The Path to Uncertain Future

Syeda Mamoona Rubab

US President Donald Trump on August 21, 2017 announced his administration’s policy on Afghanistan and South Asia at Fort Myer (VA, US) for what he himself described as laying out the path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia.

The policy speech by US president marked the culmination of a nearly eight month long rigorous review of the options for dealing with the Afghanistan conflict that would soon be entering its seventeenth year, but importantly no end still in sight. The review had included Trump’s key security and political advisers and Afghan war veterans. Several options including some very radical ones including the deployment of private contractors were weighed before a final decision was taken at a meeting of the US National Security Council in Camp David on August 17, 2017.

The new policy has received mixed reaction. Afghanistan and India welcomed it. Pakistan, which got most of the flak, expressed its concerns over it and out-rightly rejected the allegations made against it. Many believed that it could scuttle whatsoever little Pak-US cooperation on Afghanistan remained after the erosion of trust over the past few years. There is also a strong belief that there is nothing new in the policy. What was perhaps new was the element of unpredictability and surprise. It made no mention of timelines, troop ceilings, and defined benchmarks. Even the catchphrase, ‘conditions-based approach’, that has been used to define the new strategy has already been used by Trump’s predecessor, Obama.

THE CONTEXT:

The decision was not an easy one for President Trump because firstly committing any further to the Afghan conflict meant a reversal of the position he had taken before his election when he had regularly and very strongly questioned US involvement in Afghanistan.

“Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense!  Rebuild the USA,” Trump had tweeted some 4 years ago and has been a vocal critic of Obama’s Afghan policy.

Secondly, he had inherited a very difficult war situation from Obama, who by setting timelines for withdrawal had in reality added to the problems there. Costs of the conflict for US have been mounting, eleven US soldiers were lost this year in addition to over 2400 military casualties earlier and about a trillion dollar spent. There is war-weariness and frustration in US over the war.

But, still Afghanistan is far from being stabilized and Kabul’s writ over the country’s territory is shrinking and it is said to be controlling 57 percent of the country – roughly 15% less than last year. Security situation has been deteriorating and resurgent Taliban insurgents are mounting attacks in 31 of the 34 provinces. Da’ish is also expanding its footprint mostly in areas bordering Pakistan.

Thirdly, Trump’s dilemma was compounded by deep divisions among his aides on the way forward.

There have been several factors for the precarious situation in Afghanistan. Ghani government is suffering from internal political conflicts adding to its dysfunction, besides serving as a major distraction from the fight against terrorists. The government’s failure to complete the cabinet and fill Supreme Court vacancies is just one indication of its dysfunction. Pervasive corruption, and political and ethnic biases, besides creating political issues, is promoting a culture of impunity in Afghanistan, where officials quite often escape accountability for their lapses and wrongdoings simply because of their affiliations and connections.

According to Brookings’ Vanda Felbab-Brown: “Extensive predatory criminality, corruption, and power abuse—not effectively countered by the Afghan government—have facilitated the Taliban’s entrenchment.”

These concerns were reflected in Mr. Trump’s policy and he called for Afghan government to reform itself and told them that “our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political and economic burden. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress and real results”.

But, somehow the US president, who himself said that he follows his instincts, remained beholden to the view that Pakistan was the root cause of the problem. In US assessment insurgency in Afghanistan has been sustaining because of hideouts in Pakistan from where the terrorists receive funding, arms and the planning.

Pakistan has always denied these allegations, but has remained the most convenient scapegoat. It has regularly been blamed for not doing enough to eliminate the Taliban and Haqqani Network’s alleged sanctuaries on its soil – something, which was also reiterated in the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism released last week. Pakistan earlier lost $50 million in Coalition Support Fund reimbursements this year for the same reason after Defense Secretary Mattis refused to certify that Pakistan had taken action against the two groups.

Accordingly, Pakistan was criticized most severely in the policy statement and instead of fix Afghanistan strategy it looked fix Pakistan approach.

KEY ELEMENTS OF STRATEGY:

The premise of Trump’s decision to recommit to the war is that threat to US interests continues because of terrorist safe havens; a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan could have serious implications for Afghanistan, region and US; and an “honourable and enduring outcome” had to be achieved.

The policy while diagnosing the problem acknowledges that the situation is being complicated because of confrontation between the nuclear armed neighbours India and Pakistan.

The targets fixed by Trump administration are elimination of safe havens both in Pakistan and Afghanistan and preventing nuclear weapons and material from falling into the hands of terrorists. Nation building or rehabilitation of Afghanistan is no more US priority and it wants its allies specially India, which was said to be earning billions of dollars in trade with the United States.

At the core of Trump’s strategy is the surprise and unpredictability element. The strategy is conditions based instead of one defined by timelines and troops ceilings. By maintaining vagueness in this respect Mr Trump has remained true to his character. It has been widely reported that US was looking to adding up to 3900 troops to some 8400 currently in Afghanistan, but Trump wants to keep it a secret.

“My administration will not telegraph exact military plans to the enemy,” Candiadte Trump had said in an August 2016 speech. “I have often said that Gen. MacArthur and Gen. Patton would be in a state of shock if they were alive today to see the way President Obama and Hillary Clinton try to recklessly announce their every move before it happens — like they did in Iraq — so that the enemy can prepare and adapt.”

The other most important element of his strategy is to force a change in Pakistan’s behavior, whom he charge-sheeted for sort of allegedly swindling “billions and billions of dollars”, while protecting the same terrorists. He said that would change.

