US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran poses immediate risks to the NATO alliance, to stability in the Middle East, and to the global non-proliferation regime.
It also has significant, and deleterious, implications for South Asia.
New Delhi In A Tough Spot
India now finds itself in an immediate diplomatic pickle: It must figure out how to maintain its important economic relations with Tehran while not jeopardizing its rapidly deepening ties with Washington.
Iran is a critical energy partner for India.
Last year, Tehran was New Delhi’s third-largest oil supplier.
India plans to double its natural gas use by 2022, which makes Iran’s bountiful natural gas supplies all the more attractive — particularly with India’s access to gas-rich Central Asia hampered by security problems in Afghanistan and by a lack of transit trade rights in Pakistan.
Washington’s new sanctions on Tehran will complicate New Delhi’s ability to do business with Iran — at a time when India has never been keener to work with Tehran. Recall that New Delhi recently concluded a deal with Tehran to develop a transport corridor project stretching from the Chabahar port in southern Iran into Afghanistan.
The Modi government will need to execute a delicate diplomatic dance to maintain cordial relations with both Tehran and Washington.
Given its proven ability to carry out other successful diplomatic balancing acts—witness its solid relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians—there’s reason to believe New Delhi will figure out a way to pull off the right moves.
But it won’t be easy.
Good And Bad News for Islamabad
These challenges for India represent a net benefit for Pakistan. Additionally, new sanctions on Tehran are less problematic for Islamabad than they are for New Delhi. Pakistan’s deteriorating relationship with America means it will be less worried than India will be about the implications of flouting the new US sanctions regime on Iran.
Additionally, if India pulls back from Iran, Tehran could cultivate deeper economic relations with Islamabad; the two sides have already indicated a desire to strengthen trade ties. Tehran may even explore the possibility of contributing to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a connectivity project staunchly opposed by New Delhi.
However, any moves toward increased Pakistan-Iran ties will worry Saudi Arabia, Islamabad’s longstanding ally, and Tehran’s bitter rival.
Additionally, more broadly, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal—a decision that had resounding Saudi support—will sharpen an already-intensifying regional rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran. And Pakistan could get caught in the middle.
The Saudis could pressure Pakistan to prove its continued commitment to Riyadh, perhaps by asking for troop contributions—a request Pakistan has granted previously. Meanwhile, the Iranians could dangle enticing energy deals to try to wean Pakistan, even if only modestly, away from Riyadh. For Islamabad, the stakes of intensifying Saudi-Iranian rivalry are high. Pakistan shares a border with Iran, and Tehran alleges that anti-Iran rebels supported by Riyadh are present on the Pakistani side of the border.
The possibility of Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict poses a direct security risk for Pakistan.
Another Destabilization Risk For Afghanistan
Trump’s decision to jettison the Iran deal could prompt dangerous Iranian retaliations, most of them in the Middle East. These may include attacks on Israeli targets and stepped-up support for proxies such as Hezbollah. However, Tehran could also retaliate by ramping up support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Such a scenario—Shia Iran cooperating with a Sunni extremist group—is not as far-fetched as it may seem.
Tehran and the Taliban, united in their opposition to the US military presence in Afghanistan, have already forged some diplomatic and military cooperation.
The Taliban opened an office in Iran in 2012, and it’s worth recalling that when Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was droned in Baluchistan, Pakistan, in 2016, he was returning from a visit to Iran. Meanwhile, Tehran has sent shipments of small arms to the Taliban. According to senior Afghan officials, Tehran is also providing military training to some Taliban units in Iran.
For Tehran, intensifying its backing of the Taliban would be a relatively cost-free way of undercutting Washington. Indeed, by bolstering America’s top nemesis in Afghanistan, the Taliban could deliver another blow to an already-faltering US war effort.
Trump’s decision to walk away from the Iran deal is freighted with far-reaching implications that go beyond the Middle East. Not only is the move of great consequence for South Asia, but it also risks undercutting the Trump administration’s strategy there.
