The Afghan war and Pakistan

Courtesy Express Tribune-

There is much debate and controversy about the much awaited, and now quite public, ‘new’ American Afghan policy in political, intellectual and diplomatic circles in Pakistan and abroad. The central presumption of this policy is that the US and its allies can win the Afghan war by military means. Those who support this belief argue that the prevailing stalemate in the war will eventually tire the Afghan Taliban out and force them to come to the negotiating table. The Taliban are more resilient and control more territories today than ever before. They are not tired; rather, they are on the rise due to many failures of the Afghan government and American policy choices.

The American and Afghan military strategy rests on holding on to the cities and towns, as they have done very successfully over the past 16 years, and expand control from there to the countryside. Whenever the Taliban have captured a district town anywhere in the country, they have been evicted by force, but at an enormous material and human cost.

Incidentally, the Afghan Taliban have a similar assumption of their war against the ‘puppet’ government in Kabul and its foreign backers, chiefly the US. Being part of local populations, overwhelmingly from the Pashtun ethnic groups, they believe stalemate will weaken the resolve of foreign powers fighting war in Afghanistan, forcing them to consider withdrawing from the country. If the lessons of history can be of some help to anyone reading and understanding them, the Afghans forced colonial Britain twice in the 19th century and the Russians about two decades back to leave Afghanistan. The Americans don’t want to suffer the same fate as did the other two great powers of their time. If they do, many myths about their power, global influence and hegemony would become subject to questioning. Worse, the success of the Afghan Taliban might encourage similar radical Islamist movements throughout the region, including Pakistan.

Washington is in a serious fix because it cannot take incalculable risks of losing the longest war it has ever fought, but at the same time it cannot win by the military means it has employed at will and in excessive abundance, costing it a trillion dollars and thousands of lives. The Afghan and Pakistani lives hardly matter to anyone, but when the clouds of the Afghan war leave their opaque cover, harsh truth of hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly innocent civilians will emerge. Therefore, the Trump policy is not new in emphasising the role of the military, but different in a sense that the President is going to leave a lot at the discretion of local commanders to get things done.

As usual, the new policy and its rhetoric put lot of blame on Pakistan for the failure of the US to win the war in Afghanistan. The policy fails to reflect on its own flawed policy of courting and gentrifying the Afghan warlords, corruption, drug-production and civilian casualties as being the factors working in favour of the Taliban.

How should Pakistan respond to a quirky and confrontational President Trump? As the rest of the world leaders have learnt, the best thing is to ignore him. But being at the crossroads of a complex geopolitical tangle and vulnerable to domestic challenges, Pakistan doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring American threats or acting like the former Arab radical states. Nor would it be prudent to accept dictates uncritically. While exploring a regional solution to the war, it needs a balanced bilateral approach towards the US centering on both diplomacy and dialogue.

 

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The Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) is a nonpartisan, independent policy research institute based in Islamabad. Our goal is to undertake in-depth analysis of challenges and choices confronting Pakistan. We aim to help policymakers and public better understand the world, region and Pakistan-specific challenges and opportunities. We make efforts to engage government, civil society, private sector, media, academia in open debates and dialogue on the most significant developments in national and international affairs. We envision contributing to policy-making through periodic policy-papers putting forward policy-recommendations developed in collaboration with experts and stakeholders in each area. IPI takes no institutional position on policy issues.

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