President Trump’s recent announcement of the new Afghanistan policy has belied expectations that the US would bring about changes to correct the past mistakes and encourage the peace process in the country. It appears that because of the pressure from the Pentagon and the generals, who now dominate the security policy making process in Washington, the US under President Trump is inclined to retread the beaten path and repeat the policy blunders that it has already committed in dealing with Afghanistan. The logical conclusion that one can draw from the latest pronouncements coming from Washington is that instead of bringing the Afghanistan situation to an early peaceful conclusion, the US, wittingly or unwittingly, is bent upon prolonging its Afghan war, already the longest in its history, indefinitely. There is no acknowledgement of the past serious mistakes made by the US in handling the Afghanistan situation and no recognition of the need to correct them. Instead, the US policy makers continue to find it convenient to scapegoat Pakistan for the consequences of their Afghanistan policy failures.
In essence, Washington’s new Afghanistan policy is more of the same. This policy commits the US to a war of an indefinite duration in Afghanistan instead of bringing it to an early closure, over-emphasizes once again the military effort to the neglect of a political settlement, and assures continued support to the Afghan government and military as they confront the Taliban in the field. It lifts the restrictions that the previous administration had placed on the US military in waging the battle against the Taliban. To be fair, the policy disavows any attempt on the part of the US to engage in “nation building” in Afghanistan in its own image. It also recognizes, though in a low key manner, that the use of military might alone would not suffice but might create conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.
The policy warns Pakistan that its partnership with the US cannot survive its “harboring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials”. The obvious implication is that if the US demands are not meant, Pakistan may lose its status as a major non-NATO ally and may be subjected to US economic and military assistance sanctions as clarified by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his remarks at a press conference subsequently. The new policy goes on to reiterate the US determination to develop its strategic partnership with India. While appreciating India’s “important contributions to stability in Afghanistan”, it calls upon New Delhi to help the US “more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development”. Finally, it urges the Afghan government to carry its own share of the military, political, and economic burden with the warning that the US commitment was “not unlimited” and its support was “not a blank check”.
Washington has been guilty of three fundamental strategic errors in handling Afghanistan since 9/11. These errors are primarily responsible for the mess in which the US finds itself now in Afghanistan. The first error was the imposition of a government of Washington’s own choice, representing basically the Northern Alliance and the non-Pashtuns, on Afghanistan. It ignored the ground reality that in Afghanistan, tribal and ethnic loyalties often superseded loyalties to the central government. Consequently, not only the Taliban but also the Pashtuns in Afghanistan felt alienated from the US-imposed political dispensation in the country. This error enabled the Taliban to regroup and gain strength as the American attention was diverted to Iraq following the invasion of 2003.
Secondly, as the Taliban insurgency grew in strength in Afghanistan, the US placed its reliance exclusively on the use of its military might to defeat them. It treated the Taliban as a terrorist organization rather than as a political group fighting for power in the Afghan civil war since 1994. The truth of the matter is that the Taliban, despite their religious obscurantism and extremism, are a legitimate part of the Afghan political spectrum. Washington ignored the opportunities for a political settlement in Afghanistan for a long time in the post 9/11 scenario to its own detriment and to the detriment of the cause of durable peace and stability in the country.
Thirdly, in the zeal for nation building in the light of its own liberal values, the US simply rode roughshod on the extremely conservative and deeply religious sensitivities of the Afghan society. The disregard of the conservative values of the Afghan society in the US attempt at nation building alienated and enraged a sizable section of the Afghan people, thus, providing further fuel to the fire of the Taliban insurgency. Little wonder that Afghanistan is now embroiled in a full-blown civil war in which the Taliban exercise exclusive control over more than one-third of the Afghan territory. However, instead of acknowledging their policy failures, the US policy makers and generals have made it a habit of blaming Pakistan for the consequences of their mishandling of the Afghanistan situation.
Trump administration’s new Afghanistan policy continues to blame Pakistan for the US policy failures. It fails to recognize that the fundamental factors responsible for the continued fighting and the Taliban insurgency lie in Afghanistan rather than in the so-called havens for terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas. It once again places emphasis on the use of the military instrument in coming to grips with the Afghanistan situation instead of giving the pride of place to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue process among the various Afghan parties, including the Kabul government and the Taliban, for a political settlement and durable peace in Afghanistan. One fails to understand the rationale for the dispatch of a few thousand more American troops to Afghanistan in addition to 8400 American soldiers already serving there when at their peak 100,000 American and 30,000 other NATO troops couldn’t do the job. Islamabad, therefore, was right in rejecting the misconceived Afghanistan policy announced by President Trump and expressing its unhappiness at scapegoating Pakistan once again for the US policy failures in Afghanistan.
It is obvious that our political, military, and diplomatic leadership has failed so far to convey our point of view to the US administration and Congress in a convincing manner. We, therefore, need to redouble our efforts in this regard. The focus of these efforts should be on the coordination of the policies of the two countries on their shared goals in Afghanistan: the denial of space to terrorists and their elimination on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the encouragement of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue process in the interest of durable peace and stability in the country. This would not be an easy task because of the reluctance of the US policy makers to recognize the ground realities in Afghanistan. Therefore, the success of such efforts is far from assured.
In view of the foregoing, Pakistan should get ready for steadily increasing political, economic, military, and diplomatic pressure from Washington on the Afghanistan issue. Pakistan would be able to face the growing pressure from the US only if it learns to stand on its own feet and discards its begging bowl policy. A policy of self-reliance and austerity is a must for this purpose. Simultaneously, we should engage our friends like China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia in close consultations in considering our options in the face of the warning delivered by President Trump.