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The new hope for Afghanistan

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President Donald Trump’s belated Afghanistan policy review and reformulation unveiled last month had three unique characteristics:

In terms of content and messaging, no other American leader in the past has spoken out so forthrightly about Afghanistan’s core challenge, as well as the geopolitical and national security complexities inherent to the greater South-Central Asia region.

Nonetheless, the President’s speech skimpily alluded to, but did not go far enough on, two requisite accessories to the main strategic thrust: the need for revitalized American diplomacy to assure buy-in from U.S. allies and support, to the extent possible, from key international stakeholders; and assuring Afghan political legitimacy and stability, resulting in sustainable progress.

As expected, the speech received immediate knee-jerk reactions from partisan and special interest quarters. Some cynically described the policy as “recycled” and the conflict as “an endless war”, while other commentators saw merit in the candid nature of the policy recalibration. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said it is “unfair” to blame his country for troubles in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistani pro-Taliban groups issued a call for “jihad ” and warned that the Pakistani army would not take any action against the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated outfit classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S.

In Afghanistan, however, the mood was generally welcoming and supportive. While the Taliban and former president Hamid Karzai opposed the new U.S. policy (for different reasons), the Afghan unity government praised the pronouncement and pledged to work with America on shared goals as part of the new way forward.

New military toolkit

The military component, in which Afghan security forces are trained, advised, assisted and equipped by the U.S. and NATO, forms the core of the new strategy. It is expected to break the stalemate that has evolved since 2012 as the Taliban strategy shifted from containment to territorial control, expanding their footprint to some 40% of the Afghan countryside albeit influencing no more than 10% of the population. To implement its strategy, the Trump administration will shift “from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.” In other words, no more timelines and the lifting of caveats and restrictions to allow commanders on the ground to make better use of five enablers:

1.    Additional special forces for counter-terrorism operations, with the intent to double the number of Afghan units by 2019.

2.    Close air support and reliance on targeted bombings where necessary.

3.    Use of heavier ground artillery to dislodge Taliban militiamen from their hideouts.

4.    Increased use of local paramilitary units (a controversial decision that has backfired in the past).

5.    Embedding of U.S. advisors and coordinators within combat battalions.

Given lessons learned and past practices, however, success will also depend on such factors as Afghan leadership and force morale, equipment and weapons effectiveness, intelligence gathering and coordination, better training and oversight of police and para-military units, assuring local support of the population, avoiding civilian losses, fighting corruption and assuring professionalism in key positions, and targeting enemy finance and funding networks.

The Pakistan angle

The most important potential for game change, however, lies with Pakistan. In his speech, President Trump warned that “Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.” According to the Financial Times, Washington has not only already frozen $255 million in military aid to Islamabad but is “eyeing an escalating series of threats, which include cutting some civilian aid, conducting unilateral drone strikes on Pakistani soil, and imposing travel bans on suspect officers of the ISI, the country’s intelligence agency.”

In response, Pakistan has unleashed a diplomatic and public relations campaign to defend its position and to try to induce other key players to derail US plans. In an effort to deflect allegations of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban, Pakistan’s foreign minister has called on the Trump administration to hold talks with the Taliban. Pointing to Russia and Iran, the minister suggested “peace talks with the Taliban could be arranged if Washington works with countries in the region that have influence over the militant group.” The reaction so far in Moscow and Tehran, as well as in Beijing and Ankara, has been mixed and tentative.  Trump, however, has not ruled out the possibility. “After an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban.”

Looking ahead

American diplomacy can play a critical role in support of the new US military strategy. Appointing a seasoned diplomat, with United Nations backing, to engage in shuttle diplomacy between capitals in the region could help clarify issues, dispel misunderstandings and, at some level, generate cooperation on the way forward in Afghanistan.

Equally important in implementing a successful strategy is ensuring Afghan political legitimacy and stability. The allegations of fraud which surrounded the two presidential elections in 2009 and 2014 continue to plague Afghan politics and fan mistrust among the political elite. A political accord between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah in 2014 paved the way for the eventual formation of the current unity government, but political cliques have stonewalled the convening of a Constitutional Loya Jirga to reform the electoral system.

President Trump has put Afghan leaders on notice: “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress.  However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.” Recent signs of dialogue between political rivals suggest maybe his warning has not fallen on deaf ears. The kickoff to the 2018-19 electoral season is not long off.

After years of violence and bloodshed, Afghans still hold on to a ray of hope. But overall, the public has lost trust in costly and dubious initiatives that have not amounted to any tangible results on the reconciliation front, while the Taliban and their backers have used deceptive tactics mixed with terror-like measures to gain strategic advantage.


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