The Afghan Quagmire

Yohannan Chemarapally

DONALD Trump on the campaign trail was an avowed anti-interventionist. He had kept on repeating that the American led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular were ill advised and a costly drain on the country's exchequer. With reference to the war in Afghanistan, Trump had said that it was time to get out of the country. The American military under the Trump administration is showing no signs of leaving Iraq either. And, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump crossed a red line in Syria by ordering Cruise missile strikes against Syria on the flimsiest of pretexts. The aim of the previous administration to carve out an independent Kurdish enclave within Syria has been continued by the present Trump administration. The number of American boots on the ground in Syria along with the quantum of arms supplies to the rebels in Syria, has in fact increased.

The Pentagon had admitted that the number of American troops deployed in Afghanistan were more than what was officially announced. This acknowledgment was made after the speech of the American president announcing the continued and enhanced deployment of American troops in Afghanistan. The Obama administration had reduced the number of troops in the country to 7500 from a high of 100,000 during the Bush administration. The Trump administration has not announced the exact number of troops it aims to put on the ground in Afghanistan but a military surge is expected if the resurgent Taliban is to be beaten back. The Pentagon has indicated that 4000 more troops are going to be sent immediately. At present there are more than 11,000 American troops positioned in the country. 

Ten months into his presidency, Trump has come under the influence of his military advisers who now occupy many of the most powerful posts in his administration. According to reports in the American media, the major inputs for the Trump speech announcing that the military occupation of Afghanistan would continue indefinitely, was provided by the office of retired Gen. H.W. McMaster, the president's national security adviser. Steve Bannon and others close to Trump within the White House, who were arguing for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan and an end to the imperial concept of “nation building” in foreign climes, have been eased out of the administration.

The “never ending” war in Afghanistan which started in 2001 which was showing signs of winding down during the last years of the Obama presidency, now has a new lease of life. So far, more than 2400 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan with another 20,000 wounded in the war. More than $1 trillion of the American tax payers’ money has been spent on the never ending war. Afghanistan has lost more than 60, 000 people in the last 17 years and their economy ruined as a result of the war. According to the UN, in the first half of this year, 1,662 Afghan civilians have been killed. The Afghan people today have one of the lowest standards of living in the world. 

“A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from time based approach to one based on conditions” Trump said in his speech announcing the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. “America's enemies must never know about our plans or believe that they can wait us out”, he said. He tried to distinguish his policy on Afghanistan from that of his predecessors by claiming that America was no longer in the business of “nation building”. American troops are being deployed in Afghanistan for the sole purpose of “killing terrorists” by using “overwhelming force”. Under the new administration, the number of Muslims killed in West Asia and Afghanistan, under the guise of fighting terrorism has dramatically risen. The air strikes in the cities of Mosul, Raqqa, Deir el Ezzor and other cities have claimed thousands of lives since the beginning of the year.

Trump had authorised the use of most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the American military's arsenal earlier in the year. Trump, in his speech, had said that “killing terrorists” and preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan was akin to a military victory. He tried to justify his 'volte face' on Afghanistan by saying that a hasty withdrawal by American troops from Iraq had led to the rise of extremist groupings like the Daesh (Islamic State) and their takeover over vast swathes of territory. The Taliban in Afghanistan has no love lost for the Daesh. The two groups have been fighting bloody battles. The Daesh has not been able to make significant inroads into Afghanistan, mainly due to the hostility it faces from the Taliban and the majority Pashtun population under its influence. The American president was careful however to not rule out the possibility of holding talks with the Taliban at an unspecified point of time in the future.

The Afghan Taliban has reacted with belligerence to the Trump administration’s decision to continue with the military occupation. The Taliban's spokesman said that Afghanistan would become “another graveyard for this superpower in the 21st century”. Before Trump delivered his speech, the Taliban had demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country. The Taliban leadership has been saying that comprehensive peace talks are only possible after the American military quits their country, lock stock and barrel. The previous Obama administration had signaled that it was not averse to the Taliban running a government in Kabul in coalition with other Afghan stakeholders. At the same time, Washington had indicated that it would retain control of the military bases under its command in the country for the foreseeable future.

The other major players in the region like Iran, China and Russia, seem to have concluded that the Taliban are the most important factor in Afghan politics and that a comprehensive peace in the region is not possible without their participation in the diplomatic process. These three countries in particular take a dim view of the Trump administration’s decision to once again escalate the conflict in Afghanistan.

