President Donald Trump’s ‘new Afghanistan policy’ has been widely welcomed in Afghanistan although he did not outline a timeline for the US troops’ withdrawal from the war-torn country, criticised Pakistan while seeking India’s assistance in Afghanistan, albeit mainly with regards to economic matters.
Reports suggest that Trump has approved sending additional troops to Afghanistan. From the Afghan government’s perspective, it is expected that increased pressure will now be put on the Taliban.
In 2009, a similar wave of optimism enveloped Afghanistan when the former US President Barack Obama announced a troop ‘surge’. Subsequently, at one point in 2010, Afghanistan was home to 150,000 foreign troops, of which nearly 100,000 were from the US. All the gains, the foreign troops made because of the troop surge, were reversed soon after the NATO combat troops pulled out in 2014 from the disputed country. This time too, the expectations are high that the new US Afghan policy will turn the tide of war and put the Taliban on the defensive.
During the first 30 minutes of his address, Trump failed to mention what role Iran, China (Afghanistan’s two out of the six immediate neighbours), and Russia might play to help end the war. For the time being, it looks like the complexity of the relationship between the US and the aforementioned countries is negatively affecting the course of the war in Afghanistan.
In April this year, Washington refused to attend a Russia-sponsored conference on Afghanistan in Moscow. The conference was attended by 12 other countries including China, India, Iran, and Pakistan.
The US must understand that leaving out major stakeholders in the Afghan conflict will only make things worse. For instance, there have been reports that the Taliban receive military assistance from Iran. Lately, the Taliban have also established contacts with Russia. As a counter-punch to the US Afghan policy, Iran can easily harbour the Taliban, and Russia can bless them with financial and military assistance. In both Iran and Russia, speculations are running high that the Islamic State (IS) militant group is created by the US. To counter the IS threat, Iran and Russia can join hands to prop up the Taliban as a balance against it.
Moreover, China, as a neutral observer of the Afghan conflict, is in the best position to help facilitate talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. Eventually, the US and its NATO allies will pack and leave. However, Iran, China, and Russia have been in the region and will continue to be there for the near future.
Likewise, Trump’s criticism of Pakistan, although a much-needed step from Afghanistan’s perspective, is very unlikely to help resolve the crisis. Within hours of Trump’s address, Russia and China threw their weight behind Pakistan stating that a tough US line against Pakistan will not help mitigate the crisis. On the contrary, it can complicate and prolong the Afghan conflict.
Mounting pressures on Pakistan can discourage Islamabad from actively supporting any peace process in Afghanistan. Capitalising on the distinction between “good” (pro-Pakistan) and “bad” (anti-Pakistan) Taliban—a distinction between militant groups that Sartaj Aziz came up with in a BBC interview—Pakistan will wait out the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Once the US is out, Pakistan will single-handedly have the upper hand in any post-US withdrawal settlement. It will very much look like the post-Soviet withdrawal years from 1989-1992.
As such, there is a risk that Afghanistan might face strategic encirclement by its neighbours—Russia in the north, Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south and east, and China in the northeast—if it only remains dependent on the US, and banks on India’s support at the regional level.
None of the aforementioned countries (save India) has deep relations with the US. They will all join hands if felt left out or pressured against the US and support the Taliban one way or the other to impose heavy costs on US presence in Afghanistan.
As we move towards a multi-polar world, it is feasible now more than ever for these countries to gang up against US supremacy and arrogance in Afghanistan. As regards to India, because it does not share a border with Afghanistan, its influence will continue to be limited as compared to that of Pakistan, Iran, or China. Economic projects that India has shown interest in cannot be implemented in the absence of security and law and order.
As the Afghan National Security Adviser, Hanif Atmar, once said that the conflict in Afghanistan has a regional dimension. Its continuance necessitates the need for a consensus at the regional level. If Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and to an extent India can reach a consensus about Afghanistan, peace will most likely be restored to the troubled country.
Important lessons could be drawn from Afghanistan’s history over the last two centuries.
The first and second British invasions of Afghanistan, in 1838 and 1878 respectively, were triggered under the suspicion that Afghanistan was falling into the Tsarist sphere of influence. However, when its neighbours, Tsarist Russia and Britain, reached a consensus about its status, stability returned to Afghanistan. Similarly, when Afghanistan chose to remain neutral during world wars and the cold war, it was peaceful and stable.
Forces of instability were unleashed when the Balance Of Interest (BOI) between stakeholders (including its neighbours) in Afghanistan was upset.
Afghanistan became a Soviet satellite and was subsequently invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union. Even though the Soviet Union was embarrassingly forced out of Afghanistan, the BOI could be never be restored. Even the chances of BOI’s restoration are slim if the foreign troops continue in Afghanistan.
Sending 4,000, more troops in the country will only prolong the conflict. Instead of sending them to Afghanistan, its neighbours should be taken into confidence, and BOI should be restored. This is the only way to go forward. However, Trump’s much touted Afghan strategy is going in the opposite direction, destined to cross the failure line. When some 100,000 American troops failed to make a difference for the Ghani government, who but a fool would believe that 13,000 troops will produce a breakthrough.
Arwin Rahi is an independent researcher who focuses on Afghanistan and the subcontinent and a freelance writer. He is also a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan.