Trump Administration has so far failed to finalise its much-awaited new Afghan Policy because of internal discord. Even though the President had authorised the defense secretary (retired) general Mattis to deploy more troops up to a maximum of 3900, yet the general has not exercised this authority in the absence of president’s buy-in of his plans. The strategy being evolved is essentially along the lines of what Lt. General McMaster, the National Security Advisor (NSA) had suggested in May, aimed at: (1) maintaining an indefinite status quo through reinforcement; (2) pushing back Taliban momentum; and (3) to eventually for negotiating from a position of strength, which some say means a permanent US presence in Afghanistan.
NSA is carrying a grudge from Obama days when he approved a surge while putting a date for withdrawal. The generals disliked the deadline saying that Taliban would wait them out. [A view not proved on the ground, as Taliban continued to fight the surge].
A well-publicised policy meeting of the principals chaired by Trump at the Pentagon on 17 July not only failed to produce an agreement but reports say serious questions were raised and invectives exchanged among the participants.
At least four factors are impinging on this development: One, the president has been upset with the assessment of a ‘stalemate’ and ‘not-winning’ the war. He wants to know what has been going on in the last 17 years. But for Mattis’ support, he nearly fired the commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson. The President, one report suggested, has even considered the option to pull out from Afghanistan; Second, the proposal of maintaining the ‘status-quo’ is out of sync with president’s campaign rhetoric where he repeatedly denounced the nation-building approach his predecessors had deployed; Third, a Bannon-Kushner sponsored idea has been floated to privatise the surge to Blackwater and Dyn Corporation, the private contractors who have previously earned infamy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with their aggressive and insensitive activities in the war zones. Finally, the disarray in the White House has imperiled policy making, in general, and war planning, in particular. After the recent personnel changes, supporters of president in the media have started targeting NSA, and many believe his chances of survival look bleak.
In the meanwhile, Taliban momentum is getting strengthened with more than 2500 Afghan soldiers and police killed in the period January 1 to May 8. Despite being in a non-combat mode, US soldiers are still dying with 9 killed so far, which is as much as killed in 2016. The paralyzed Kabul administration is in no position to withstand this onslaught as it remains crippled with internal feuds and blaming others for their flops. The failures of US intervention noted in the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Report of 17 January 2017 is not addressed anywhere. Some critical areas include: (1) Despite huge sums spent on building their capacity, Afghan Forces are not capable to stem the constant loss of Afghan territory; (2) Corruption continues to be one of the most serious threats to the US-funded Afghanistan reconstruction effort weakening legitimacy and giving credence to Taliban narrative; and (3) Cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs puts the entire U.S. investment at risk. Despite spending $8.5 billion committed for counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, the country still leads the world in opium production, and Afghan farmers are growing more opium than ever. Taliban are frequently benefiting by participating in and taxing the illicit narcotics trade, raising the question of whether the Afghan government can ever prevail without tackling the narcotics problem.
With such indictment of the state of US reconstruction effort in the last 16 years, there has to be an honest soul searching. An intervention that started in the aftermath of 9/11 and against Al-Qaida remains an undefined and moving target for successive administrations. Laurel Miller, the Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), who just completed her four years in the office (before it was shut-down last June) has following to say on the on-going policy review during a long radio interview on 24 July:
“I’ll say a couple things that I learned…. I very distinctly remember when I first was working in the SRAP office in the middle of 2013, and there was another policy review going on ….. it was my first interagency meeting…… And the other people at the table had all been at this for a while. And the discussion started with, “What exactly are our vital national interests in Afghanistan?” And I thought to myself, as someone coming in from outside, from a think tank, “I’d assumed they knew that by 2013.” I was shocked. I thought, “How can these people be sitting around the table asking what are our vital national interests in Afghanistan? It’s 2013.” Here we are in 2017, and we’re asking that question again.”
The idea of privatising the fresh military initiative is a result of White House’s frustration from lack of options. Clearly, as analysts say, this would be even worse than the indefinite status quo as it would introduce many imponderables as to who really is fighting and for what purpose. The President is therefore not buying the option of indefinite US commitment and has not owned the privatisation proposal either. Undoubtedly, he recognises that of the many risks that US faces globally which place justifies most the use of political capital for military action. Certainly, for the President nothing reminds him from his campaign promises that Afghanistan is one such place. But the military bureaucracy would not easily give-in from its resolve to pursue the option of indefinite war in Afghanistan.
It is therefore not surprising that General McMaster is again ranting about Pakistan’s “paradoxical” policies. Also, in line with the sentiments expressed in the joint statement on the eve of Indian PM’s US visit, Washington is continuing to press Pakistan on matters that are concerns relations between India and Pakistan. These messages were reinforced during the recent visit of Acting Assistant Secretary Ms. Allice Wells to Islamabad. Experts say that such one-sided pressures would not help the US in pursuit of its objectives in Afghanistan or in enlisting Pakistan’s support in general. Some segments of public opinion in Pakistan, not entirely sympathetic to the US point of view, have started clamoring that the US in fact wants to appoint India as the hegemon of Afghanistan. The closer US would align its policies to the objectives of Indian policy in the region the more this view would gain credence, hurting US interests in Afghanistan.
The hiatus in finalising the strategy should give Pakistan some breathing space to put its own house in order. With a new minister in place, the Foreign Office should adopt a clear stance on Pakistan policy on Afghanistan. The earlier it formulated a well-defined stance, spelling out the red lines of Pakistan’s cooperation, the sooner the rhetoric about Pakistan’s role would be stopped.
Finally, it would be useful to know that Laurel Miller had one more advice in her long interview. She said she was never as convinced in the past as at present that the only solution to Afghanistan is a dialogue among all stakeholders and that once US puts its weight behind it seriously, the process would start.