30 May 2017

Trump’s Imaginary “Strategy” for Afghanistan

by Ehsan M. Ahrari

Everyone was waiting for President Donald Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan. But the announcement of that strategy came as a repeat of President Barack Obama’s original version of that strategy. It stated that Trump is likely to send as many as 5000 additional US troops to Afghanistan. 

Like almost all policies in the realm of domestic and foreign policy, Trump liked nothing about his predecessor’s way of conducting the Afghan war. So, the expectation was that he would announce a different approach to that war. But Afghanistan has a forbidding way of surprising everyone.

After sending his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and his National Security Advisor, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, to Afghanistan on “fact finding missions,” Trump found out that the Afghan war is not a winnable one; and the United States has no choice but to stay put and find some sort of a negotiated solution. In the interim, increasing ground troops appears to be a make-believe version of a strategy. That was precisely what Obama was doing. 

Perhaps after receiving some hard-hitting briefings from Mattis and McMaster, Trump finally realized Obama’s decision to remain in Afghanistan was both realistic and necessary. The United States cannot afford to get out and hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban for certainly an Islamist rule. The effect of such a move would have been devastating for Trump’s own emphasis of defeating and eradicating the global jihadists. More to the point, Mattis and McMaster must also have told the greenhorn President how harsh ground realities have been in Afghanistan. 

The best description of those ground realities was presented in a January 2017 report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Some of its highlights are: 

The current weakness of the Afghan government is underscored by the fact that, at the end of 2016, only 57.2 percent of the country was “under its control or influence,” which was a “6.3 decrease from 2015.” The Taliban controlled 10 percent, and the rest of territory was “uncontested.” 

Taliban also controlled more than 80 percent of Helmand Province. 

According to a recent statement made by General John W. Nicholson, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, “Of the 98 U.S.- or U.N.-designated terrorist organizations around the globe, 20 of them are in the Af-Pak region.” He added, “This is the highest concentration of the numbers of different groups in any area in the world.” This statement underscores what is really at stake in Afghanistan for the United States and why it should stay militarily involved in that country. 
Just in 2016, “583,000 people fled their homes…” This was “the highest number of displacements since record keeping started in 2008.”

Opium production in Afghanistan “rose 43 percent from 2015 levels.” This constitutes 90 percent of the world’s opium production. 

The saddest reality about Afghanistan is that all major actors either directly or indirectly involved in that country are trying to maximize their respective spheres of influence. Helping Afghanistan remains only a secondary objective for all of them.

The United States’ chief interest is to stabilize Afghanistan under a democratic government and to not leave that country after that. Therein lies the rub. The Taliban have intermittently let it be known that they will not come to the negotiating table unless foreign forces leave Afghanistan. 

China’s chief interest is to stabilize Afghanistan for the successful implementation of “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy, which is its grand strategy to connect entire world to its business center. It includes new “maritime silk roads” “connecting Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.” Because of Afghanistan’s proximity to the Persian/Arabian Gulf, Pakistan, and Central Asia, its stability is very important for the successful implementation of the OBOR strategy in the calculus of the mandarins of China’s foreign policy.

Another important variable is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is resolute about destabilizing Xinjiang—China’s Western province. A potential success of the ETIM there is rightly referred to as “China’s nightmare.” The ETIM has also been present in Afghanistan and has powerful links with the Taliban. So, another crucial objective of China is to neutralize its ties with the Taliban by engaging them in the peace process. 

Russia seems to be getting increasingly interested in escalating its presence in Afghanistan. For this purpose, it is reported to be engaging the Taliban on the premise that they are not part of global jihadist groups. It is also reported to be supplying weapons to them, and they have invited India and Iran to participate in future negotiations with the Taliban.

Pakistan is the only regional power that holds a few cards, in the context of pushing for negotiations between the Taliban and the government of President Ashraf Ghani. However, it also brings a lot of baggage with it. It is disliked by the Afghan government for its perceived hegemonic aspirations toward that country, and the Taliban do not place a lot of trust in Pakistan in its role as an honest broker. However, Pakistan remains important because it is willing to provide security havens for the Taliban and is a source for their arms. 

The involvement of these actors and their conflict agendas keeps the Afghan conflict in a constant state of flux. However, the questions of the hour are whether Pakistan can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and whether the US-China partnership will continue to evolve for pushing for those negotiations. Considering the considerable sway of China over Pakistan as its ally, the chances are that China will persuade Pakistan to push the Taliban for negotiations.

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