There are no decent options in Afghanistan
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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) summit held in Brussels last week briefly turned the spotlight on Afghanistan. Over the past few years, global interest in the country has waned owing to the combination of sheer fatigue with a seemingly interminable conflict and the emergence of new threats and theatres of war. This was evident in the US’ policy towards Afghanistan during Barack Obama’s second term in office.
Unable to make up its mind on whether it wanted to prevent the return of the Taliban or undertake a more extensive effort to stabilize the country, the Obama administration muddled along. By late 2016 it was clear that this policy was a shambles. The Taliban was making significant gains in rural areas; the coalition government in Kabul was struggling to pull along; and the economy was tanking in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign troops. In the event, Obama left behind 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and a host of tricky decisions for his successor to make.
Although Donald Trump’s administration has yet to conclude its review of the war, the contours of the debate in Washington are now clear. In a recently published paper (goo.gl/5MzhXB), Ashley Tellis and Jeff Eggers outline the strategic options available to the administration with exemplary acuity and clarity. Their analysis is worth examining closely.
Tellis and Eggers lay out the menu of choices in three clusters: unilateral options, regional options, and limited approaches. The first includes either a major military escalation to bring the Taliban to heel, or a complete withdrawal, leaving Afghanistan to its fate. The first is ruled out owing to the “strong American disenchantment with foreign wars”. The Trump administration is certainly uncomfortable with the idea of continuing an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan to the tune of $23 billion a year. The second alternative is apparently supported by an influential group of policymakers in Washington. But it is unlikely to be adopted, as there are residual concerns about the links between the Taliban and international terrorist outfits.
The authors consider two regional options: brokering a settlement between India and Pakistan, and squeezing Pakistan. The first rests on the belief that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is owing to its fear of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Addressing the India-Pakistan rivalry is therefore seen as the key to the stability of Afghanistan. This was the approach advocated by the late Richard Holbrooke. But, as the authors observe, this at once ignores many other considerations that drive Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and makes the problem in Afghanistan rather more difficult by twinning it with issues like Kashmir.
While they recognize the centrality of Pakistan to a settlement in Afghanistan, Tellis and Eggers also hold that the US cannot put Pakistan on the mat. To be sure, Washington does have many levers with which to pressurize Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Yet, the US “remains dependent on Pakistan for the security of its ground and air communications in Afghanistan”. In theory Iran could have been an alternative, but given US policy towards that country, the dependence on Pakistan will persist. In consequence, the US can only bring limited and episodic pressure to bear on Pakistan.
The authors go on to present three options under limited approaches. The first is a narrowly defined strategy of counter-terrorism. While the advantages to the US might seem self-evident, this option will necessitate permanent American military bases in Afghanistan. Such a presence, they concede, will further fuel the conflict rather than help with its resolution. The second alternative is to stick to the status quo and perhaps tweak the troop numbers at the margins. The experience of the past few years suggests that this will be wholly inadequate.
The last, and the authors’ preferred, option is to craft a strategy aimed at a political settlement with the Taliban. The Afghan government’s recent deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami offers some hope. Tellis and Eggers are mindful of the host of problems that bedevil any attempt at negotiating with the Taliban. The most important of these is Pakistan’s continued support to the Taliban. The only strategy that might stand some chance is “appealing to Rawalpindi’s self-interest”. If the US exits Afghanistan without a settlement in place, the ensuing instability might boomerang on Pakistan. Yet they also concede that there might be an element of wishful thinking here. Given that Pakistan can “confidently count on China’s assistance for larger geopolitical reasons”, it is not clear why it will fall in line with American requirements.
It is difficult to read this paper and avoid concluding that there are no decent options in Afghanistan—only more or less worse ones. As so often with US policy in this region, allies pose more neuralgic problems than adversaries. The fact remains that unless the US is willing to coerce both Pakistan and the Taliban, neither will have any incentive to strike a bargain. The Trump administration is reportedly divided over whether to send an additional 5,000 troops to Afghanistan. Given the scale of the Taliban’s resurgence, such numbers are unlikely to make much difference. They will be useful only in prolonging the mirage of an American strategy to end the war.
Meanwhile, other regional players—including India—will remain apprehensive about the negotiations with the Taliban. But they are unlikely to be able to offer credible alternatives. In short, the prognosis for Afghanistan is grim. We’ll know just how bad things may turn out once Trump makes up his mind.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.