The US Afghan Policy divides

Spearhead Analysis – 18.08.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The US administration is currently a divided house on how to tackle the Afghanistan issue. The President’s simple demand of “wanting the US to win, eliminating terrorism and trusting his generals to take the lead” creates a unique paradox when all this needs to be done using the most cost effective methods that aspire to rebuild America first.   His vision naturally requires a broad-based joint effort from the military, the diplomats, domestic business and the intelligence community. However, it so far seems that the options provided by the various sections remain ideologically divided.

Options ranging from enhancing use of decisive force, to an enduring US stay, to complete withdrawal, to utilizing alternate security mechanisms have been postulated. At a recent press conference, General Mattis said that the strategic decisions are yet to be finalized, and all options are being ‘sharpened’ to better assess their utility. The Generals in command largely view Afghanistan to be of immense strategic importance to US and call for an enduring stay. General McMaster in 2015 is reported to have said that “fewer and fewer Americans understand what is at stake in the wars we are engaged in”.

Their approach seems to be divided in three key progressive stages: firstly, the Military; secondly, the Diplomatic; thirdly, the Economic. The NSA has pitched to Trump the idea of an open-ended US commitment in Afghanistan and reversing the battle field dynamics that would, in turn, compel the Taliban to enter into negotiations from a position of weakness. It has also been noted that McMaster wanted to get his version of the Afghan Strategy approved prior to the NATO conference in May in order to show US resolve to EU partners and gain their support. But, despite the fact that the President -on McMasters suggestion-  handed over the ‘force management’ authority to the Pentagon, they were still unable to converge on the final strategy. It is said that Mattis- who also supports a troop surge to enhance advise and assist missions to Afghan forces- is reluctant to use that authority yet, due to the absence of a coherent strategy supported by the President.

However, something still remains amiss with the President- who may not be entirely convinced by the Generals’ overall approach. The Presidents frustration becomes more apparent when reports of his outburst at a recent meeting circulated. During which, he demanded to know why the US has been unable to win in the past 17 years, questioned the demands for more troops, and wanted to place Nicholson’s head on the chopping board for allegedly not doing enough.

In February 2017, General Nicholson had also presented his assessment and asked for several thousand troops to break the stalemate.  Some reports suggest that Trump is still contemplating on making some personnel changes – by making Mike Pompeo the new NSA and McMaster to replace Nicholson in Afghanistan.  

At the Diplomatic end too, Trump’s vision is on a collision path with that of the Generals– who view expedited efforts for reconciliation and getting regional players on board as essential, once the battlefield dynamics have shifted in the military’s favor.  The ‘South Asian Policy’- is also said to include diplomacy with Pakistan, India and even Iran eventually-in relation to Afghanistan. But that too sees difficulty owing to clashing policy choices and slashing of the State Department’s budget.

In regards to Pakistan, it is believed that a tougher line is likely to be taken until a ‘change in behavior’ is noticed. McMaster, during a recent TV interview said that while Pakistan has taken great losses, the issue of ‘selectivity’ remains and that is the area where he and the President would like to see changes happen. Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Laurel Miller, also raised her concerns over the closing of SRAP office, and added that McMasters propositions are unlikely to turn around the conflict in Afghanistan, as essentially ‘no new trick’ is being used.

The Third stage of the approach focuses on economic gains, this is perhaps where Trump’s fixation lies. It has been reported that during his meeting with the National Security Team, Trump vehemently raised such concerns and said “China is making money off of Afghanistan’s $1 trillion in rare minerals while American troops are fighting the war”. However, many believe that such projects are not feasible yet, owing to the security conditions – retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey recently said that acquiring mineral rights in Afghanistan is complicated and costly. It requires a certain type of security- which the US has not been able to achieve yet, neither is there any reliable workforce nor a port for shipments.

Given Trump’s concerns it is not surprising why the White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has been able to resonate with Trump on some levels. Bannon’s collaboration with Erik Prince and Feinberg essentially claims to tackle security and economic issues simultaneously. The vision Prince laid out in his recent op-ed suggests providing ‘reliable logistics and aviation support’ to the ANSF, while monitoring a new effort to exploit the country’s mineral wealth, an aggressive air campaign to target the Taliban– all this is to be done under the supervision of an American ‘viceroy’. In another address Prince stated that approximately 22,000 contractors are already present in Afghanistan- thus the effort is merely to modify and further enhance their roles.

Steve Feinberg too, has been noted for his recent active lobbying to sell the idea to key officials in the military and intelligence circles. But, this option so far is not gaining enough traction with the Generals – Mattis is said to have ‘heard the option but politely declined it’- some believe that the Iraq tragedy has largely diminished Mattis’s faith in this concept.  Nicholson too, recently refused to meet Prince to discuss his proposal of a 90 plane private air force for Afghanistan. Furthermore, many remain concerned over the legal aspects of such a move as the ‘contractors’ do not fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which could further complicate the situation.

In the midst of these strategic challenges, Senator McCain- seemingly sick of it all- has devised his own Afghan Strategy. He criticized Trump for his failure to come up with any coherent plan in the past 7 months. He outlined his plan as an amendment to the NDAA 2018– which will be debated upon in September. The contours of his strategy seem largely aligned with the path preferred by the Generals.

McCain has also stated that in the past few months the security condition in Afghanistan has further deteriorated. Generals’ McMaster and Mattis, interestingly are trying their best to keep the negative perceptions at bay by covering up the internal disparities in views. Lately, both have been perpetuating the notion of ‘there is a method to this madness and that this time they don’t want to tell the enemy anything’– perhaps this may eventually happen at the tactical end.

But, at this point, it is essential for the US to get its own house in order by coherently defining its objectives and synthesizing approaches accordingly. Reconciliation efforts seem to be a secondary stage in all visible options, so far. The US-Pak relations could also experience some turbulence. However, Pakistan, on its end needs to watch all developments, develop its contingency plans and seek to converge with US on security, diplomatic and economic fronts.