US changing course in Afghanistan?


M. Ziauddin

What is going to be Trump administration’s Afghan policy? This question has triggered lots of speculative stories causing a great deal of uncertainty in the region. Since March this year when the U.S. military announced that troop numbers were under review speculations have become rife and all kinds of policy alternatives are being suggested by various analysts and think tanks in the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Some have supported the suggestion to send in more troops. Others have cautioned against committing additional troops to war theatre which has not been going in favor of the occupiers even after 15-year long military occupation.
One set of US, Afghan and Indian analysts and Indian media have been insisting that a harder line should be adopted in dealing with Pakistan starting with cutting of economic aid and imposing a strict ban on sales of military hardware to Islamabad. However, some US analysts have also suggested a more conciliatory approach towards Pakistan.
According to Patricia Gossman(Afghanistan’s Deadly Identity Politics— July 24 issue of Foreign Affairs)as the review has dragged on for weeks and then months, it has become clear that the Trump administration’s policy entailed more support for struggling Afghan government forces, more joint operations, and wider authority for the U.S. military to use airstrikes against the Taliban, “but not a political strategy for supporting more effective governance in Afghanistan—the kind of thing that could ease ethnic tensions by encouraging inclusivity rather than rule by strongmen, broad participation in government through credible elections, and genuine talks to pave the way toward ending America’s longest war.”
What, however, is of significance is that some US analysts want the administration to try something entirely new, something totally different in Afghanistan if more troops fail to reverse the Taliban’s momentum in the next twelve months. 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 been realized in some of the US policy making quarters which have been doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result 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.
A glimpse of what those who are suggesting change of course can be gleaned from a recent article (A Flawed Plan for Afghanistan; The Trouble With Deploying More U.S. Troops) by Aaron B. O’Connell in the Foreign Affairs magazine.
Mr. O’Connell suggests that Washington should limit itself to preserving its aviation and special forces in Afghanistan’s east, using them to target international terrorist organizations and guarantee the survival of the Kabul government.
“It should provide military assistance only to Afghan army and police units that are free from corruption and human rights violations—an approach that would probably result in a dramatic reduction of the 6,400 U.S. trainers currently in the country.
“And it should increase its aid and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan’s peaceful areas, which have helped extend the average Afghan’s life expectancy by a decade, while abandoning development efforts in areas that are too dangerous to do such work properly.”
The most drastic change of course that is suggested by Mr. O’ Connell concerns Pakistan and peace negotiations. He 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, Mr. O’ Connell suggests that the United States should encourage the current Afghan government to adopt a similarly minimalist approach. In his opinion 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 as O’Connell says the current approach has already done both of those things.
The presence of Western forces in Afghanistan is propaganda enough, according to him, 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.
For O’Connell the question now is not how to defeat the Taliban permanently but how to manage the international terrorist threats emanating from the Pashtun regions. An American de-escalation, he believes, might accomplish that goal.
Harking back to Afghanistan’s history O’Connell says without the unifying force of a foreign invader, Afghanistan’s various Pashtun factions will fight each other instead of the West.
“New terrorist bases can be destroyed with cruise missiles, air strikes, and Special Forces raids. If the United States seeks to occupy and liberalize every terrorist safe haven in the world, it will run out of troops long before the terrorists run out of land.
“A reasonable chance of success is a precondition for the moral use of military force. Bush’s dream of bringing Afghanistan into the international liberal order no longer passes that test, if it ever did. Indeed, the chances of victory in Afghanistan now seem slimmer than ever.”
Referring to what he calls Trump’s erratic behavior and hostility toward NATOO’ Connell says the US President has alienated U.S. allies, who provide more than a third of the troops now in Afghanistan. The escalating conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen are creating more competition for American military resources. And the White House’s proposals to gut the State Department and USAID would weaken some of the few efforts that are actually bearing fruit in Afghanistan.
“The last sixteen years have shown 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 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 is not an act of strength or persistence: it’s trying the same thing again and expecting a different result.”

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