A little more than three months ago, President Trump announced his South Asia Strategy involving Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. The plan’s focus was the Afghan quagmire that keeps America trapped in the longest war in its history.
India’s reaction has been positive to it. Pakistan has shown anger and unhappiness. Afghanistan, the very center of the strategy, has remained indifferent. Washington’s implementation of the strategy has up to now been focused on the military aspect of the design. Neglecting the political and economic plan will cause it to fail.
Above all, the U.S. must carefully look into the historic enigmas that to a considerable degree shape the region’s political behavior. Otherwise, the strategy will degenerate in the region’s ancient acrimonies and fail to advance toward a satisfactory conclusion of the Afghan war.
As mentioned, the military element is progressing as planned. The dispatch of 3,000 U.S. troops to and reinforcement of U.S. air power in Afghanistan is in progress. A few days ago, NATO also decided to send 3,000 soldiers to that country.
General John Nicholson, the American commander of all foreign troops in Afghanistan, has received a wide latitude on deciding when and where to deploy his forces. Reversing the order that disallowed the international military to join the battle against the Taliban, leaving the fighting to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), General Nicholson is now free to reengage the Taliban in support of the ANSF whenever necessary.
These measures will probably halt the Taliban’s relentless expansion across the Afghan countryside.
India, the winning party of President Trump’s strategy, has shown itself quite upbeat about its long-hoped-for opportunity to take the lead from Pakistan in their rivalry over Afghanistan.
Using the somewhat unexpected and for India potentially beneficial American resolve to plant its Afghanistan policy in the supposedly more fertile Indian soil, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed to Iran. In an elaborate function, he and Iranian President Rouhani, inaugurated Chabahar, an Iranian seaport on the Gulf of Oman. Over the past decade, India and Iran have expanded this port, rendering it capable of accommodating today’s large vessels. Prior to leaving for Iran, Mr. Modi had already dispatched from an Indian port a ship loaded with wheat to Chabahar.
This shipment of wheat was intended to serve two highly symbolic ends: First, as the cargo was a gift to the Afghan people, it was to demonstrate India’s goodwill toward Afghanistan. Second, it was to exhibit that India no longer needed transit facilities through Pakistan to trade with Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. Chabahar also frees landlocked Afghanistan from having to rely on Pakistani transit rights for its exports and imports, a development that will greatly reduce Pakistan’s importance as a main regional transit route.
As much as India is bullish about the Trump strategy, Pakistan feels isolated and even betrayed by Washington. President Trump’s open accusation of Pakistan’s collusion with the Taliban, has caused Pakistan to react in three ways:
- First, it has ordered the Taliban to increase violent activities. Consequently, the Taliban has accelerated the numbers of its suicide attacks inside Afghanistan;
- Second, Islamabad plans to speed up the implementation of the vast infrastructure projects that China has agreed to finance at the cost of some $45 billion;
- Third, it has opted politically to go on the offensive.
When Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Pakistan for discussions about the new American strategy, Islamabad accused India of penetrating its territory from Afghanistan and engaging in terrorist activities inside Pakistan. It flatly denied helping the Taliban and rejected the accusation that the Haqqani network was based in Pakistan, arguing that the Haqqanis and the Taliban controlled 40% of Afghanistan’s territory and didn’t need to operate out of Pakistan.
Recently, Islamabad also announced that it would shoot down any drones violating its airspace. This warning is directed towards America as U.S. drones have been active over Pakistan with Islamabad’s silent acquiescence.
As for Afghanistan, there’s really not much to say. It is both the center and the weakest link of the strategy. The only thing that is being asked from the Afghan government is to fight corruption and introduce better overall governance so that American financial support does not end up in the pockets of government official and a few strongmen supporting the regime.
So far, there’s no sign of any movement in that direction. As usual, Afghan leaders continue their unending fight for their own preservation and seem not to mind that their country is a beggar nation. They receive enough money to sustain their incompetent bureaucracy, maintain their armored cars, sit idly in their expensively furnished offices behind steel doors and multilayers of security details. They realize that they have been getting away with empty promises for over sixteen years and confidently expect to continue in that fashion.
The allocation of additional foreign troops and the redeployment of B52s will probably halt the Taliban advance. But, due to the dispatch of a small number of additional foreign troops, the forward movement would be of short duration. It will reestablish the stalemate that existed in 2014 when U.S. and NATO forces ended their direct engagement in the war and began withdrawing most of their troops.
However, the larger foreign military footprint and the strategy’s condition-based military presence in the country will play a role in preventing the collapse of the Kabul regime. It will also discourage attempts at starting another civil war, a direction the country seemed to be moving to.
The economic part of the strategy has not been developed yet. This is going to be a difficult problem to resolve. Afghanistan needs private foreign investment to build production facilities to create jobs and reign in an out-of-control trade deficit.