Indeed, Washington aims to strengthen its ever-growing ties with New Delhi and to weaken a Taliban insurgency that’s arguably never been stronger.
Scuttling the Iran deal puts India in a tough spot and provides Iran with a perfect pretext to cozy up to the Taliban.
As President Trump might say in one of his tweets: Not good.
This past week, the Taliban entered the city of Farah, the capital of a province by the same name located in western Afghanistan. For a brief period, it took over several government buildings before being pushed out by Afghan ground forces and US airstrikes.
The offensive marked one of the relatively few times in the nearly 17-year war that the Taliban managed to seize areas in major urban spaces. It also highlighted the great reach of the insurgency.
Once limited to the Taliban’s traditional bastions in the east and south, it has now spread to western areas such as Farah, as well as to the country’s northern reaches. The Taliban now controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since US forces entered the country in October 2001. The Taliban has arguably never been stronger.
At first glance, this is perplexing. By some measures, the insurgency is a spent force. It has been hit hard on the battlefield for nearly 20 years. It has experienced a rapid series of leadership changes, which has exacerbated an ongoing trend of fracturing and factionalism within the ranks.
Yet the reality on the ground amplifies just how powerful the Taliban has become. According to the most credible estimates, the group now controls or contests 40-50 percent of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts. Additionally, casualty figures for Afghan security forces and civilians have broken new records, attesting to the intensity of the fighting.
So why is the Taliban so strong? The answers lies in factors and conditions both inside and outside Afghanistan. Inside the country, security forces are beleaguered and overburdened.
Though the US-led training mission has strengthened the capacities of Afghan police and soldiers in recent years, they continue to struggle to lead counterinsurgency efforts from the front — the position they have been in since the foreign combat war ended at the end of 2014.
Their most glaring struggles lie in air power (a notable deficiency, given the strong role that airstrikes play in counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan) and intelligence collection.
Additionally, local policing is a mess. The national government in Kabul has outsourced security responsibilities in many rural communities to pro-government militias that often fail to protect local populations. The Taliban has exploited this dynamic and projected itself as a better security provider, thereby winning over local populations in rural spaces, and enabling the insurgents to gain a foothold.
Furthermore, drug production is breaking new records in Afghanistan, and this benefits the Taliban’s bottom line in a big way. The opium trade accounts for a large portion of the group’s finances.
The external factors that explain its strength revolve around the outside support enjoyed by the insurgency. Pakistan’s largesse is well-known: The leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which stages some of the most brutal and sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan, continue to find refuge in Pakistan.
Iran has provided more modest levels of support to the Taliban, including small arms shipments and — according to officials in western Afghanistan, near the Iran border — training to some Taliban units.
Now that the Trump administration has pulled out of the nuclear deal, worsening an already-fraught US-Iranian relationship, Tehran will have a strong incentive to ramp up such support to the Taliban. Furthermore, according to US military officials, Russia may now be providing military support to the Taliban as well.
There is a basic truth about insurgencies: So long as they can count on external support — and especially external sanctuaries — they will not die. The FARC rebels in Colombia, for example, enjoyed safe havens in neighboring Venezuela. And they remained a formidable fighting force for more than five decades.
Finally, there is the US and its inability to craft a strategy capable of taming the Taliban. In the early days of the war, America had two clearly articulated goals in Afghanistan: Destroy the sanctuaries used by Al-Qaeda leaders to help plan the 9/11 attacks, and remove their Taliban hosts from power. Both objectives were achieved in relatively short order.
Ever since then, however, Washington has struggled to articulate a plan for tackling the Taliban threat — one with clearly stated and realistically achievable means and ends. Without a clearly articulated plan, it is very hard to succeed.
The Taliban’s continued strength undercuts the very essence of the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy. The White House’s goal is to increase battlefield pressure on the Taliban so that it finally agrees to stop fighting, and to start a peace process with Kabul. Unfortunately, the Taliban’s battlefield successes give it little incentive to stop fighting.
The takeaway? What the Taliban did in Farah is bound to happen again — many times, and in many different places around a country unlikely to see the end of its interminable war anytime soon.