But the state that has reason to be the most upset with Trump's Afghan policy is Pakistan, “a major non-NATO military ally” of the United States. The American president in his speech accused Pakistan of colluding with the Afghan Taliban and offering its fighters and leadership “safe haven” on its territory. Trump went to the extent of alleging that Islamabad was duplicitous in its dealings with Washington. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond”, Trump had said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists”.

Trump's threatening words were followed up by warnings that the financial and military aid that Washington doles out annually to Islamabad could be in imminent jeopardy. The Trump administration announced in late August that it is withholding previously promised military aid worth $255 million. The State Department told the US Congress that the money would only be released after it was ascertained that Pakistan had done enough to eradicate safe havens in its tribal areas and stopped cross border attacks into Afghanistan. Washington claims that it has given more than $33 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, the year in which America invaded Afghanistan. Most of the money was disbursed during the first decade of the war. American aid to Pakistan has been dwindling at a fast pace since then. Last year, the Obama administration held back $300 million from the $1 billion “coalition support fund” for Pakistan. Islamabad does not seem to be overly perturbed either, by the American pressure tactics. Pakistan announced that it is suspending talks with Washington on issues relating to Afghanistan for the time being.

From Islamabad's point of view, the Trump administration added insult to injury by openly calling on India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. There was an implicit threat in Trump's speech that if Pakistan refuses to play ball, then the United States could dump Islamabad and make New Delhi the primary ally of Washington in the region. But Trump's transactional style of politics was also in full view.  “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more in Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development”, Trump had said. American officials even hinted that military help from India would be welcome in the killing fields of Afghanistan.

Trump's position was a radical departure from the stance taken by previous American administrations which preferred India to stay mostly under the radar in Afghanistan and confine itself solely to developmental activities. The Bush administration was even against India opening up new diplomatic consulates in Afghanistan. Pakistan had objected to the presence of Indian diplomatic outposts along its border with Afghanistan. Islamabad had alleged that New Delhi was using them to foster secessionist activities in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan. India has already spent over a billion dollars in Afghanistan to construct hospitals, roads and other infrastructural projects. There is a lot of goodwill among ordinary Afghans for India but according to most observers of the region in the long run, it will be ethnic kinship and religious bonding that will have the upper hand. 

Anyway, as things stand today, the Taliban which has the backing of the majority Pashtuns, has sway over forty per cent of Afghanistan's territory. The central government in Kabul is dependent on the Americans and sundry warlords to control the rest of the country. According to reports, the relations between the mainstream Taliban faction and Islamabad are becoming increasingly fraught. The Pakistan security establishment is not too happy with the Taliban's growing proximity with neighbouring Iran and other countries. The Iranians, who were at daggers drawn with the Taliban when the group was in power in Kabul, now have evidently reappraised the scenario in the region.

The Iranians, as well as the Russians and Chinese, are mortally afraid of the Daesh gaining a strong foothold in Afghanistan. The Taliban is the only local force capable of nipping the danger in the bud. The Taliban and the Daesh have fought a few pitched battles on Afghan soil, with the Taliban coming out on top. The leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was killed on Pakistani soil last year, after he crossed the border from Iran into Balochistan. According to reports in the American media, it was the Pakistani intelligence services which had tipped the Americans about the Taliban leader's movements. Mullah Manzour was killed in an American drone attack.

The Pakistani side claims that it has done more than enough to help its ally America in Afghanistan. Many in Pakistan believe that the country has sacrificed a lot and borne the brunt for the American misadventure in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Pakistani political and military establishment while helping the West, were also preparing for the inevitable day when the Americans would finally exit from Afghanistan. Sections of the Taliban, most notably the Haqqani faction, are known to have close links with influential sections of the Pakistani security establishment. It was well known for some time that the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban, including Mullah Omar, were functioning out of a safe house in Quetta, the Balochistan capital. The fact that Osama bin Laden was also located and killed in Pakistan has not helped to bolster Pakistan's image in the West.

At the same time, because of Islamabad's military alliance with Washington, the Pakistani Taliban has wrought havoc domestically. Many of them find refuge and assistance across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been subjected to many heinous terror attacks since the American occupation of Afghanistan began. In a way, it was a case of chickens coming home to roost. The Pakistani establishment was a willing accomplice of the United States in the execution of the game plan to overthrow a secular and progressive government in Kabul. Some of the “freedom fighters” (mujahedin) armed, financed and trained by the West with the active help of Islamabad, later transformed into foes. The destabilisation of Afghanistan by Washington and Islamabad which started in right earnest in 1970's has had the unintended consequence of destabilising the region and the world. The roots of the al Qaeda and the Daesh grew in Afghanistan, nurtured by the West and regional proxies like Pakistan.

 

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