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US, Afghanistan and us

It is not time yet for their annual spring offence in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have already ramped up attacks. Two recent back-to-back bombings in Kabul left nearly 150 people dead and scores of others injured. As usual, the Kabul government immediately blamed the horror on Pakistan accusing it of sheltering the Haqqani network. President Ashraf Ghani declared “Pakistan is the headquarters of the Taliban. The time has come for them to take action.” Pakistan, of course, rejected the claim of “support for the Haqqanis or the [other] Taliban and of them using our soil.”

Despite President Ghani’s use of harsh language, there seems to be a realization both in Kabul and Washington that the blame game will not help, and the way forward is to stay engaged. Soon after the latest atrocity, Afghan Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak and intelligence agency NDS chief Masoom Stanekzai arrived in Islamabad to hold discussions on mutual cooperation carrying a message from their president and also “evidence that the attacks were planned there.” They were assured the ‘evidence’ would be looked into, though with the advice to look inwards and fix the problems within their own territory instead of blaming Pakistan. Later, on a visit for talks on Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) – Islamabad’s initiative supported by both the US and China – a Pakistani delegation of civil and military officials led by the Foreign Secretary helped cool tempers in Kabul by offering to hold joint investigations into the latest terrorist attack. According to Pakistani officials, the Afghan side’s attitude at the meeting was “not as bad as expected” whilst the joint statement deemed it necessary to proclaim the meeting was held in a cordial atmosphere, and that both sides made some progress on the APAPPS.

Clearly, something has happened to take out some of the bitterness in the relations. Washington has come to the conclusion that hurling accusations and threats at Pakistan is futile if not counterproductive. In his last August announcement of a new policy towards Afghanistan and South Asia, President Trump had stepped on Pakistan’s red line, later he threatened to stop (already insignificant) economic assistance, going on to tweet Pakistanis “have given us nothing but lies and deceit”. To all of which Pakistan had reacted angrily, digging in its heels. Now there is a positive change in Washington’s tone. Following a recent visit to Kabul, US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told journalists that in his meetings with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah he had “emphasized that the United States must continue to have its bilateral relationship with Pakistan, both on its own terms and with respect to the region, including Afghanistan.” A few days afterwards, US CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel said at a media briefing “we have had our differences with Pakistan over the years on this [but] Pakistan remains absolutely critical to the solution of the problem in Afghanistan.”

The solution the Trump administration seeks is a matter of conjecture; what is known is that it had wanted to stay on in that war-devastated country for an indefinite period. It is worth recalling here that during his meeting with the Afghan President on the sidelines of last September’s UN General Assembly session, Trump had said “we are there [in Afghanistan] for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons is to stop these terrorist organizations which, for whatever reason seem to accumulate in Afghanistan more than any other place.”

To want something to happen and have the ability to make it happen is very different, however. For the success of his new Afghan strategy Trump sent a reinforcement of 3,000 troops, increasing US troop presence to 14,000. These soldiers of course could not do what previously some 140,000 soldiers had failed to do. The plan though was to rely on escalation of the air campaign. As NBS News reported in the year just ended, the US Air Force unleashed triple the amount of bombs it dropped in Afghanistan in 2016. But there was a serious problem with that plan: wars cannot be won by dropping bombs from the air. According to different sources, including a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, 46 percent of the country is either controlled by the Taliban or is under their influence. Given the ground situation the ‘number of reasons’ for which the US is in Afghanistan, apparently, have come down to just one: finding a face-saving solution to America’s longest war.

As for Pakistan, Washington and Kabul of course blame it for their troubles. A line that often figures in conversations in this country as well about the Afghan war is ‘since everyone is pointing the finger at Pakistan there must be something wrong that it is doing’. First of all, the ‘everyone’ referred to are the parties to the conflict, and hence would say what they are saying. Second, if Pakistan is hedging its bets, there is nothing new or wrong about it. All countries protect and promote what they deem to be in their own interest. As noted earlier, if Trump could have his way he would secure a permanent stay in Afghanistan for reasons other than defeating the Taliban. It surely is in Pakistan’s interest to see a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, but a one that doesn’t rub it the wrong way.

As things stand, considering that nearly half of Afghanistan is under the Taliban’s sway, Islamabad’s insistence that they have no safe havens here is believable. Taliban fighters don’t need to have sanctuaries here, but contacts with their leaders are no secret. In fact, their previous emir Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike inside Pakistan close to the border with Afghanistan. And the reason is obvious enough. Given the geopolitics of this region, assigning India a greater role in that country is a recipe for perpetual war. The Trump administration would be wise to review that part of its Afghan policy. In any event, the Taliban are not going to give up the fight. The US needs to make things easier for itself, the Afghan people, and Pakistan where the blowback from the Afghan war has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives. The shift in US officials’ attitude towards Islamabad suggests it is now ready to end this brutal, ceaseless war through a negotiated settlement.

Saida Fazal, "US, Afghanistan and us," Business Recorder. 2018-02-08.
Keywords: Political science , Haqqani network , Spring offence , Bilateral relationship , Inspector General , Terrorist organizations , Dropping bombs , Afghistan , APAPPS , CENTCOM , NDS , US