President Trump stared at a “damn if I do, damn if I don’t” dilemma. A sixteen year stalemated war. Almost a Trillion dollars wasted. Over 2400 US fatalities plus over 1100 NATO allies dead. Innumerable Afghan soldiers, police and civilians killed. President Trump had reason to be furious that lives, limbs and treasure have been squandered in a war America “is still not winning”. The President delegated his Defense Secretary to devise a new strategy to combat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan. America’s top military brass advised caution in not abandoning Afghanistan as this would leave the medieval Taliban in control of Kabul who could then, once again, offer sanctuary and safe havens to indigenous and foreign radical terrorists.
His gut feeling which he long advocated was to end the war few Americans cared about. He inherited this quagmire immersed in quicksand from his predecessors going all the way back to Bush 41. Over a span of 25 years the entrenched Foreign Policy and Intelligence Establishments had failed to foresee and forestall the rise of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, let alone the disasters in Iraq, Libya and Syria. After pushing the Taliban out of Kabul in 2002, the Washington Establishment partnered with Hamid Karzai, a charlatan, who failed his people and the donor nations who believed he could bring peace and stability to his country. Instead of fighting the Taliban and reconciling the various ethnic tribes, America’s partner, Karzai, aligned himself with war and drug lords and generals with ‘ghost’ armies allowing the Taliban to regroup and win the sympathies of the countryside repulsed by the flagrant corruption of their leaders.
The present post-Karzai government, is engulfed in palace intrigues and turf wars mostly instigated by Karzai who, because of his contacts with the Taliban, the war and drug lords and his vast ancestral lands cultivating opium, is the chief mischief making power broker in Kabul. The US backed coalition government is being held together with spit and American taxpayer funds. Most Afghans know that their leaders have bank accounts and homes in the Middle East where their families reside and where their children are schooled. Those Afghans who remember the frugal living conditions of bin-Laden and Mullah Omer are turned off by the lavish lifestyles of their leaders. America’s partners in Afghanistan have lost not only the confidence but also the prayers of their people because of their ineptitude, corruption and inability to offer the most basic ingredients of leadership; hope and optimism. Further complicating the situation are our Sunni Arab friends funding the pro-ISIS elements of the Taliban to create chaos on the Iranian border and Iran financing tribes within the Taliban to violently harass the government in Kabul.
To deal with this inherited mess, simply adding a few thousand more troops, trainers and advisors with authority to attack and take the fight to the enemy are “in the box”, old, tried and failed strategies. If there is no change in strategy, results in the ground will not change. The President alluded to his new approach when he said “no blank check.” He and his generals should consider adding a few hundred auditors, accountants and cashiers to the mini troop surge and ensure that all disbursements of American tax-payer funds, from salaries to the politicians, legitimate governing expenses right down to paying all soldiers and police personnel including issuing arms and ammunition be done by Americans. It is a shame that Afghan soldiers seldom receive their full pay, are paid less than their Taliban adversaries and go to the frontlines with half empty magazines. The Afghan army cannot fight the enemy with ‘ghost’ soldiers or with severely rationed ammunition. The President also stated “We will not tell you how to run your government”, a strong hint to the politicians in Kabul to start producing positive results or be replaced. What Afghanistan needs are ‘a few good men’, patriots and nationalists, committed to the national interest, who can work with and unite the various tribes to take their country back from the war lords, the drug lords and the radicalized Taliban. The option of bringing back the heirs of the late King Zahir Shah and re-installing the Afghan monarch as a figurehead must be considered as this could facilitate and speed up the reconciliation and unification process.
A new ‘reset’ in Presidential policy includes roles for India and Pakistan. India has invested in Afghanistan on a government to government level but future investments have been hampered by security concerns due to the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul by the Pakistani backed Haqqani terrorists. Pakistan, a staunch ally of China, is perhaps the only member of the nuclear club where the nuclear arsenal is not under civilian control. America’s Foreign Policy and Intelligence Establishments have long pandered to and appeased the Pakistani Military as they control the land routes and trucks used to supply American troops in Afghanistan. Withholding American military aid to Pakistan is a card the US has previously used with no tangible result. The President and his generals must show their trump card to signal to the Pakistanis how high and serious the stakes are for them now that the US, which always had the resources and tools, also has the will to succeed.
The 1893 Durand Line establishing the border between Afghanistan and British India separates the ethnic Baloch and ethnic Pakhtuns from their fellow tribesmen across the border, a border which has been infrequently and selectively enforced, is largely unmanned and unpatrolled. The Afghans have repudiated this border giving Pakistan the flexibility to accommodate the Haqqani Network in enclaves with ill-defined and contested borders. Pakistan’s worst nightmare is that separationist elements in their Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces and in their Federally Administered Tribal Areas agitate to breakaway and form new nation states with their brethren across the border. The reason why Pakistan adamantly opposes Indian aid and investments in Afghanistan is they fear the Indians would encourage the tribesmen on the Afghan side of the “border” to create an insurgency demanding the cross-border reunifications of both, the Baluchi and the Pashtun tribes. This scenario, besides dismembering Pakistan, would give landlocked Afghanistan the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, a port India would use to reestablish trade with Afghanistan.
China has some skin in Afghanistan where she profitably mines minerals used in manufacturing exports. She has a larger stake in Pakistan, especially in the port of Gwadar which she has leased for 49 years, and is the hub of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the One Belt, One Road and the Silk Road projects. Should the sovereignty of Gwadar change, either by redrawing the Durand Line or by the reunification of Baluchistan, China’s investments in Pakistan would be jeopardized. The US, in co-operation with China, must convince the Pakistanis that her borders, security and stability are intertwined with the security and stability of Afghanistan. Unconditional co-operation with the Afghans and their American partners to eradicate terrorism are in Pakistan’s best national security interests.
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