The election of Donald Trump as the president of the world’s most powerful country, the United States of America, has shaken the very foundations of the postwar, merit-based international order that helped achieve tremendous accomplishments for the humanity: hard-won global consensus on climate change is in tatters; the basic principles of globalized trade are being amended to promote the monopolistic dominance over the global and local markets; the relative calm and peace achieved after the horrendous events of two global wars are on the verge of collapse and global security and political frameworks are being constrained due to business-minded approach of President Trump.
The Afghanistan conflict remained the core issue of Donald Trump’s election campaign. In addresses to his voters and supporters, he vowed to bring back all the US troops from the soil of Afghanistan and to let the Afghans decide how to solve their own problems. It seems that members of his cabinet as well as his advisors have convinced him that a sudden drawdown would cause the collapse of Kabul regime that could provide militants an ideal space to carry out attacks on the US mainland similar in scale and magnitude to the catastrophic 9/11 episode. Now that more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s total area is under Taliban control, the political dependencies and entanglements have undermined the ability of Afghan government to curb the predatory criminality, illicit economies and organized crime as well as the Taliban insurgency. IS-Khorasan has captured substantial territory along Pak-Afghan border and has started to launch cross-border attacks. Different regional and global players such as China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India have also begun to gather influence both in the ranks of Taliban and the Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG). These developments and regional geopolitics have convinced the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and US security establishment to review America’s decade-long Afghan Policy in order to robustly tackle all the economic, security and governance challenges Afghanistan is faced with at present.
As per the statements of US officials and press releases thereupon, the contours of the new Afghan policy can be drawn. The biggest challenge the US government is facing is how to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for different militant groups that could undermine US interests in this part of the world. To neutralize this threat, US policymakers would suggest integrated civil-military approach in order to bolster counterterrorism and counter-extremism efforts. The capacity-building of the Afghan government and the security forces, and intensification of diplomatic efforts to facilitate the negotiated peaceful solution of Taliban insurgency with close collaboration of regional players would also be given prime importance. Pakistan and other regional actors have long demanded an Afghan-owned and Afghan led negotiated solution to the Afghan problem and opposed the excessive use of military power. In this regard, Pakistan helped establish the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). China has also offered to mediate between Pakistan and Afghanistan and brokered a mechanism for that through establishment of bilateral crisis management mechanism and trilateral foreign ministers dialogue forum. Besides China and Pakistan, Iran and Russia are also trying to establish contacts with the Afghan Taliban. Thus, if the US prefers to solve the Afghan issue through dialogue, all of these hitherto scattered efforts could be streamlined and effective, meaningful and result-oriented dialogue process could be kick-started.
Nation-building and capacity-building of Afghan state in order to assume leading role in war against terrorism is another major objective the US policymakers want to pursue. In this context, the resilience of Taliban and weakness of Afghan government are two hitherto unsurmountable challenges for the US establishment. As far as the Taliban’s insurgency is concerned, Taliban’s strong Pushtoon identity, their propaganda that they are fighting against foreign invasion and Pakistan’s alleged logistic support and provision of sanctuaries (Pakistan strictly denies these allegations) to Taliban fighters are the underlying reasons of Taliban resilience. Obviously, the US government can neither eliminate Taliban’s Pushtoon identity nor can they neutralize the ideological warfare; the only viable option for the US is to exert pressure on Pakistan for which it may also increase the frequency of drone attacks and even launch air strikes in FATA and Balochistan.
Rapaciousness, corruption, nepotism, tribal discrimination, predatory behaviour and desertion of security personnel are some of the reasons why Afghan government has miserably failed to effectively represent itself as the better option for people to solve their problems. Thus the resilience of Taliban also results from the fact that Taliban are outperforming the Afghan government in governance and suppression of the predatory crimes.
In addition to terrorist activities inspired by doctrinal and ideological underpinnings, criminal patronage and drugs enterprises are other threats emanating from Afghanistan having a global significance. There is strong evidence of linkages among terrorism, crimes and drug trafficking and it requires new roles for US security forces. US policymakers would suggest coupling the antinarcotic efforts with those in counterterrorism and counter-extremism. It would necessitate close collaboration with Pakistan and require the deepening of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Increasingly strident tone of US officials, enhanced influence of anti-Pakistan caucus in Congress and cuts to military aid roughly by half indicate that US policymakers would opt for a harder stance against Pakistan. This may include tougher measures such as complete stoppage of military and civilian aid, increased number and outreach of drone attacks and termination of Pakistan’s major non-NATO ally status. Although termination of this status is unlikely; given the US desire to maintain some leverage over Pakistan in order to help de-escalate tensions between Pakistan and India, Donald Trump may allow graduated diplomatic, economic and military costs to Pakistan as long as Pakistan would continue to provide safe havens and sanctuaries to Taliban (as believed by US security establishment but vehemently denied by Pakistan). As far as Pakistan’s grievances regarding unchecked proliferation of networks of Indian intelligence agencies along the Durand Line are concerned, US policymakers are unlikely to pay heed to the demands of Pakistan.
Afghanistan issue is a complex problem and requires a comprehensive, organic approach. It is fortunate that the US is now exploring the regional approach wherein all stakeholders would be taken on board while sorting out the solution of decades-long insurgency and civil wars. Pakistan and other countries oppose the military solution because when hundreds of thousands of US troops could not neutralize the Taliban threat, how the mere increase of a few thousands troops could break the stalemate. Therefore it is imperative for Trump administration to review the military approach and move forward toward a negotiated settlement and peaceful inclusion of Taliban in decision-making process as National Unity Government has done in case of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other warlords.