Can re-inventing the old Afghan war logic save the US in the land that has been described as a graveyard of empires?
While the era of empires is long gone, the US-Afghan war is unlikely to end anytime soon, as I pointed out in one of my recent articles written for the South Asian Monitor, and instead a new debate in the US has emerged regarding the number of troops the US needs, or doesn’t need, to station in Afghanistan to tackle the increasing threat of extremism and break the “stalemate.”
Within this debate, a largely unnoticed emphasis has been put on not allowing Afghanistan becoming an ISIS “safe haven.” This is fundamentally identical to what was defined as the central logic of Afghan war by the Bush administration in 2001. At that time, Al-Qaeda was the focus of US attention, and the imperative was to disrupt and dismantle its network.
The Afghan war, with the renewed emphasis in the US policy making circles and the military-defence establishment on eliminating terrorist safe heavens and with a contingent force of about 4000 troops all set to arrive sooner than later, is back to the square one, firmly placed on the perennially spinning wheel of geo-politics.
But the real question that should be addressed—and that has failed to attract enough attention within the US — is: will this re-invention do any good to the US position when the Taliban are reportedly controlling about 200 districts in Afghanistan and when IS-K, as it is known in the country, has stamped its presence through sophisticated attacks?
The US senator, Elizabeth Warren, who is also a member of US Senate Armed Services Committee, reached a different, to the extent of opposing the dominant narrative, conclusions after her recent visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Not only did she clearly oppose fresh US military deployment, but did also press for the growing need for a non-military solution of the crisis, warning that the Trump administration is creating a “diplomatic vacuum” in Afghanistan by paying no to minimal attention to the situation, and stating that she was “not there on a troop increase.”
She was also reported to have said that “no one on the ground believes there is a military-only solution in Afghanistan. No one”, adding further that “from the heads of state to the young man who walked us from one building to another in the embassy compound. No one — people at the forward operating base to anyone we stopped.”
“The Trump administration needs to define what winning in Afghanistan is and how we get to that,” the senator added. “They owe it to the deployed forces to provide the American people with a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy that has not only a military angle, but also an economic and diplomatic plan.”
Nothing perhaps illustrates, quite apart from the problem that the Taliban and IS-K pose, the magnitude of the challenge the US is facing than the fact that the political structure the US has built in the last 15 years is crumbling and threatening to tear apart Afghanistan’s political fabric in a way that would most certainly allow militant forces to expand and use the scenario to further their agenda—a fact duly attested by various reports of Inspector General for Afghanistan reconstruction.
While the inclusion of Hekmatyar in the group might be seen as a ‘positive development’ as far as the question of establishing peace through negotiations is concerned, the US-backed Afghan government itself, with its first vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum forming a separate anti-Government three- party alliance, has become an arena of political tussle and friction.
While the apparent reason associated with the new political development is Dostum’s attempts at creating pressure on the Ghani administration to seek a favourable outcome out of the investigation launched into his alleged involvement in an attack on Ahmad Ishchi, a former provincial governor, the crisis does also point to the extremely fragile basis the Afghan policy is standing on. It is important to take into the fact that other parties and persons involved in the alliance include Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of the northern Balkh province and Mohammad Mohaqiq, a deputy to the Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who happens to be Ashraf Ghani’s chief political opponent and a claimant to presidency.
“If the country’s problems are resolved, then we do not have any personal problem. Otherwise, we have to launch the strongest and the most dangerous civil movements,” Noor had told a political gathering a week before leaving for Turkey, where he met his allies and announced the new alliance.
Similarly, a few months ago, the Balkh governor entered direct talks with Ghani where they reportedly reached some agreements. The full outcome of the Ghani-Noor talks has been unclear but some reports indicate the negotiations had failed, pointing to Ghani’s growing difficulties both on the political and military fronts against the Taliban
What strategy then the US should follow to rescue itself as well as Afghanistan out of both seemingly endless war and perennial political fragility?
It is obvious, given the volatile history of the US military presence in Afghanistan and its inability to impose a military solution and establish a political system that can absorb shocks of both political and military nature, the need is to take potential de-militarization of Afghanistan into account and expand the peace process beyond Afghanistan.
Obviously, this has to begin from a fundamental review of how the US views the Taliban and the role that other countries, particularly Pakistan China and Russia, can potentially play. This, however, again has to be based upon one fundamental resolve within the US: the willingness to end the war rather than prolong it to turn Afghanistan into a permanent outpost of the US in Eurasia.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist based in Pakistan. His areas of interest include politics of terrorism, global war on terror, ethno-national conflicts, foreign policies of major powers, application and consequences.