US, Pakistan and Afghanistan : The many faces of truth

To assess the future relationship between Trump led USA and Pakistan, and their respective policies in Afghanistan, Washington needs to view the bigger picture; political, economic and the security dynamics in Afghanistan.

There are many players in Afghanistan today; Russia, India, China, Saudi Arab, the local drug mafia and warlords. Russia and Iran are reportedly funding the Taliban. India has a two-pronged interest in Afghanistan. She has feared Pakistan’s use of Afghanistan as strategic depth against her. Modi’s India is also ambitious with designs to emerge as the regional power. The Pakistani security establishment has often accused RAW of creating unrest in Baluchistan.

Pakistan on the other hand has been accused of supporting Taliban. The logic presented is that Taliban is seen as first line of defense against any threat from India. Pakistan actively supported CIA in creation of Mujahedeen to combat Russia in Afghanistan- however, ground realities as they stand today in Afghanistan are different.

Using Afghanistan soil for proxy war in the long run is detrimental for US, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US has spent billions of dollars in the long drawn out war in Afghanistan, thousands of US soldiers have laid down their lives in this war. An ongoing continuation of the war with no end in sight without any long-term, sustainable gains is self-defeating. Owing to the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, unrest in Afghanistan has been having a spillover effect in Pakistan and vice versa. Due to the porous border, movement of members of Taliban from one country to the other is easy. However, the nations that stand to gain from this ongoing situation are Russia, Saudi Arab and India.

“Pakistan needs to get out of its in-depth strategic cliché vis-à-vis Afghanistan that has at long last proved to be neither here nor there. How fallacious it was can be seen by the fact that first the Taliban terrorists used Pakistan as their strategic depth and now India has found its strategic depth in Afghanistan to negate Pakistan’s regional importance,” says Wajid Shamsul Hasan, former High Commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom.

Afghan government is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Her state institutions are weak. The last scenario desired by US would be to see a resurging of Taliban that can cause a complete breakdown of the state. According to a report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Afghan government controls just over 65% of the covered area. Other reports claim Taliban controlled area to be over 40%.

The US under Trump needs to be very careful in weighing its options in Afghanistan. It is today’s reality that world order and alliances are undergoing a transformation. We are no longer a part of a world with one super power overshadowing others: America. Russia under Putin has reemerged as a power. China is coming up very strongly and pushing the’ One Belt One Road’ crossing her borders and Saudi Arab’s growth in spreading her ideology are ground realities.

Trump will be well advised to realize that Afghanistan has her own set of dynamics and geographical location, Whatever US policy may be in relation to the Gulf crisis must not be allowed to overshadow her policy in Afghanistan.

Its first policy option in this regard is to increase boots on ground or to withdraw the forces leaving a nominal number on ground. In the first scenario it is a military option that has proved not to deliver. In the second scenario it can be undertaken only once a negotiated withdrawal takes place.

The second option is putting pressure on Pakistan, as some in US have for long suggested. This is looking at the Afghan issue with a tunnel vision. Taken out of the total equation, this squeeze will not only not work; it will be viewed as an approach clearly violating Pakistan’s interests in her own survival. It can only push Pakistan towards protecting her interests and US will be alienating Pakistan which will not be in her interest. The US needs to be seen to understand Pakistan’s concerns. Pakistan is, as it is, uncomfortable about the apparent closeness of US and India led by their present heads.

The third option is to reach a political settlement. After all the wars are fought and after the dust has settled, this is still the road to resolve a given situation. Taliban have to be part of the settlement. With a weak government structure, corruption, drug mafia and warlords, it will not be an easy task. Governance reform should be a priority. Announcing troop withdrawal [whenever it may be] way ahead of time can only undermine the peace process.

None of the above issues will be resolved if there are piece meal understandings excluding other stakeholders. The process needs to be transparent between all the stakeholders. All need to be made part of the solution, not the problem.