Spearhead Analysis – 12.02.2018
By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
The month of January 2018 was tragic for Afghanistan. Reportedly, Taliban forces launched an attack on the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul- killing and injuring several. Few days later, IS reportedly launched a gruesome attack on a ‘Save The Children’ office in Jalalabad- causing several casualties. Towards the end of the month another tragic struck Kabul, when a Taliban suicide bomber reportedly blew up an ambulance filled with explosives. Apart from these three major widely reported tragedies, Afghanistan remained saturated with various attacks and intense fighting amongst security forces, rebel groups and terrorists.
The US approach on the Afghan issue seems divided into two broad camps- one that believes an augmented military approach may extricate the problems and another that believes it is now time to consider devising an appropriate power sharing mechanism to resolve the fundamental Afghan political crisis. The recent spate of attacks seems to have congealed the first notion -as indicated by President Trump towards the end of last month.
The regional players largely believe that a prolonged military approach in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate security issues and instigate regional unrest. However, the latter option also raises difficult questions – especially for the US. Which actors would the new political framework entail? What sort of a power sharing mechanism would be devised to suit interest of national and external players? Which forces would the US engage in dialogue with and who could truly be trusted to ensure US gains are preserved? Several sources claim that rebel forces dominate a significant portion of the Afghan territory; if such is the case, how would a super power justify ‘dialogue’ nationally and globally? How would the -allegedly- strengthened belligerents cooperate with an invading force- on political grounds? What will the various key parties offer each other after years of war and bloodshed?
A genuine effort towards the political-economic and social reconstruction and stability of Afghanistan i will present difficult challenges and necessitate serious, honest and determined efforts by all parties. The reality of this task seems so tedious that it turns prolonged destruction and war as the easier option. Paradoxically, the logical strategic and tactical calculations are being derived from the most optimistic of objectives- one that appears to conveniently subtract uncertainties’ and broader implications stemming from the ideological, religious, cultural, political and socio-economic factors. Nonetheless, despite several years of human losses, desecration of cultures and socio-economic collapses- the super power seems more inclined to do what it knows as opposed to doing what needs to be done.
The US seems unwilling to face Afghan realities for now, the idea is to militarily pacify political opposition in Afghanistan prior to any political ‘reconciliation’. So far, the new administration has sanctioned a moderate troop surge in Afghanistan. The Secretary of Defense, in the past has indicated reconfiguration of existing overseas US forces. Reportedly, the CENTCOM has officially designated Afghanistan and the fight against the Taliban as its “main effort.” And is likely to shift some focus away from Syria and Iraq. The notion of adding more troops in Afghanistan appears to be brewing. Recent reports also suggest that since Trump took office, the US has enhanced air combat in Afghanistan.
The current US approach seems to position Pakistan as part of the problem rather than a solution. There is a sentiment that the US has been unable to devise the correct stick or carrot approach for Pakistan in regards to Afghanistan. Despite the acknowledgement of Pakistan’s sacrifices and understanding the importance of Pak-US ties, a prevailing view supports a coercive stance at least for an initial offset that may ‘help’ in the Afghan arena.
A recent policy brief by Brookings explores some opportunities that may stem from the current US line with Pakistan. One noteworthy aspect of the paper is embedded in the assessment of how much the US truly needs Pakistan today. The author points out the diminished Al-Qaeda threat- that once justified US assistance to Pakistan- stating that ‘ in recent years, as the al Qaida threat has dramatically diminished and the threat to U.S. forces posed by the Haqqani Network has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to justify high levels of security assistance to Pakistan’. The author builds on this assessment and states that “The dissonance of labeling Pakistan a Major Non-NATO Ally and an “essential partner” while declining to certify that it has taken meaningful action against groups that directly threaten U.S. forces in Afghanistan has long been awkward for the United States Government. A conditional aid suspension presents the opportunity to send a message that, while the United States continues to seek a productive relationship with Pakistan, it will no longer pretend that one exists when and where it does not. A complete cessation of all assistance—including defense training and exchanges, counter-narcotics, and broad-based economic support—would arguably undermine U.S. interests over the long term and further disempower Pakistan’s already weak civilian leadership. But by scaling down defense cooperation dollars, the United States can begin to remove an irritant and lay the groundwork for a more realistic relationship.” The current posture towards Pakistan signals U.S. seriousness to India and China. The aid suspension to Pakistan is an opportunity for the United States to send a signal of reassurance to New Delhi that Washington is willing to take tougher measures to induce better behavior from India’s regional rival. China is undertaking multi-billion dollar investments in Pakistan. it could spur China to quietly leverage its influence to encourage positive steps against militant groups. To be clear, these signals to India and China do not come without complications. One domain in which the United States does have significant leverage is with respect to its influence in international financial organizations. It is too early to say whether or not this alters the calculation of decision makers in Pakistan, but— together with the steps in the FATF—it does raise the troubling specter that Pakistan may increasingly find itself isolated from global financial markets.”
All this is supposedly to encourage action against the Haqqani network- which the author and many other prominent analysts suggest- may not serve as a decisive game changer in Afghanistan. Some sources indicate like hood of measures specifically to pinch segments of the Pakistani security establishment.
The Afghan local political crisis is intricate, the country is a victim of multiple power rivalries, years of wars have ripped apart law and order structures and has turned Afghanistan into a hotbed of corruption of terrorism. Despite all these realities, the US seems adamant on its stance. Pakistan maintains its own views and shares reminders of its past advices to the US- if had been followed may have helped bring about Afghan stability.
The element of distrust seems significant in Pak-US ties, the current US signals do not help matters- this needs to be reversed. Pakistan on its part rightly maintains that it is unwilling to fight the Afghan war on its soil- the talks of US unilateral actions is another area. Pak-Afghan ties also took another dip following the latest series of attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s foremost priority should be to ensure that no external power or non-state actor foments political- social and economic unrest in the country. In the light of this objective, Pakistan needs a realistic re-assessment of its relation with the US and simultaneously deepen its regional ties. Pak-US dialogue must prevail in order to find common ground. Owing to deeper historical, cultural and topographical understandings- a prominent segment in Pakistan supports a political solution for the Afghan crisis- Pakistan needs to make a stronger case of its own assessments and think about what workable framework of progression it can devise with US.