When we will we ever learn? How many more young British soldiers do we have to send to be slaughtered, maimed or traumatised in futile foreign calamities at the behest of US presidents? In the buildup to Iraq and Libya, critics were ridiculed as naive peaceniks or demonised as the heartless useless idiots of former western clients Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
What came next? Hundreds of thousands perished, millions were injured and displaced, while extremist jihadists flourished. With the British government preparing to bend to Donald Trump’s demands to double troops in Afghanistan, there are no excuses. We know the Afghan conflict – the longest in US history – has been a disaster. This is a blood sacrifice for the megalomaniac in the White House, paid by young Brits, teenagers among them.
According to a poll, 56% of Britons believe that military involvement in Afghanistan “has not been worthwhile”; just 25% take the alternate view. Public opinion does not always mean wisdom, so let’s judge if they’re correct. 456 Brits have perished in the conflict; and – according to one study – more than a quarter of the 220,000 personnel who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been left wounded, ill or psychologically harmed. The US has expended a trillion dollars on this calamity; it may have cost Britain tens of billions.
What do we have to show for it? More than a hundred thousand dead Afghans, tens of thousands of civilians among them, and yet the government control just 56% of the country’s territory. The Taliban, it is estimated, are active in 70% of the country. Opium production reached a record high last year. According to the former western-backed Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the war is a failure. “We have more radicalism, we have more extremism, we have more attacks all around,” he says, accusing the west of “targeting Afghan homes, Afghan people and not the sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan”.
Before Trump assumed the presidency, it is notable that he described the war as “a terrible mistake”, a “total disaster”, and a “complete waste”. Now he is not only sending his own young citizens to die and suffer for this “terrible mistake”, but demanding we send our own. Where are all those supposedly moderate, sensible commentators who decry Trump as a demagogic menace to democracy and peace? Will they speak out, or is Trump only a quasi-fascist danger until he wants to engage in war, and then he becomes presidential, sensible, a statesman even?
The victims of Trump are barely remarked upon. What of the western-backed Saudi slaughter in Yemen, and the sixfold increase in US airstrikesthere under Trump? What of the 215% increase in civilian deaths because of US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria under Trump? What of Trump fuelling violence in occupied Palestine? This man should not be allowed to dictate British defence policy. We cannot allow our government to casually toss away the lives of our young simply because Trump demands it.
US government investigators have found far-reaching mismanagement by the World Bank in its capacity as the administrator of the largest multi-country official fund to assist the Afghan government with its social expenditures and to reconstruct the country.
A report to the US Congress, issued by the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), found that billions of dollars held in the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), administered by the World Bank, are at risk.
The detailed report stresses inadequate project monitoring, poor information on programs to donor governments, often inadequate project evaluation reports and a host of other failings.
The SIGAR report also raises questions about both the World Bank’s management, especially in a war-riven country that is among the most corrupt in the world. This also has bearings on broader issues and policy approaches to development in countries in conflict.
The United States has provided $126 billion in reconstruction funding to Afghanistan. As SIGAR reports indicate, including its most recent quarterly report to the Congress, corruption continues to undermine many US projects and programs.
Indeed, SIGAR has previously suggested that the vast inflows of donor cash may have added to the nation’s corruption problems.
An independent evaluation of the ARTF last year by US AID, the largest single donor, was not only highly critical of the World Bank, but also of US AID officials for not monitoring the Bank’s work far more closely in the past.
Security risks bar inspections
Some of the Bank’s problems stem from providing funds to programs in areas where the security dangers are so high that on-the-ground inspections are not possible. For that reason, it is for example not clear whether funds have gone to real or to “ghost” teachers in schools that the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund has supported.
The SIGAR study reports, for example, “A senior aide to Afghanistan’s President told us that the structure of the ARTF allows for ill-conceived projects to be funded because there is no repayment obligation and that dysfunctional projects are nearly impossible to eliminate.”
