Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” This sums up Pakistan’s perspective of US President Donald Trump’s Afghan policy. After sixteen years of war costing one trillion dollars to the American exchequer, Trump has opted for the tried, tested and failed formula of conflict militarisation in Afghanistan. At the same time, he has accused Pakistan of “harbouring terrorists”, and urged India to play a larger role in stabilising Afghanistan.
Trump’s convenient but unsurprising scapegoating of Pakistan for American failures in Afghanistan is unfortunate. Instead of blaming Pakistan, the US needs a reality check and serious introspection. It is not Pakistan’s but America’s inconsistent policies and impatient approach that have destabilised Afghanistan.
Since 2009, the US policy in Afghanistan has changed every year. For instance, in 2009, the Obama administration opted for troop surge arguing there were not enough boots on the ground to win the war. In 2010, the US focus shifted to poppy eradication, which was deemed as the main factor that fuelled the Taliban insurgency. Then in 2011, the US developed an obsession with the rampant corruption in Kabul that undermined the US nation-building efforts.
Unable to break the deadlock of the Afghan conflict militarily, in 2012, the US reached out to Pakistan to pursue political reconciliation with the Taliban. The then Pakistan army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, handed over his White Paper to President Obama as a blue print for Afghan reconciliation. In 2013, the US paradoxically adopted the policy of fight-and-talk simultaneously. In 2014, the US and Nato forces started pulling out from Afghanistan and handed over the security responsibilities to the Afghan forces. However, in 2015 and 2016, as opposed to his original plan of keeping 1,000 US troops in Afghanistan, President Obama stationed 8,000 US and 4,000 Nato troops under the Resolute Support Mission.
With his Afghan policy, Trump has revived the fight-fight approach as the war in Afghanistan comes full circle. It is not hard to imagine that 15,000 foreign troops would not be able to gain what 150,000 international troops failed to achieve. It will give the Taliban all the more reasons to continue their armed struggle. Trump will deny the Taliban an outright military victory with 15,000 troops, but he is unlikely to gain a position of strength to force the Taliban to the negotiation table.
It is over-simplistic to assume that the US lost the war in Afghanistan because of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. The cross-border sanctuaries are not a game changer for the Taliban’s battlefield victories in Afghanistan. Today, more than more than 40 percent of Afghan territory is under the Taliban’s control and they do not need safe havens in Pakistan to continue the war. In addition, the Taliban have diversified their regional links with Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and Qatar to minimise their sole reliance on Pakistan. Given this evolving regional dynamics of the Afghan conflict, expanding Afghanistan’s war inside Pakistan will be counterproductive.
Notwithstanding Pakistan’s efforts to facilitate Afghan political reconciliation, on the US insistence, it was backstabbed twice. In 2015, the disclosure of Mullah Umar’s death during the Murree Peace talks between the representatives of the Taliban and Afghan government derailed the peace process, which had been looking promising. The jury is still out on who leaked the news and who benefited from it. On the second occasion, Islamabad was betrayed when the US droned Mullah Umar’s successor Akhtar Mansour to death in Balochistan when he was returning from Iran. Following Mansour’s death, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG)-led peace process – comprising China, Pakistan, US and Afghanistan – crashed.
The American demand of increased cooperation from Pakistan while ignoring the latter’s legitimate security concerns in Afghanistan is foolhardy. Washington’s backing for New Delhi to play a larger security role in Afghanistan will fuel the India-Pakistan proxy war.
Moreover, the US threat of blocking military and civilian aid cuts no ice with Pakistan. Aid is a political tool that the Trump administration is leveraging to force Pakistan for desirable cooperation. Of all the American financial assistance that Pakistan has received since 9/11, 60 percent is military and 40 percent is civilian. The military aid paid under the Coalition Supports Fund (CSF) is reimbursement of the expenditure that the Pakistan Army spends in counter-terrorism operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. As far as civilian aid is concerned, 80 percent of it goes back to the US in consultancy overhead cost and only 15-20 percent is spent in Pakistan. Moreover, the aid that Washington provides Pakistan is not for egalitarian reasons, but to enhance its own security and global image.
Everyone wants peace in Afghanistan but on their own terms. Pakistan believes the path to Afghan reconciliation goes through Islamabad and requires power sharing with the Taliban. The Trump administration believes it can kill its way to victory by ramping up the war effort and keep the Taliban out of power. Similarly, New Delhi and Kabul want peace in Afghanistan sans the Afghan Taliban.
In such a situation, Afghanistan requires a new political vision at the local, regional and international levels. The Taliban are a hard reality that will not evaporate into thin air with Trump’s Afghan policy. Eventually, Kabul and Washington will have to sit with them on the negotiation table.
Conflict militarisation is counterproductive and the mutual blame game will only embolden the peace spoilers in Afghanistan. All wars have ended with negotiations and the Afghan war is not an anomaly to this historical reality.
The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.