President Donald Trump’s belated Afghanistan policy review and reformulation[os1] unveiled last month at Fort Myer had three unique characteristics: One, while expressing “frustration” with “the longest war”, Trump pledged to “win” because American “security interests” demand it; Two, the strategy went beyond Afghanistan and embodied regional security concerns, namely explicit U.S. irritation with Pakistani duplicity; and three, it set new parameters in terms of American expenditure and expectations; namely that Afghans help break the current military stalemate and “take ownership of their future”. He stressed on “real reform” and “real progress” within the Afghan system.In terms of content and messaging, no other American leader in the past has spoken out so forthrightly about Afghanistan’s core challenge, as well as the geo-political and national security complexities inherent to the greater South-Central Asia region.Nonetheless, the President’s speech skimpily alluded to, but did not go far enough on two requisite accessories to the main strategic thrust: 1. The need for revitalized American diplomacy to assure buy-in from U.S. allies, and support – to the extent possible - from key international stakeholders, and 2. assuring Afghan political legitimacy and stability, resulting in sustainable progress.
As expected, the speech received immediate knee-jerk reactions from partisan and special interest quarters. Some cynically described the policy as “recycled[os2] ” and the conflict as “an endless war[os3] ”, while other commentators saw merit in the candid nature of the policy[os4] recalibration.In Pakistan, prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said it is “unfair” to blame his country for troubles in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistani pro-Taliban groups issued a call for “Jihad[os5] ” and warned that the Pakistani army would not take any action against the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated outfit classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S.In Afghanistan, the mood was generally welcoming and supportive. While the Taliban[os6] and former president Hamid Karzai opposed[os7] the new U.S. policy (for different reasons), the Afghan unity government praised[os8] the pronouncement and pledged to work with America on shared goals as part of the new way forward.
The military component, where Afghan security forces are trained, advised, assisted and equipped by the U.S. & NATO, forms the core tenant of the new strategy. It is expected to break the stalemated[os9] situation that has evolved over the last four years as the Taliban strategy shifted from containment to territorial control in 2012, allowing them to expand their footprint into 40[os10] % of the Afghan countryside, albeit influencing no more than 10% of the population.
To achieve their initial goals, Trump favored “a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.” In other words, no more timelines, as unnecessary caveats and restrictions will be lifted to allow commanders on the ground to make better use of the following conventional enablers and tools:
1. Additional special forces to be used in counter-terrorism operations, with the intent to double the number of Afghan units by 2019.
2. Close air support and reliance on targeted bombings where necessary
3. Use of heavier ground artillery to dislodge Taliban militiamen from their hideouts
4. Increase the use of local para-military units (a controversial decision that has backfired in the past).
5. Embedding of U.S. advisors and coordinators within combat battalions.
However, given lessons learned and past practices, the rate and measure for success will also depend on the following factors:
1. Afghan leadership and force morale
2. Equipment/weapons’ effectiveness
2. Intelligence gathering and coordination
3. Better training and oversight of police and para-military units
4. Assuring local and popular support
5. Making every effort to avoid civilian losses
6. Fighting corruption and assuring professionalism for key positions
7. Targeting enemy finance and funding networks.
The Pakistan Angle
The most important game-changer, however, concerns Pakistani action and U.S. reaction. Pointing to past monetary handouts, and the threats posed by safe havens and nuclear weapons, Trump warned “Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
The Financial Times reported last week that after the recent freezing of $255m in military aid to Islamabad, Washington is now “eyeing an escalating series of threats, which include cutting some civilian aid, conducting unilateral drone strikes on Pakistani soil and imposing travel bans on suspect officers of the ISI, the country’s intelligence agency.”
Since the announcement, Pakistan has unleashed a diplomatic and public relations campaign to defend its position and convince other key players to counter or derail U.S. efforts.