However, private investors will most likely be disinclined to heed Washington’s call to invest in Afghanistan. Those few who would wish to invest in that country but lack the funds to do so, will find it nearly impossible to persuade financial institutions to loan them the money. The reasons are problems of security, and the Afghan administration’s lack of capacity to understand investment proposals and to act on them in a timely and proficient manner. And the regime is too corrupt, making straightforward dealings with it very difficult, if not impossible.
At its stage, the economic development of Afghanistan will need direct American government involvement. Government funds must be made available to investors with viable and needed projects. The approval process would require the backing of American officials. Otherwise, a projects’ authorization would never see the light of day.
The strategy’s economic element would have to proceed closely with its political component. However, Washington so far has not declared how and to what extent it is prepared to force its will upon the Kabul regime to ensure that the strategy’s vital economic part will be implemented properly and that the provided resources would not be wasted as in years past.
The greatest danger to the strategy’s success are the historic animosities and mutual distrust among the three South Asian countries.
India and Pakistan are at each other’s throat over Kashmir. India claims Kashmir as its integral part. Pakistan, a Moslem-majority country, asserts ownership over Kashmir because it is India’s only Moslem-majority federal state.
The two countries have fought two wars over their Kashmir disagreement. Had they not become nuclear powers, they probably would have fought a third war over it. At least once, they had come close to it but shied of going to war because it could have led to a nuclear exchange.
The antagonism between Afghanistan and Pakistan is over their 2,500km mutual border, the so-called Durant Line. Although Afghanistan has twice accepted the border and signed documents to that end, Kabul insists on major changes to it.
Afghanistan’s demand is both politically and militarily unattainable. Politically, it’s unrealizable as international law backs Pakistan’s position and the rest of the world has accepted the existing border as the final one. Similarly, Kabul has no chance to realize its wish by military means. For a broken and bankrupt country, such as Afghanistan is, to force its will upon a country with the world’s 7th largest standing army is a pipedream.
The irony of the situation is that the enmity between India and Pakistan and the border problem between Afghanistan and Pakistan play a complicating role in the Afghan war.
The reason for Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is based on two issues: First, Afghanistan’s refusal to recognize the border between the two countries. Second, its fear of another war with India and its conviction that, in the event of a war with India, Afghanistan would attack Pakistan, forcing it to fight a two-front war.
Thus, India’s pro-Afghan policy is Pakistan-centric and Pakistan’s anti-Afghan policy is, at least partly, India-centric.
Therefore, as long as India and Pakistan continue their hostility over Kashmir, Pakistan will do its utmost to prevent Afghanistan from prospering and gaining military strength. It most certainly will use all possible political, diplomatic, and even unorthodox means to prevent a pro-Indian regime to establish itself in Kabul.
For seventy years, Indian and Pakistani leaders have been incapable of solving the Kashmir problem. By pursuing this dispute, the two countries’ leaders have shattered any possibility they may have had to improve their people’s lot. Both countries count among the world’s poorest nations but maintain at prohibitive cost the world’s 3rd and 7th largest standing armies. By instigating an unrealizable dispute with Pakistan, Afghanistan’ leaders have imprudently made their country a party to the brawl between those two nations.
If the Afghan quandary continues in its present form, the Trump strategy will fail. The war will morph into a proxy confrontation between India and Pakistan with a strong possibility that Iran and Russia will enter this exceedingly chaotic foray.
Washington initiated this war. It’s the U.S.’s business to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Subcontracting its responsibility to other nations didn’t work in the past and will not work in the future.
When America walked away from war-shattered Afghanistan in the early 1990s, Afghanistan slid into a savage civil war that destroyed the capital city of Kabul and brought many Afghans to the brink of famine.
Later, when the prospect of oil transportation from Central Asia through Afghanistan to the Indian ocean steered Washington’s attention back to Afghanistan, the Clinton administration, disinclined to deal with Afghanistan, subcontracted the job of pacifying that country to Pakistan.
With its own technical abilities and Saudi money, Islamabad created the Taliban and led it into Afghanistan. As happens often, Pakistan’s student worriers went out of control. The chaos within Afghanistan, attracted Osama Ben Laden who, from there, launched the tragic 9/11 attacks. That, in turn, led to the American invasion of Afghanistan.
Now, sixteen years later, Washington finds itself trapped in a blind alley and doesn’t know how get out from it.
This tragic sequence of events only ensued because each step was taken without understanding or taking into account the situation’s exact nature and the region’s people and history. Washington should not repeat that mistake.
The Trump strategy will only succeed if all elements of the plan — military, political, and economic — are handled proficiently. This is the time to rethink the situation.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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