World Bank’s anti-corruption record
The World Bank has been given the opportunity to review the report and its response is largely defensive. At one point, it says it provides donors with all information on its ARTF work except where such information is restricted by Bank policies. This kind of “Kafkaesk” language only serves to damage the Bank’s image further.
While this report is important and will no doubt influence views in the US Congress about the World Bank, which needs Congressional approval for its funding, the response is signed solely by the resident World Bank country director in Kabul – not by the Bank’s president Jim Kim.
He has too often stood aloof from the anti-corruption work that, in his public speeches, he claims is a Bank priority.
To be sure, the World Bank’s Integrity Vice Presidency does excellent work seeking to curb abuse in procurement, while its Governance Department has been effective in strengthening policies and anti-corruption knowledge.
Nevertheless, the World Bank’s anti-corruption commitment is undermined by some of its operational projects and programs in developing countries. The new SIGAR report should prompt Jim Kim to launch a major internal review of its management effectiveness in countries in conflict and in post-conflict with particular emphasis on curbing corruption.
Key questions not asked
International donors who have provided around $10 billion to the ARTF over the years are also to blame. They have not supervised the World Bank’s work sufficiently. And they have failed to ask the basic question: Is there any point to provide the ARTF with more cash?
Afghanistan is a cesspool of corruption and the provision of billions of dollars by foreign donor agencies to the Afghan government is enriching a few at the expense of the many. The World Bank, US AID and other official donors have repeatedly ignored the lessons of the missing billions of dollars of funds in the country.
“Escaping the Fragility Trap,” is a new report by the LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development, an international commission including former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, with the research directed by UK scholar Sir Paul Collier.
It argues that donors engaged in conflict countries and ones emerging from conflict need to be guided by some key basic approaches, including:
• being realistic, not idealistic;
• accepting that development demands small steps;
• pursuing long-term nation building strategies; and,
• involving citizens fully in all aspects of reconstruction and development.
Citizen engagement in the planning, the disbursement of funds and their monitoring and evaluation has not been the way chosen by most international donors.
Rather, as in the case of the World Bank and ARTF, they rely too heavily on international consultants. That is the wrong course. Collier and others have been saying this for years.
Now SIGAR is calling on the World Bank to reform. The Bank’s response so far is bureaucratic and in a country like Afghanistan that may amount to more wasted aid funds.
It is time World Bank chief Kim engaged and challenged international donors and his own staff to comprehensively rethink the role of aid in fragile states. There is no better starting point than the findings of the commission on development approaches in fragile states.
While the Taliban’s violent insurgency continues in Afghanistan, corrupt politicians and warlords are injecting ethnic politics into the minds of Afghanis to undermine the government’s control and threaten the country’s security.
A so-called “Great National Alliance” was declared in Ankara, Turkey a week ago in the presence of Afghan First Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum and other Afghan politicians, including the powerful warlord Atta Mohammad Noor.
The warlords are agreed about two things: muscle and money. The warlords are deeply involved in the internal affairs of the Afghan government and they all have personal militias.
By any measure, the country’s stability hangs as much on the internal struggle between the Afghan strongmen as on the Taliban insurgency. Remarkably, the two forces — the Taliban, and the warlords — have fought with each other since Soviet invasion troops left the country in 1989.
They battled each other to capture Kabul, with the Taliban eventually seizing the capital. However, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US came to rely on warlords in order to topple the repressive Taliban regime. Count this as a strategic mistake by the US in Afghan politics. Furthermore, criminal Afghan politicians have long depended on intimidation and coercion to sustain influence over Afghan civilians.
The government is facing two challenges. The country is politically divided between warlords and local strongmen on one side and reformist, educated technocrats on the other. The second challenge is the ongoing Taliban insurgency and other terror groups inside the country.
Fundamentally, each side is promoting different paths for the country’s future. Persistent Afghan government greed is the indirect result of 9/11, as Western intervention led to the payment of millions of dollars to former warlords and their militias.
