanwhile, is urging the Trump administration to use a combination of sanction threats and offers of a long term partnership to persuade Pakistan to stop ‘supporting Afghan insurgents‘.
An amendment to the US National Defence Authorization Act 2018 also suggests the US administration would ‘pursue an integrated civil-military strategy‘ to achieve Washington‘s strategic objectives by ‘imposing graduated diplomatic, military and economic costs on Pakistan ‘as long as it continues to provide support and sanctuary to terrorist and insurgent groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani network‘.
The proposed legislation emphasizes the need for intensifying US regional diplomatic efforts, working through flexible frameworks for regional dialogue together with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and other nations aiming to promote political reconciliation in Afghanistan by advancing regional cooperation on issues such as border security, intelligence sharing, counter narcotics, transportation and trade, says the amendment.
The move, it is believed, requires the US government to work with governments in the greater South Asian region to reduce mistrust and build confidence among regional states.
The Senate amendment includes a sense of Congress, requiring the administration to deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy the ability of terrorist groups to conduct attacks against the US, its allies and its core interests. The amendment also allows it to prevent the Taliban from using force to overthrow the Afghan government and reduce the Taliban‘s control of the Afghan population.
The proposed legislation calls for strengthening the Afghan security forces and providing authorization for using US forces to target militants of the Haqqani network, the Taliban and others.
The amendment asks the US president to ensure that the Secretary of Defence, the Secretary of State and US military commanders have all the necessary means based on political and security conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and unconstrained by arbitrary timelines, to carry out an integrated civil-military strategy in the war-torn country.
On July 14, the US House of Representatives adopted three legislative amendments seeking tougher conditions for reimbursement of defence funding to Pakistan.
The amendments require Pakistan to make satisfactory progress in the fight against terrorism if it wants to continue receiving the US assistance.
Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Ted Poe, who moved the three amendments, have also sponsored a resolution that seeks to declare the country a state sponsor of terrorism.
Through a separate resolution, they are seeking to remove Pakistan from the list of major non-Nato allies, a designation that confers a variety of military and financial advantages that otherwise are not obtainable to non-Nato countries.
Pakistan became a major non-Nato ally in 2004.
Last week, the Pentagon informed Pakistan that it would not make the remaining military reimbursements for the fiscal year 2016 because Defence Secretary Jim Mattis cannot certify that Islamabad had taken sufficient action against the Haqqani network.
Pakistan is authorized to receive up to $900m of reimbursements in the current fiscal year. ‘Pakistan still has time to take action against the Haqqani network in order to influence the secretary‘s certification decision in FY17, ‘ the Pentagon said.
Based on these amendments a new strategy is likely to be finalized on Ambassador Wells return home on August 8.

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