August 7, 2017
For some time now, the Trump administration has been working on a “new strategy” for Afghanistan; a task which unfortunately offers little room for innovative approaches. Reportedly, this new strategy would authorize the Pentagon to set troop numbers in Afghanistan and give the military far broader authority to use airstrikes against the Taliban and IS affiliates. It is understood that sending at least 4,000 more troops and lifting the restrictions that limited the mobility of U.S. military advisers on the battlefield are under consideration. This new strategy is also expected to push an increasingly confident and resurgent Taliban back to the negotiating table. And, with the news that President Trump is frustrated with the delay in finalizing this new strategy and has threatened to fire General Nicholson, the top US military commander there, the question of Afghanistan has moved up on Washington’s agenda. Reports that Iran is gaining ground in Afghanistan as American presence wanes must add to the frustration.
First, a few general observations on Afghanistan:
• A country with a population of 35 million, Afghanistan is strategically located at the heart of Asia. Thus, it has always been an area of competition between foreign powers, including neighbors for influence.
• The country has remained divided on ethnic, sectarian and regional lines.
• While the Afghans have demonstrated an exceptional capacity for resistance to foreign interference, they have failed time and again to show the ability to agree on lowest common denominators.
• According to UNDP’s Human Development Report for the year 2016, Afghanistan ranks 169th among 188 nations. Its “expected years of schooling” was 10.1 but “mean years of schooling” stood only at 3.6. (1)
Second, a brief look at the recent past:
On March 12, 2013, the Washington Post carried a joint article by President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron: “The U.S. and Britain still enjoy special relationship”. This is what the two leaders said on Afghanistan:
“… As the two largest contributors to the international mission in Afghanistan, we’re proud of the progress our troops have made in dismantling al-Qaeda, breaking the Taliban’s momentum and training Afghan forces. But as recent events underscore, this remains a difficult mission. We honor the profound sacrifices of our forces, and in their name, we’ll carry on the mission…
“… This includes shifting to a support role in advance of Afghans taking full responsibility for security in 2014 and ensuring that NATO maintains an enduring commitment so that Afghanistan is never again a haven for al-Qaeda to launch attacks against our citizens…”
Less than a month later, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told BBC Radio 4 that no one can predict what will happen to Afghanistan after British, US and other NATO troops end their front-line role there at the end of 2014. He stressed that only the Afghan people can find a lasting solution to the country’s violence, corruption and lawlessness. He said that Afghanistan was an incredibly complex society; a multi-ethnic society that was very fragmented before the US-led intervention started and that the ability to influence outcomes from the outside was very limited. He added that “the long-run solution to security has to be an Afghan solution; it cannot be imposed from outside“. History had shown the futility of such attempts.
Under President Obama, US and NATO forces peaked in 2009 at 140,000 troops, but most of them gradually withdrew and at the end of December 2014, American combat mission in Afghanistan came to an end. At the beginning of 2015, immediately following the stand-down of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM) was launched to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions “to ensure that Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for terrorism”. As of February 2017, 39 nations with 13,500 troops were still taking part in this mission. However, more than 6,700 members of the Afghan security forces lost their lives in 2016, a record high.
On April 13, in a display of military power, the Trump administration dropped the “mother of all bombs” on caves used by Islamic State affiliates in eastern Afghanistan. Reportedly, dozens of militants were killed. A confident President said that the bombing was another very, very successful mission. Afghan reaction was mixed.
And on April 22, ten Taliban militants dressed in Afghan military uniforms drove in two army trucks to the country’s largest military installation at Mazar-i-Sharif and launched the deadliest known attack on an Afghan military base in the country’s 16-year war killing more than 140 unarmed soldiers, brothers in faith who were emerging from Friday prayers. Since then, terrorist attacks have continued to claim more and more lives.
Pamela Constable of the Washington Post reported last Saturday that according to Omar Daudzai, a former senior official, his country’s “biggest immediate worry is the lack of an American strategy”. I beg to differ because I believe that Secretary Hammond’s 2013 comments on the situation in Afghanistan reflect a much more realistic understanding of the problem. In 1989 President Evren of Turkey visited Pakistan. While in Islamabad, he met with the leaders of the Mujahedeen to urge unity in resolving their country’s myriad problems. I attended that meeting and although the Taliban was not there, my impression was that, bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan would take decades and decades. Almost three have gone by since then.
On April 10, 2017, the International Crisis group published another excellent report on the war-torn country under the title: “Afghanistan: The Future of the National Unity Government” (2). The report underlines the challenges which face the country and which, in the final analysis, can only be resolved by the Afghans themselves. The report says that the future of the National Unity Government (NUG) is shaky, as is broader stability. The unity government was the result of a US-brokered agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah after both claimed victory in the 2014 presidential election. To defuse a political crisis that risked dividing Afghanistan along political and ethno-regional lines, Secretary of State John Kerry mediated the agreement, signed by the two leaders on 21 September, with Ghani as President, Abdullah as Chief Executive Officer and both committing to a “genuine and meaningful partnership” to govern together. Sadly, the two leaders were never able to bridge their differences over their respective roles and powers, leading to governmental dysfunction. President Ghani is blamed for favoring fellow Pashtuns and Abdullah fellow Tajiks. The resulting perception of discrimination within excluded communities, particularly Hazaras and Uzbeks, exacerbated by the lack of consultation, including on development programs, has been contributing to a widening ethnic and regional divide. And, there is also the ex-President Karzai seeking to exploit NUG’s internal divisions to stage a comeback.
According the International Crisis Group, with a glaring gap between expenditures and resources and a $7.4 billion trade deficit, Afghanistan will be dependent on foreign military and civilian aid for years. Government officials insist the government has already “laid the foundation” for steady economic growth. Though some progress has been made, the economy remains weak and prospects for recovery slim. Important partners believe growth prospects over the next three years will depend on improved security, political stability and essential reforms, particularly on corruption which remains a huge challenge.
In brief, the obstacles preventing progress in Afghanistan have hardly changed since the 2001 Bonn Conference. Thus, the search for a “new approach” has become an open-ended process. Even if the US commanders decided to send 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan the picture will not change unless Afghans are able to bridge their ethnic-regional-sectarian differences, prioritize national unity and engage in consensus-building. It seems that now Afghan leaders are also complaining of external meddling. Surely, countries which fail to address their problems through dialogue, fall victim to polarization and conflict only pave the ground for others to step in. This has been the history of the broad Middle East. Hopefully, it will not be its destiny.
(1) Expected years of schooling: Number of years of schooling that a child of school entrance age can expect to receive if prevailing patterns of age-specific enrolment rates persist throughout the child’s life. Mean years of schooling: Average number of years of education received by people ages 25 and older, converted from education attainment level.