India, much to Pakistan chagrin, has been assigned a role for economic assistance and development of Afghanistan and peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Reconciliation in Afghanistan has been put on the back burner though the door has not been shut. No timeframe has been given for the start of the process despite the acknowledgment that the military alone cannot bring peace to Afghanistan. One can infer that reconciliation would not be the immediate priority in the next phase of US involvement in Afghanistan. The statement loosely suggests the process would begin after a considerable military effort that beats down Taliban insurgency and creates necessary security and other conditions for the start of the process. However, in a major departure from previous conditions for peace talks, Trump administration is no more emphasizing on the condition of respect for Afghan Constitution. It only wants the elements agreeing to talk to reject terrorism and not to allow any safe havens.

The purpose of the new policy, therefore, is not to win the war, which Americans fully realize in unwinnable, but to create conditions that suit it for what Trump described as an “honourable and enduring outcome”.

The strategy allows greater operational freedom for the field commanders. It was that the process of getting authority for an operation was so long that troops in the past would miss the target. However, the downside of the decision to give broader authority to the commanders and relax the rules of engagement is that it could cause accidental civilian casualties from air strikes.

PAKISTAN PROBLEM

The allegation that Pakistan is not eradicating terrorist sanctuaries is in no way new. It has been leveled all throughout the 16-year war and with greater frequency in the past few years. As a result, Pakistan lost the F-16 deal and its money that the US had to reimburse under the Coalition Support Fund program was seized.

Pakistan’s response, in the past, remained limited to denials and claims that its operations targeted terrorists of all shades and colours. The explanations were not accepted, but Islamabad took that in its stride, bothering little about the lost F-16s and the millions of our own dollars withheld by the Americans. Pakistan’s attitude, at that moment in time, had left even the Americans bewildered.

With Trump though, the landscape has changed. He is known for wielding a big stick. Pakistani officials belatedly realized that the issue was getting out of hand. They recently took a few actions: condemning the Taliban attack on US soldiers, working on improving relations with Afghanistan, reaffirming their commitment to cooperating with the US-led Resolute Support Mission and Afghan security forces and above all offering ground checks in areas and at a timing of their choosing. That came a little too late though. Nevertheless, many believe that it helped Pakistan earn another chance despite the censure.

It is claimed that Trump was bent on punishing Pakistan for its “insincerity”, but settled for “publicly scolding” it and linking any future engagement to how it (Pakistan) moved to address those concerns. The ball is said to be in Pakistan’s court now.

The American expectation, to quote the State Department, is that Pakistan takes “decisive action” against what they say are terrorist groups on its soil that pose a threat to the “region”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has listed the consequences in case of non-compliance: squelching aid and military assistance, revoking the non-NATO alliance partnership, and what he described as “going to attack terrorists wherever they live”. All this was known before, but has been officially said for the first time by no less than a secretary of state.

One point most people have not talked about much so far is President Trump’s decision to once again raise the bogey of “nuclear weapons and materials” falling into the hands of terrorists. Many in Islamabad would have interpreted Trump’s words as a renewal of concerns about the security of Pakistani assets. There is also the veiled threat of diplomatic isolation. Secretary Tillerson refers to the US strategy on North Korea and says: “We have to enlarge the circle of interest and bring others to—into the effort as well, and that’s what we’ll be doing with Pakistan as well.” It was useful that the Chinese made a statement of support to pre-empt American coercion, but more may be needed on that front.

Threats aside, closely parsing the statements from the State Department and Tillerson shows that America is also offering a deal vis-à-vis Pakistan’s security concerns that could have been preventing a fuller cooperation. Sanctuaries in Afghanistan have been mentioned and India has been encouraged to take steps for rapprochement with Pakistan and address the “reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country”.

There is also the offer to help Pakistan protect itself from the blowback of going after the Taliban and Haqqani Network. “We are ready to work with them protect themselves against these terrorist organizations,” Tillerson said. Recall that during the last year of the Obama presidency, the Pakistan government had been telling the American interlocutors that they could not start a new war in their country and the only way they could take action against the Taliban and Haqqani Network is if there were a joint strategy and cooperation. This is not to say that what the US is saying is reality. Pakistan is justified when it denounces the American allegations as a “false narrative”. But, it still has a job at hand to clear up American doubts and misgivings.

PAKISTAN’S RESPONSE:

Pakistan’s official and comprehensive response came after a meeting of the National Security Committee that had been specially convened to discuss the situation arising out of the US policy announcement.

The National Security Committee rejected US allegations of not eradicating terrorist sanctuaries, but at the same time affirmed the commitment to helping the world restore peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The Committee has rightly expressed its reservations vis-à-vis the new regional policeman role for India, Trump’s nuclear security fears and its concerns about sanctuaries of Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist groups on Afghan soil.

The committee also made clarification about the $20 billion received from US since 2001. It said that figure was misleading because much of that money had came as reimbursements and accounted “for part of the cost of ground facilities and air corridors used by the United States for its operations in Afghanistan, rather than any financial aid or assistance”. Moreover, the civilian assistance and Coalition Support Fund reimbursements have over the years declined and Pakistan is no more reliant on it. NSC and Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa have on different occasions said that Pakistan may not be any further interested in US assistance

Refusing US assistance may sound politically correct at home, but does not work in the US-dominated geo-politics. It would well be in Pakistan’s interest to remain engaged with US. In fact, it would be a test of Pakistan’s diplomatic skills to get the most out of Trump’s harsh sounding policy, but one which has several opportunities hidden for Pakistan buried inside it.

Syeda Mamoona Rubab is an IPI Resident Scholar specializing in Pakistan-US Relations

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