It was reported on Sunday that following consultation with regional powers, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister is calling on the U.S. administration to hold talks with the Taliban. Deflecting allegations of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban, the minister, as part of a new narrative, pointed to Russia and Iran, and said “peace talks with the Taliban could be arranged if Washington works with countries in the region that have influence over the militant group.”
The reaction from Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Ankara and other capitals thus far has been mixed, or not fully fleshed out yet.
Two Vital Accessories
Given regional fluctuations, rising suspicions, and previous claims made by Russian and Iranian authorities that Daesh/Islamic State-type cells have emerged in the AfPak region, American diplomacy can play a critical role in distilling and clarifying policy objectives as an accessory to the military strategy being implemented.All indications point to the so-called IS cells[ - being manned mainly by former Pakistani Taliban factions and foreign militants driven into Afghanistan by security sweeps in Pakistan’s tribal areas since 2014 - as having no symbiotic relationship to Daesh-Central in the Middle East.
In some cases, there have been instances of cooperation between Afghan Taliban and some of the IS cells inside Afghanistan, as seen during a joint attack that left more than 50 civilians killed in the Northern Mirza Olang region in August.
Appointing a seasoned diplomat with United Nations backing to engage in shuttle diplomacy between key capitals, will help provide clarity, dispel misunderstandings and, at some level, could lead to cooperation on the way forward in Afghanistan.
The other accessory to implementing a successful strategy is assuring Afghan political legitimacy and stability. The controversies and allegations of fraud surrounding two previous presidential elections, held in 2009 and 2014, continue to plague Afghan politics and fan political elite mistrust.
The return of a former factional leader, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who has engaged in provocative and incendiary commentary, has further exacerbated inter-ethnic relations.
Former president Karzai, active on the sidelines, harbors a desire to make a political comeback of sorts with the help of a financially well-endowed patronage network.
A political accord signed by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and endorsed by the international community in 2014, which paved the way for the formation of the current unity government at the end of a highly contested and irregular election process, has been stonewalled by pro-centralization political cliques that oppose holding a Constitutional Loya Jirga to consider necessary amendments, and engage in substantive reforms of the electoral system.
In his speech in August, Trump put Afghan leaders on notice when he said: “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.”
It seems that the warning has not fallen on deaf ears. Recent signs of dialogue[os18] between political rivals are indicative of a willingness to mend rifts and create functioning coalitions before the kickoff of the 2018-19 electoral season.
Whether parliamentary elections slated for 2018, and presidential elections for 2019, will or can be held, is an open question, and will also, to some extent, depend on progress with the new American strategy.
On the non-existent political dialogue front, after 12 years of failed (and at times deceitful) attempts to hold talks, prospects for dialogue are currently dim as the military option has entered the execution phase.
Trump signaled to the strategic sequencing, and said “after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban.”
After years of violence and bloodshed, Afghans still hold on to a ray of hope, but overall the public has lost trust in costly and dubious initiatives that have not amounted to any tangible results on the reconciliation front, while the Taliban and their backers have used deceptive tactics mixed with terror-like measures to gain strategic advantage.
More than a month after the new policy was framed and announced, all eyes are now on the new strategic toolkit, its components, and on implementation and execution.
Overall, Afghans have welcomed the change in tone and direction, and hope that renewed efforts will help overcome the stagnant status quo. However, past experience has made them wary of the implementation phase. They hope for an integrated approach that makes good use of the diplomatic and political accessories needed to bolster the military effort.
There will also be a need to urge allies and donors to maintain and deliver on development and reconstruction aid pledges to make sure that the Afghan economy does not go belly up at this critical juncture.
As others within NATO and the donor community decide on how to respond and adjust their own policy, it is important to make good use of all available levers and tools to assure a denouement that can finally bring peace and security to a part of the world that yearns for, and deserves, better prospects.
Omar SAMAD is CEO of Silkroad Consulting LLC, former Senior Advisor to Afghanistan’s Chief Executive and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.