The system is operated by Afghan politicians who threaten state security. The agitation among political forces is nurtured by unethical politicians seeking to safeguard their electoral constituencies. In addition, Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country where it’s unthinkable that an ethnic Tajik will vote for an ethnic Pashtun candidate and vice versa. As a result, the warlords, regional strongmen, and militias divide the country into distinct power centers.
The system depends on international financial support, which has been handed to Kabul without conditions since 2001. To date, former jihadi leaders, warlords, and regional strongmen have profited from the earlier defeat of the Taliban regime. They are considered to be the country’s most influential political elites, having gained access to government facilities with the help of jobs in the bureaucracy.
These warlords and former jihadists are accused of human-rights violations. The elites in Kabul have deeply criminalized the politics of Afghans, with many of them involved in narcotics, smuggling, illegal mining, kidnapping, torture, and detention. Local strongmen openly promote ethnic and identity politics, fueling dangerous sectarian movements and polarization.
This is a tragic legacy of former president Hamid Karzai, who sponsored the criminal networks, empowering local strongmen through financial aid deals and thus corrupting politicians.
The parliament is full of former warlords and strongmen who gain access through nefarious actions.
Most of the warlords are responsible for the violence in parts of the country. They establish control over the use of force in provinces and districts where they have installed militiamen.
Former commanders and combatants who fought the Soviet army and later the Taliban are at the disposal of warlords and jihadists. Some warlords use a combination of threats and rewards to keep the commanders in check. Furthermore, warlords favor their own tribe and clan, leading to corruption.
To hold the warlords and corrupt politicians accountable the judiciary system must be strengthened. The security apparatus must hand over corrupt politicians and warlords to the justice department. And removing strongmen and the warlords from the Afghan security sector will pave the way for transparent judiciary system.
The current government, with the assistance of the US, could influence and shape the Afghan political scene by holding accountable the warlords and local strongmen for their heinous acts.
Lastly, the Afghan government must also know that there is no difference between Taliban insurgency and nefarious acts of warlords and local strongmen — both of these forces cheat Afghan society in the name of politics.
It is challenging enough that the war in Afghanistan has gone on for almost 17 years. But now the Trump administration is raising hackles in Congress by cloaking in official secrecy an unusual amount of data about the longest armed conflict in American history, including, until very recently, the dwindling size of the beleaguered Afghan military.
Information contained in a recently issued government report provides a window into what the Pentagon has been keeping secret since last year: The Afghan army has shrunk by 11 percent and insurgents have gained territory, raising questions about whether the Pentagon has been concealing a strategy gone awry.
President Trump, who called the war “a complete waste” as a candidate, announced his plan for keeping up the fight last August, saying he shared the American people’s “frustration” with seemingly endless conflict, but was committed to sending more troops to the area without a timetable for withdrawal.
But just as the Pentagon began sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan, it also began classifying key war metrics it had previously made public. That included ways of measuring the success or failure of America’s mission: training and funding the Afghan military so it can beat back the Taliban and other insurgents.
The latest report by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction — who objected strongly to the new program of secrecy and pried some of the data out of US military leaders in Afghanistan — contained some worrisome figures.
Afghan troops shrank by about 36,000, to 296,409 from January 2017 to January 2018. Taliban and other insurgents increased their territory from 11 percent to 14.5 percent of the country over the same period. Multiple terror attacks in April killed dozens in Kabul, with the Islamic State claiming credit.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration still is refusing to disclose the number of Afghan military personnel dying in action, or those deciding to leave their jobs. Detailed performance assessments of Afghan troops also remain classified.
“I’m still trying to figure out just exactly what the strategy that we’re implementing is other than what they’ve done before,” said Leon Panetta, who served as secretary of defense, under Barack Obama. “I think sometimes they use the classified approach in order to cover up the fact that they really don’t have a strategy.”
Representative Stephen Lynch, the South Boston Democrat who is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said detailed metrics on the Afghan military are crucial to understanding the success of the mission.
“It’s a canary in the coal mine,’’ Lynch said of attrition and casualty numbers. “It’s an early indicator of how things are going there.”
