Lieutenant General McMaster, the co-author of counter-insurgency manual ‘FM3-24’, has conducted his first tour of Pakistan as the US national security adviser.
He is credited with bringing the much-needed balance and sobriety in the US National Security Secretariat, which lay in clear and present danger of being run over by the likes of Steve Bannon who were mere parvenus in the field of domestic and international security.
After bringing back National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford to the Principals Committee, the US foreign and security policies promised to be realigned as per the vision and intellect of one of the most perspicacious US national security advisers.
In FM 3-24, the US vade mecum on counter-insurgency, McMaster had sketched out a vision and strategy on countering insurgency and its causes by focusing both on hard and soft power variables of the power equation of a conflict. Drawing deep on his Iraq War experience, McMaster had applied some of the lessons he learnt to the Afghan conflict that included investment in the Afghan security forces, the focus on tribal cultural dynamics and the engagement of Pakistan as a useful ally.
The author of Dereliction of Duty – the most candid post-mortem of the US military follies in the Vietnam War after Barbara Tuchman’s classic The March of Folly – is expected to be aware of the witches’ brew that the Afghan conflict has become. He is also expected to know that no war in Afghanistan has ever been won without the support of one or two regional states, which still fish in the troubled Afghan waters. A few remain bit players while others call the real shots in the conflict. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 – and the subsequent deposition of the Afghan Taliban government – the US has become the most important power broker in the region due to its military presence in the country and its affiliation with a UN-backed but self-installed National Unity Government.
However, the US suffers from the classic ‘Occupiers’ Curse’, which has afflicted every intruder in Afghan politics since time immemorial. It is up against a curious miasma of Afghan nationalism – which reeks of tribal atavism and sub-national revanchism – rising out of the age-old rivalries among the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks and the Pakhtuns. The US is slowly, yet surely, sinking deep into the Afghan quagmire. This is curiously reminiscent of the implacable march of policy errors and follies that McMaster had captured with such perspicuity in his book on the Vietnam War.
After the US, Pakistan is the thousand pound guerilla in the conflictual matrix whose role continues to draw sceptical comments from the US policy elite who are unfortunately besotted with India that offers the mouth-watering mirage of Chinese containment. But since all mirages are illusions, the US has not and is neither expected to find much tangible support from India whose Afghan involvement has stoked more divisiveness and rancor amongst the Afghans.
Although it has built roads, schools and other infrastructure items, India remains forlorn in Afghanistan, ever fearful of Alexander the Great’s foreboding” “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans”. And, despite pouring over $2 billion in infrastructural development and earning $10 billion through iron ore mining contracts, India is fearful of Taliban vengeance. Seeing the inefficacy of the Afghan National Defence Forces, the writing is very much on the wall for all foreign interlopers.
The recent attack on the 209th Afghan Army Shaheen Corps base camp near Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh is ostensibly a reprisal for the killing of two Afghan Taliban shadow governors in the northern provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan – which resulted in over 130 deaths. It speaks of the rapidly rising tide of the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban will not approve of any Indian role in the Afghan politics and thereby make Indian presence in Afghanistan untenable. This leaves the Chinese, Iranians and Russians – who for their own strategic reasons would like to woo the likely winners of the Afghan power contest. The Iranian affiliation for the former Northern Alliance faction leaves it as an ineffectual actor since it wields no influence over the Taliban, the largest faction in the Afghan conflict. Russia – due to unexorcised ghosts of the Soviet-era excesses in Afghanistan – wields limited clout and is hamstrung by its policy ambivalence of wooing the Central Asian States away from South and West Asia.
Now the Chinese with their One Road One Belt (OBOR) initiative are the only country with the economic muscle and the will to expand towards the West and South Asia. Afghanistan also forms an important node of the multi-strand Silk Route. The Chinese will definitely pitch for peace in Afghanistan since a perpetual conflict in the country could derail their CPEC and OBOR ambitions.
Now after a tour d’horizon of political and economic interests of the regional and global powers, it becomes evident that Pakistan emerges as the most important country whose political and economic fate stays entwined with its Western neighbour. Despite frequent reminders of Afghan irredentism, the ethnic, religious and linguistic ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan remain stronger than ever. If there is any country that can shape the contours of the present Afghan conflict, it is Pakistan.
It is therefore surprising why a perceptive US national security adviser such as McMaster comes and lectures Pakistan on proxy wars instead of leveraging Pakistan’s immense clout in bringing the recalcitrant Afghan Taliban on the negotiating table. The US should realise that it cannot win the Afghan conflict without Pakistan and that Pakistan – despite public displays of US phobia – still wants to play that role with the US to help bring peace in Afghanistan.
The US needs to also understand that Sino-Pak collaboration over CPEC is an economic imperative and is in no way a threat to it. Instead, it is in the interest of Pakistan to stay engaged with the US in a collaborative relationship to help restore peace in Afghanistan. Instead of raising expensive rings around China and Af-Pak, the US will be best served through a win-win strategy based on a cooperative engagement with China and Pakistan. Pakistan can help the US achieve Afghan peace where all others have failed. Why the US is failing to read the tea leaves is not a riddle unsolvable by the acumen of a Mcmaster.
The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.