Afghanistan enters into its 18th year of conflict since America responded to the September 11 attacks in 2001. As reported by The New York Times, the US is planning to exit from Afghanistan by 2024.
Engage, Dis-Engage and Re-Engage with Taliban
One of the key factors in resolving disputes is through unhindered process of dialogue and diplomacy. With the increase of insurgent incidents in Kabul in 2005, the British troops who were deployed in the province of Helmand initiated deals with the local Taliban. The British also wooed other partners like the Germans and Norwegians to help them pursue the Americans in resolving conflict on the ground.
During the meeting of NATO Defense Ministers in Budapest in October 2008, Robert M. Gates, the former American Defense Secretary, suddenly announced that in order to stop the conflict in Afghanistan, “reconciliation with Taliban ultimately lead to a political outcome”. But he reiterated that Taliban had to support or accept the Afghan-led peace process.
The former American President, Barack Obama, initiated the process of revisiting the Afghan policy. He was assured by the US generals on Afghan soil that they could defeat the 18-month insurgency. Keeping in view these assurances, the former President adopted a “troop surge policy” to increase the number of US troops on the ground. However, “Operation Enduring Freedom” failed and the US shifted the responsibility to the Afghan National Army.
In January 2016, a new peace effort was made by the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in which a road-map was prepared to bring the Taliban back to the negotiation table. In these talks, the Taliban put down a condition of foreign troops withdrawal.
Besides the Taliban and the Afghan regime, the Russian format of talks was attended by China, Pakistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbek, Kazak, Turkmenistan, US and India. In 2016, Afghanistan was not invited; in 2017, the US did not attend. For the first time, on December 20, 2018, all stakeholders were invited to Moscow. However, they did not reach any conclusive framework on Afghanistan.
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, during his talk at the US Institute of Peace on February 8, 2019, admitted that they were still at the early stage of talks and had a long way to go before achieving a credible solution on the ground.
What Went Wrong
There could be three factors which might cause the failing, delaying and creating uncertainty in the reconciliation process of Afghanistan. First, lack of institutional consensus in America on how to proceed with the reconciliation process with the Taliban. The Washington’s South Asia policy was carried out by a carrot and stick approach: while supporting the training of Afghan nationals to fight the Taliban, the US started to reduce their role in terms of their combat size on the ground. Jason Dempsey observed that “the US military failed America in Afghanistan, it was not a tactical failure, but it was a leadership failure”.
Secondly, the growing role of India in Afghanistan. In spite of precarious conditions on the ground, India had launched two air corridors to increase its connectivity and trade with Afghanistan. They have also initiated 116 development projects in almost 31 Afghan provinces. New Delhi has also provided 4 military helicopters and its Army provides military training to Afghan nationals. Indian growing military engagement in Afghanistan is seen with great caution and care by Pakistan. It was reported by the Washington intelligence community that the US had been informed about Pakistan’s concerns related to Indian role and influence in Afghanistan.
To move out of this logjam, institutional consensus and political will would be needed in Washington, the peace process should be expedited by engaging Pakistan, China and Russia, and the Taliban should be brought into the future political setup in Afghanistan.
Robert D. Kaplan rightly pointed out that “Afghanistan has been a prize that Pakistan and India have fought over directly and indirectly for decades”. Pakistan had expressed its genuine concerns over the establishment of five Indian consulates located in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat which might be used as launching pads for attacks on Pakistani soil. Afghanistan is being seen as a big market for India and Pakistan and strategically they also see developments on Gawadar and Chabahar as a competing factor in their relations.
Thirdly, mixed response by Afghan officials. For instance, the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani had said that there would be no problem if America withdrew its troops from their land. He further said that in 2014, America withdrew from their territory and it did not make any difference to them. The same views were echoed by Fazel Fazly, the Chief Adviser to the Afghan president, saying that those American troops who were “providing advice, training and assistance to Afghan forces, if they leave, it will not affect their security”, and claimed that “Afghan security has been defending their land”. According to retired General M. Radmanish, the drawdown had not affected them since 2014, as it was their forces who were doing the fighting against the terrorists. In contrary to these arguments, Major M. Ali Ahmadi, the Commander of the Afghan Commando Battalion, Northeast, was of the view that “if the forces leave here and leave us alone, it will be a dangerous blow and will have very negative consequences”. Further, he admitted that “we don’t have the proper capabilities to defend the areas, particularly the areas where the security forces are under grave threat. It will not be fair to us”.
Views of American Generals
America has promised to pull out from Afghanistan between February and April 2019. Being overstretched and fatigued by years of conflict with a soaring cost of USD 1.07 trillion, higher than the cost of the Vietnam war (USD 168 billion), the Pentagon expected to reduce its troops level from 14,000 to 7,000. However, this announcement was not received well. For instance, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned due to his differences with US President Donald Trump.
Moreover, American generals had shown positivity before the announcement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. For example, General John Nicholson in 2018, General John Campbell in 2014, General J.F. Dunford in 2013, General David Petraeus in 2011, General Stanley A. McChrystal in 2010 and General David McKiernan in 2009 had given their observations that they would achieve success in Afghanistan. General Scott Miller, taking charge from General John Nicholson, appeared to show that there had been frequent change of commands of American generals in Afghanistan.
If one looks at the change of command of American generals in the Vietnam war from 1964 to 1972, there were only two generals who led the troops in that war. It took 31 months for General Nicholson to realize the grave security challenge in Afghanistan and announced that “it’s time for this war in Afghanistan to end, ask Taliban not to kill their fellow Afghans”. It was observed that Obama was also convinced by US generals over the troop surge policy to deliver a befitting response to the Taliban in Afghanistan. But that strategy failed.
In the same way, President Trump was also advised that if the US doubled its troop level, it could bring the Taliban to the dialogue table, although it could not deliver a crushing defeat to the Taliban. It was expected that their new strategy would succeed as they had won in Iraq or Syria. However, Afghanistan was neither Iraq nor Syria.
The US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shenahan, on a surprise visit to Kabul in February 2019, acknowledged that “their withdrawal from Afghanistan will give leverage to Taliban”. Further, he also reiterated that “Afghan government be involved in discussion process regarding Afghanistan”. His observations on Afghanistan reflected what previous American defense secretaries and generals have been doing for many years. They are still confused about intra-Afghan dialogue and insisting on a ceasefire that does not go well with the Taliban.
Hence, to move out of this logjam, institutional consensus and political will would be needed in Washington, the peace process should be expedited by engaging Pakistan, China and Russia, and the Taliban should be brought into the future political setup in Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2018, China and America can cooperate in getting Afghanistan out from the mess. Otherwise, repeating the old strategy in Afghanistan could prolong America’s safe exit.