Year of the US Af-Pak Strategy: Stalemate is Not an Option Anymore
In seventeen years of war, US lost 2,226 military personals in Afghanistan[i] whereas during the September 11 attack 2,996 people were killed. After the Vietnam War that lasted for 19 years, this is the second longest war the US continues to fight. By present circumstances, it is likely that the Afghan war will supersede the Vietnam War later next year. Therefore, to ‘seek an honourable and enduring outcome’ to this War, President Donald Trump announced his new “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia (SAS)” on August 21, 2017[ii].
There was a change in the ‘original instinct’ of President Trump to ‘pull out’ from Afghanistan when he confessed that, “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office”[iii]. Apart from fulfilling the primary goal of fighting and containing terror groups, the geopolitical advantages of retaining a US-NATO military presence in Afghanistan are many. Afghanistan’s proximity to major powers enables the keeping of a close watch. Through Afghanistan, US forces can keep a tab on military powers in the region namely China, Russia, India, Iran and Pakistan, who are also non-NATO nuclear powers.
Taking a hint from the overall US nuclear strategy, complete withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan is highly unlikely. Taliban and the US are struggling to find a middle path[iv], where Taliban might drop its key demand of complete withdrawal and the US will continue its presence without interfering in the internal politics of Afghanistan. Three components of the new SAS have been designed to achieve its long-term interest.
The shift from a time-based to condition-based approach:
This shift in strategy forced the Taliban to change their tactics as well. In the past, the Taliban followed in the footprints of the Mujahiddins by continuing guerrilla attacks to increase the cost of war. Soviet forces could not last long and left the country within a decade. The recently renewed long-term commitment by the US and its allies, despite seventeen years of war, makes their intention to remain in Afghanistan clear. In October 2017, the EU published its own new Strategy wherein they pledged long-term assistance to continue support for nation building in Afghanistan[v]. Britain also sent 440 more troops to Afghanistan in the month of July[vi]. In March 2018, the 1st US Security Assistance Brigade (SFAB) designed to train and advise host nation’s armed forces, was deployed in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the Taliban has increased the number of attacks and started targeting provincial capitals[vii]. At the same time, they are engaging in talks with various actors[viii], to create more space on the negotiation table for themselves. This will build diplomatic pressure on the US as other parties sit equally with the US to mediate.
For now, the Taliban is left with two options. One, to continue with the stalemate. But, increasing US pressure on Pakistan to give up safe havens for Taliban and Haqqani Network, cutting external logistical and economic support and increasing strength of coalition forces may affect Taliban’s operational capability but it will not reduce the outfit’s appetite for continued war. It can only be reduced by addressing the issue of internal political rivalry in Afghan establishment. Until and unless they come together to find a solution which can be leveraged on the renewed American commitments. However, this does not seems to happen as individual driven politics becoming more murkier before the upcoming elections. Thus, due to US pressure, the Taliban may become militarily weak, but because of unprincipled politics, Afghan establishment is becoming politically weaker which is helping Taliban to strengthen themselves.
The second option would be, before sitting at the negotiating table with other players the Taliban would like to capture as much territory and bring the population under its control to use as political leverage and maintain an upper hand while dealing with the US and Afghan establishment. If the Taliban agrees to the US conditionalities and vice-a-versa then the path for Taliban to join political forces will be open. This will add another faction in the already divided political spectrum. It might begin another wave of political violence in Afghanistan.
Integration of all Instruments of American Power Towards the Successful Outcome:
If the successful outcome means victory, defined by President Trump as, “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge,” then the funds under renewed commitments from the US are dispersed to serve this goal. As of June 2018, the US has spent USD 4.8 billion on security and just USD 139 million on governance, humanitarian and civilian operations compared to last year’s USD 1.8 billion. It proves that America is no longer in Afghanistan for nation building. However, the EU’s new Afghanistan Strategy focuses on development. Engaging Afghan society in development is left to the EU and countries like India. The US focus remains just security and geopolitics.
The strategy of negligence towards governance hampers the security situation indirectly. For example, according to UNDOC, opium production in Afghanistan has reached 9,000 tons and has been cultivated on 328,000 hectares, which is the highest since 2008[ix]. This also indicates that the occasional air-strikes to destroy poppy fields and opium production facilities have been ineffective. Meanwhile, the opium eradication programme is in financial doldrums and also the revised U.S. counternarcotics strategy is still not finalized.
Since the announcement of SAS, senior American officials have made frequent visits to Afghanistan. The Afghan establishment at first welcomed SAS and have been on the same page with the US. No contradictory statements or policy differences have emerged in the last one year. Security matters have taken a major chunk of attention of dialogues between officials of both the countries, yet, Political, social and economic aspects are equally important for the stability. Overall American political and security establishments are bent on achieving victory as mentioned before, but under what conditions and where it will lead remains to be seen.
The changing approach towards Pakistan:
The report published by the US DOD in 2012 states, “Pakistan’s continued acceptance of sanctuaries for Afghan-focused insurgents […] continues to undermine the security of Afghanistan and poses an enduring threat to U.S., Coalition, and Afghan forces”[x]. There is no new knowledge that the US has acquired recently that changed its approach towards Pakistan. However, geopolitical changes in West Asia, Indo-Pacific and internally in America could have pushed a thought to bring Afghan conflict to an end. Pakistan played a crucial role in this conflict. This has caused the US to change its approach towards Pakistan. US-Pak friction has continued over the past year. In January 2018, US suspended military aid to Pakistan. Secretary Pompeo kept criticizing Pakistan and in a recent statement, at a critical juncture of Pakistan’s economic downturn, he said there is “no rationale” for a bailout that pays out Chinese debts[xi].
As economic and political pressure reaches critical mass, US and Pakistani military leaders are cooperating on different issues. In June 2018, Secretary Pompeo discussed the process of political reconciliation in Afghanistan with Pakistan COAS Gen Bajwa. Later that month, a US drone strike eliminated senior leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan commander Mullah Fazlullah in Kunar province of Afghanistan. President Trump’s nominee to lead allied forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Austin Miller while briefing the Senate Armed Services Committee said that Pakistan’s actions are ‘contradictory’ to US strategy but “we should have high expectations that they are part of the solution, not just diplomatically but from a security standpoint as well”[xii].
It is a possibility that on security matters, Pakistan will get along with the US in the future as it is strengthening its borders with Afghanistan by building fences, deploying more forces and conducting back-channel peace talks with the Taliban. On economic and regional issues, Pakistan is aligning with Russia and China.
Judgement on President Trump’s SAS, over a period of one year is mixed at best. It has not resulted in being much worse than previous strategies. Many of the strategies conclude that war in Afghanistan is at a stalemate. But, the new strategy has not done any better because of the ongoing attacks and no positive results have been seen vis-à-vis peace talks with The Taliban.
Yet, the political and economic pressure on Pakistan did not produce any outcome. Taliban leadership is still operating from Quetta and Peshawar and senior members of the Haqqani network are still at large.
If, the economic pressure on Pakistan and military pressure on the Taliban including political isolation sustains for a little longer than as mentioned earlier, the probability of success of SAS in the Af-Pak region increases. Based on the above aims and effects after one year of US SAS it can be seen that both US and Taliban are not looking at extending the stalemate too much further.
[i]SIGAR, “Quarterly report to the United States Congress”, Jul 30, 2018
https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2018-07-30qr.pdf, Accessed on August 10, 2018
[ii]White House, “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia”, August 21, 2017
https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-strategy-afghanistan-south-asia/, Accessed on August 22, 2018
[iv]The Daily Beast, “Inside the Secret Taliban Talks to End America’s Longest War”, August 2, 2018
https://www.thedailybeast.com/inside-the-secret-taliban-talks-to-end-americas-longest-war, Accessed on August 20, 2018
[v]European Union, “EU Strategy on Afghanistan”, October, 2017
https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eu_final_booklet_revised_4.pdf, accessed on August 15, 2018
[vi]BBC, “Why are UK and US sending more troops to Afghanistan?”, August 13, 2018
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44967531, Accessed on August 14, 2018
[vii]RFERL, “At Least 32 Killed, Dozens Wounded In Afghan Attacks”, May 22, 2018
https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-kandahar-blast-ghazni-police-attacks/29242832.html, Accessed on August 14, 2018
[viii]Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, “Delegation of Taliban visits Uzbekistan”, August 7, 2018
https://mfa.uz/en/press/news/2018/08/15768/, Accessed on August 13, 2018
[ix]UNDOC, “Last year’s record opium production in Afghanistan threatens sustainable development, latest survey reveals”, May 21, 2018
[x]US DOD, “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan”, December 2012,
https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/1230_Report_final.pdf, Accessed on August 20, 2018
[xi]Reuters, “U.S.’ Pompeo warns against IMF bailout for Pakistan that aids China”, July 31, 2018
[xii]The Nation, “Trump’s Afghanistan push requires Pakistan’s help: US general”, June 21. 2018