Lynch also complains that the military is making in-person oversight harder for members of Congress visiting Afghanistan, with greater restrictions on areas soldiers will secure to ensure safe travel.
Lynch has visited Iraq and Afghanistan more than 20 times. On the trips, he visits infrastructure projects the United States is investing heavily in to ensure they are functioning, and questions contractors and members of the military about conditions on the ground.
“We don’t want to go to Iraq or Afghanistan and just get a PowerPoint presentation we could get in Washington — we want to be out there,” Lynch said. “I’m seeing a decidedly more limited ability to do that, to do my work.”
The Pentagon’s secrecy has extended beyond the Afghan military, making it more difficult for the public to find out precisely how many Americans are deployed there.
Starting this year, the Pentagon stripped the number of US troops deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from quarterly reports available online.
Members of the press can ask for the figures from Defense Department officials, but they are no longer publicly posted. The nation currently has about 14,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, according to a Defense Department spokesman, up from 9,000 in 2016.
The Pentagon insists it is not trying to hide bad news out of Afghanistan.
Army General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has said the Afghan military data was classified at the request of Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani.
Defense Secretary James Mattis brushed off the shrinking Afghan military in testimony to senators last week, saying the United States is focusing on “quality not quantity” of the forces. But the combination of secrecy and the negative numbers that are trickling out are prompting fresh questions about the Trump administration’s strategy.
Trump, like George W. Bush and Obama before him, is confronted with what his own commanders have called a stalemate in the region, where Taliban fighters continue to defy the Afghan government despite Washington pouring tens of billions of dollars into a reconstruction effort to prop up the local military.
Obama increased US troop levels to more than 100,000 in a surge in 2010 and 2011, and cut them to less than 10,000 before he left office. The Taliban were beaten back to rural areas but successfully waited out the surge.
It’s unclear how Trump’s sending a far more modest surge of a few thousand more troops now is expected to change the tide.
The current strategy is to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, through training the Afghan military to the point of self-reliance and persuading Pakistan to crack down on insurgents. The Afghan government is in control of territory where 65 percent of the country’s population lives. The US military has set a goal of bumping that to 80 percent by the end of 2019.
Representative Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina and a longtime member of the Armed Services Committee, said he feels as if he is hearing the same story in classified briefings from the Pentagon on Afghanistan that he did five years ago.
“Nothing has changed since 2001 and all they’re trying to do is to keep the truth from the American people, and I think that’s wrong,” Jones said.
Jones, once a gung-ho supporter of the war who led the charge to rename french fries “Freedom Fries” in the House cafeteria after France opposed the Iraq War, has since had a radical change of heart and is a vocal opponent of the continuing presence in Afghanistan. He has unsuccessfully pushed for the House to have a debate about withdrawal.
“Congress just sits by like Nero watching Rome burn,” Jones said.
Trump tweeted repeatedly before becoming president that the United States should get out of the war in Afghanistan, which he characterized as a “total disaster.” But once in office, his national security team presented him with the bleak prospect of withdrawing from the area and then watching the Taliban declare victory and endanger US allies.
The many years of the US military engagement, the nearly $900 billion spent, and the lives lost — more than 2,400 American fatalities since 2001 — would look more like a tragic squander than the necessary response to the Sept. 11 attacks it was at the start.
The chokehold on detailed Afghanistan information reflects Trump’s penchant for surprise in warfare.
He refused to say how many additional troops he was sending to Afghanistan in August, saying “America’s enemies must never know our plans” and criticizing Obama for allowing the Taliban to wait him out by setting a withdrawal date of 2017 in advance.
Even lawmakers were initially in the dark about the new plan. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, held up key Defense Department nominations to pressure the Pentagon to release more information about their Afghanistan strategy last fall. He relented after Mattis held a private briefing for senators.
The new strategy’s one year anniversary is approaching this summer, at which point restive lawmakers are likely to clamor for updates and assurances from the administration that progress is being made and a potential exit plan is laid out.
“How long is this war going to go on with no resolution in sight?” said Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont who is also on the Oversight Committee.
