By Kashif Hussain
The United States’ Afghanistan-centric South Asia strategy aimed at outlining a plan for victory in its more than one-and-a-half decade long war with the Taliban. A combination of tools — including diplomacy, economic might, intelligence and military power — was employed during the past year for that purpose.
However, at the same time, the current situation in Afghanistan reflects a gloomy picture ridden with chaos and disorder, largely as a result of clashes between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents. There have also been widespread suicide bomb blasts across the country.
It seems that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is floundering, and that victory is as far away as ever. The U.S. State Department, Pentagon, and the National Unity Government of Afghanistan (NUG) are not on the same page, especially when it comes to the peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban. In addition to that, the United States’ inability to establish a viable mechanism comprising the regional states (Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, and China) to actively pursue a political reconciliation process also appears to be an impediment for Afghanistan’s peace and prosperity.
In order to increase pressure on the Taliban to accept the terms of a peace deal with the NUG, the United States adopted a new strategy by keeping some elements ambiguous. The plan aims to keep the world in the dark about the U.S.-led mission’s time limit and the actual number of boots on ground. Right after the announcement of the strategy in August 2017, an increase in troop levels was announced by the Pentagon, without mentioning the actual numbers. Another striking feature of the strategy was the authorization of more power to the U.S. Department of Defense and the men in uniform.
The immediate reaction from the Taliban was massive. During October 2017 alone, hundreds of Afghans were killed in various attacks, mostly on security installations. In an offensive on Paktia Police Headquarters, the police chief for Paktia province was killed; the attack on Kabul Military Academy left many cadets dead. The U.S. military strategy continued to remain ill-coordinated, and the Taliban have been able to infiltrate and inflict heavy damage to highly guarded targets. The insurgent group was also able to expand its influence over some strategic areas across the country.
The Taliban’s rejection of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer for peace talks “without preconditions” only increased the pressure on the NUG. The insurgent group has been insisting on talking directly to the United States and has refused to accept any deal until the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. On the other side, the United States had been staunchly opposed to any direct negotiations with the Taliban, instead supporting an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. So it was a surprise when officials from the the U.S. State Department, led by Alice Wells, US deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, and the Taliban leadership, recently held talks in Doha. Incidentally, few days before this meeting, the top representative of the Pentagon in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, denied any chances of the United States talking directly to the Taliban.
The failure of the U.S. State Department-Taliban talks — and the lack of coordination between State and the Pentagon — was manifested when the Afghan Army, with U.S. air support, launched another phase of Operation Qahr Silab-2 in Kunar province and killed scores of Taliban insurgents during the first week of August 2018. In retaliation, the Taliban stormed the strategic Ghazni city. The group has also rejected Ghani’s conditional three-month truce offer.
Another flaw in the United States’ new strategy is its inability to address the need of regional players for peace in Afghanistan. Being at a strategic crossroads, Afghanistan is sometimes called “the heart of Asia” and regional states have always had geopolitical interest in the country. The former Soviet Union collapsed only after its failed adventurism in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the U.S.-Pakistan-Iran collaboration played a key role to that end.
However, the United States seems unaware of the historical lessons, as during the past year, no serious effort was made to coordinate with the regional states. There was only a ceremonial meeting of the stalled Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprising the United States, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, held in October 2017. The meeting ended without giving a joint statement.
Additionally, U.S. relations with almost all key regional players are on a downward trajectory. Pakistan remains the most significant regional state vis-à-vis Afghan affairs, both because of its history of its political influence over the Taliban and because Pakistan provides the shortest sea route to the war-torn country. Pakistan was severely criticized during the announcement of the United States’ new South Asia strategy. During the past year, Washington suspended its entire security aid to Islamabad and recently closed the door to the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program for Pakistani officers in the United States.
Russia could also be important for U.S. success in Afghanistan as Moscow still yields political influence over Central Asia. However, Washington not only declared Russia a strategic competitor in its 2018 National Security Strategy document, but also continues to place new sanctions on various Russian entities. The deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan and U.S.-Russia relationship have naturally brought Russia and Pakistan closer than ever, especially in strategic matters.
Moreover, Washington has also declared Beijing a revisionist state, especially in the wider Asia-Pacific, and initiated a trade war with the country. As relations with Iran are edging closer to war after the annulment of the Joint and Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States seems to be putting all of its hopes for Afghanistan on India. Interestingly, though, India seems reluctant to completely throw its lot in with the United States. Instead, New Delhi has been improving its relations with China and taking keen interest in matters of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
If the United States does not change the principles of its strategy in Afghanistan, it will soon find itself in isolation, and chances of an eventual defeat in the war-torn country will increase.
Kashif Hussain holds M.Phil Degree in International Relations from Quaid i Azam University Islamabad. He is currently serving as Research Associate at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII).