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November 28, 2017

Where the limit lies


November 28, 2017


A notable difference between Donald Trump’s Afghan policy and the policies pursued by his two predecessors is evident in its being bereft of any ideological mooring.
The new US administration has inherited the war in Afghanistan and it will either continue to slog it out if needed or declare a victory at some stage if it can. The specific policy options ensuing from Trump’s highbrow review statement have emerged gradually – most notably at a press briefing last week by the commander of US forces in Afghanistan.
Gen John Nicholson announced that the US forces would help their Afghan counterparts increase their control from roughly 60 percent to 80 percent of the territory within two years. He claimed that achieving this goal would enable the US and Afghan forces “to drive the enemy to irrelevance” where the latter would have to either “reconcile or die”.
What are the prospects of realising this objective with a force level of 11,000 troops – which have been raised by 3,000 more troops under the Trump administration – when the US was unable to root out the insurgency with a force level of over 10,000 troops from 2009 onwards.
To begin with, the US could opt for a more offensive mode than what has been seen in recent years. The Pentagon is directing more intelligence assets and firepower to Afghanistan as the success against the IS in Iraq and Syria has freed up resources. This has allowed them to increase US air strikes to the highest level this year since 2012.
The intensification of US operations notwithstanding, there are many people in the US – including civil and military officers as well as legislators and analysts – who believe that Afghanistan’s war can’t be won militarily as long as the Taliban benefit from safe havens in Pakistan. After several months of reflection and discussion, Trump articulated a stricter policy towards Pakistan in last August. US officials maintain that there is no meaningful shift in

Islamabad against insurgents who are using Pakistan as a hub for attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan insists that there are neither safe havens nor any form of Taliban infrastructure on its soil. In other words, these are pretexts advanced to cover the inability of the US and Afghan forces in curbing Taliban attacks. Kabul and Washington look askance when Islamabad stresses the need of effective border controls through measures including fencing. Pakistan’s patience showed its limits when the civilian and military leadership retorted that the country had done more than its share in combating terrorism and it was time for others to ‘do more’.
The Afghan army is hardly a national force as it suffers from divisions and structural issues, including desertions, high casualty rates, illiteracy, corruption and a lack of tribal ties to areas where they operate. How Gen Nicholson expects this army to hold 80 percent of the country’s population defies credulity. But he has other plans – like bombing scores of opium factories that provide financial resources to the Taliban.
Washington has realised that there are limits to Islamabad’s tolerance to the use of its megaphone diplomacy to shift the blame for its own failure in Afghanistan on Pakistan. The US now appears to be ready to go on offering carrots of aid to Pakistan while brandishing the stick of action where they see us failing to interdict insurgent movements in Pakistan. At the Track-II meeting in Islamabad earlier this month, the US side warned that Pakistan had a “window of six to 12 months” to take strict action against the Taliban and the Haqqani Network elements on its soil before the US implements the stick approach.
The US could resort to drone strikes in the tribal as well as settled areas of KP and Balochistan. That would undoubtedly exacerbate tensions between both countries. The US could also sanction military or intelligence officials who it believes have clear ties with militants. Further punitive actions could include the termination of Pakistan’s major non-Nato ally status.
Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington –who, along with Raoof Hassan, co-chaired the fourth round of Track-II dialogue – was of the view that if the US wants to ramp up pressure, it could start the procedure to declare Pakistan “a state sponsor of terrorism” in a year or two. But Kugelman conceded that Pakistan might retaliate by shutting down Nato supply routes. As it stands, alternative routes are quite expensive and inconvenient.
American participants at the dialogue took note of Pakistan’s adverse reaction to Washington demanding the expansion of India’s role in Afghanistan. Some of them felt the US ought to ask India to shun the sponsoring of actions against Pakistan. The US is working on India building better communications with Pakistan that could eventually lead to the resumption of the stalled bilateral dialogue.
This was confirmed by the US ambassador to Pakistan. Ambassador Hale was nonetheless quick to reaffirm the US demand for Pakistan to show “equal diligence” in fighting all terrorist groups attacking neighbouring countries from its soil. This has assumed greater urgency with the release of Jamaatud Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed. Washington has also lost no time in issuing a warning that the Pak-US ties could be affected if Islamabad does not re-arrest and prosecute him on terrorism charges.
Trump’s press secretary stated that Hafiz Saeed’s freedom “belies Pakistani claims that it will not provide [a] sanctuary for terrorists”. The State Department also expressed deep concern at Saeed’s release and called for him to be arrested and charged by Pakistan. He has been specifically accused of being involved in the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, which resulted in the death of 166 people – including six Americans.
The overall situation of Pakistan has worsened with the government’s helplessness in restoring order that was disrupted by the dharna in Islamabad. Its effort to clear the Faizabad Interchange had the effect of stoking reactions in the form of more sit-ins and roadblocks. The generally poor impression of Pakistan’s weakness has only worsened in recent days. Rex Tillerson has expressed Washington’s concern over extremist groups threatening the “stability and security” of the government in Pakistan.
Alarm bells are ringing louder than ever for the state to take concerted actions to curb the threats posed by non-state actors.
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