Time to adopt a realistic approach to Afghanistan

Time to adopt a realistic approach to Afghanistan

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

There isn’t probably any option left that the US might not have used to turn its Afghan debacle into a victory, or even a semblance of it. The search for victory in a war increasingly becoming unwinnable has not only cost thousands of lives and caused economic damage worth billions; it has equally intensified the tussle for power among regional states and stakeholder, pitting the erstwhile ‘allies’ against each other. By now, it must be clear to all the parties, especially the US and the US-backed Afghan regime, that the tide cannot be turned just by playing the notorious blame-game, spotlighting Pakistan for its ‘lack of action’ against the Afghanistan based Taliban. Pakistan, on the other hand, has its own concerns vis-à-vis the Afghanistan based militants of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other groups.  Afghanistan is, therefore, a quagmire, and a way out of it demands a realistic approach, an approach that goes well beyond demands of ‘do-more’ and simple accusations of ‘external support’ to the Taliban.

The primary question is: can the US’ ‘tough’ approach to Pakistan yield any meaningful results? Alternatively speaking, can the US really afford to sideline Pakistan, include India in Afghanistan, and expect to launch its so-called surge in Afghanistan?

There is a massive contradiction in the US approach, and the US policy makers are only beginning to make sense of the situation. The question that Trump was unable to address and integrate in his in-famous policy speech was of how to manage the surge without Pakistan. More troops in Afghanistan means more need of supplies and logistics. Given the fact that Pakistan continues to be the primary route of supplies for the US troops in Afghanistan, the US needs to engage Pakistan and integrate its role rather than create a gap by levelling unrealistic accusations, accusations that least seem to take Pakistan’s own sensitivities and interests into account.

Should, therefore, the US and Afghanistan not approach Pakistan? It seems the sooner this is done, the better. In fact, this was the message Pakistan’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Lt Gen (R) Nasser Khan Janjua conveyed to the US ambassador to Pakistan in their last meeting on August 31, 2017.

That meeting did not only bring to limelight the different approaches both Pakistan and the US are currently following in Afghanistan and the way both countries understand the conflict, but also revealed in an unambiguous manner that Pakistan does not see that the incumbent Afghan regime is really capable of leading the peace process. Hence, Pakistan’s emphasis on establishing a “parallel political authority” in Afghanistan fully empowered by the US, which would work in tandem to military commanders to help find a peaceful, political solution to the conflict, and bring the perpetual conflict in Afghanistan to a quick closure.

What is obviously clear here is that Pakistan does not believe that the US, with or without ‘surge’, can win this war. What Pakistan, therefore, sees as the only viable solution is quick end to the war, followed by full US withdrawal.

It is perhaps for the first time that Pakistan has openly expressed its position on how the conflict in Afghanistan can be brought to end. This position, however, does not seem to suit the position of Kabul in the overall matrix of political power and the imperative of war.

Afghan regime, for obvious reasons, remains crucially dependent upon the US for political, economic and military support. Afghan security forces are far from capable enough to force the Taliban into negotiations. Therefore, with Pakistan emphasising the need for “parallel political authority” and the imperative of “quick closure” to the conflict, the Kabul regime has all the reasons to oppose rather than approach Pakistan as its partner and ally.

A US withdrawal through a negotiated end of the war means massive political and constitutional changes in Afghanistan, changes that would also see the war-lords ridden Afghan government coming to a potential closure and replacement by, however inefficient and fragile, a relatively more inclusive government.

That a negotiated end of the war would trigger massive changes is evident from the recently revealed Afghan Taliban’s list of demands. Among other things, the list includes “constitutional guarantees”, establishment of neutral and interim government to oversee elections, and the establishment of special courts that would oversee thousands of cases of land-grab by the elite and powerful war-lords in the post-Taliban era, many of them being currently part of the Kabul regime.

Given that the Taliban’s demands run deeply counter to the interests of the Kabul regime, which is a little more than a hotchpotch of conflicting ethnic interests, it is difficult to imagine the regime surrendering power and patronage to a neutral government, let alone one that in future would inevitably have to include the Taliban as well.

Given the scenario prevailing within Afghanistan, what the US must consider is that neither a ‘surge’ nor a blame-game would work to their advantage unless a practical and realistic policy and mechanism of dialogue is envisaged and operationalized.

The US president, Donald Trump, has already hinted that “victory” in Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily mean a military defeat of the Taliban’; it can also mean a ‘safe-exit’ from Afghanistan and the establishment of a government that, according to Trump, might also include Taliban elements.

What the US president, however, didn’t talk about was a non-military mechanism of starting negotiations. The US has already consumed 16 years and the search for a military solution i.e., victory has been futile. Time is now to fundamentally review the old approach and take into account a bit more realistic and grounded approach to the conflict, one that caters to the sensitives of different stakeholders in Afghanitan.

A mere ‘tough’ approach to Pakistan and relentless support to the deeply corrupt Kabul regime would only delay the inevitable: full withdrawal.