Under occasionally pointed questioning last week in the Senate, Mattis conceded the mission of training Afghan troops under the mini-surge would take a while.
“It’s going to take time, senator,” he said. “And I don’t refute this has been a long fight.”
Before agreeing in April to support President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Sen. Rand Paul said Trump “told me over and over again in general we’re getting the hell out of [Afghanistan].” Based on my experiences during two combat deployments to Afghanistan in 2005 and 2011, the president’s instincts are spot-on correct.
Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the 1978 coup that violently brought communist rulers into power in Kabul. Two years later the Soviet Union invaded. Ten years later, they withdrew, laying the foundation for the Mujahideen Civil War that led to the rise of the Taliban in 1996 and their war against the Northern Alliance. This war was still raging on 9/11 when the U.S. military entered the scene. The fundamental causes of these various civil wars still remain today. After 40 years of fighting, the Taliban’s fight against Kabul is not going to simply end due to U.S. intervention.
The sooner Trump translates his instincts on ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan into policy, the better for America. A withdrawal will improve American national security and strengthen economic prosperity. Extricating U.S. troops from Afghanistan will not be easy, however, because there are many in Washington — senior military leaders among them — who want to defend the status quo at any cost. There is no benefit to the United States in trying to fight yesterday’s failed battles but trying to do it “better.” The strategy has failed, not the tactics.
In response to suggestions the U.S. military should finally leave Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense James Mattis emphatically stated, “We’re there to do a job. We’re not there to stay forever. But the job comes first.” The Washington Post reported an unnamed senior military official claimed Taliban leaders “are realizing that they can’t just wait us out anymore … That’s huge.” My personal observations gained through two combat deployments there, and overwhelming independent evidence, suggest otherwise.
In a report released days ago by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Mattis said his job was to “strengthen the Afghan security forces enough to convince the insurgents that they cannot win on the battlefield, driving them to choose reconciliation.”
This was the same goal cited by U.S. officials in 2010 as the objective of the 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops then fighting the Taliban. The effort didn’t succeed then, and it won’t succeed now — not only because we have only 16,000 NATO troops, but because the strategy is fatally flawed. As a student of Clausewitz, the secretary of defense should understand that the problems in this war, like all wars, are political rather than military in nature. American soldiers cannot solve this puzzle. And, more importantly, they don’t need to for America’s security. As of the publication of SIGAR’s report, the Taliban have refused to even begin discussions of peace pushed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani since last February and hoped for by Kabul and Washington alike for almost a decade.
Recent horrific bombings in the Afghan capital and elsewhere in the country have continued a strong and increasing trend of insurgent and terrorist attacks. Last Monday, 25 people were killed—including 9 journalists—in two Kabul bombings. The New York Times reported the attacks were “the latest spasm of a conflict that began more than a decade and a half ago and shows no sign of ebbing.” But that wasn’t the end of the bad news.
The SIGAR report issued last week documented a staggering number of instances in which U.S. military, civilian, and economic objectives had failed — now 17 years from the beginning and still counting. The reason for the failures are not hard to identify: Washington is trying to solve political, economic, and diplomatic problems with military power. So long as America’s foreign policy elites continue pursuing a dead-end strategy, they will deepen this failure and continue to bleed the United States of troops and treasure.
Many in the Washington establishment incorrectly believe leaving Afghanistan in its current state will increase the threat to America and make it “once again” a safe haven for terrorists who might one day want to attack the U.S. homeland. This is an argument based on a flawed understanding of what conditions on the ground in Afghanistan are like and on what military power over there can accomplish. And it also includes a willful blind spot to the actual outcomes of their policy choices over the last decade and a half.
American security can best be maintained by engaging in robust global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance focused on transnational terrorists, strengthening border security, and through improved cooperation between the CIA, FBI, and local law enforcement. Conventional troops spread thin in numerous but isolated spots around the world have not and will not reduce U.S. vulnerability to future terrorist attacks. Nation-building is costly, counterproductive, and undermines to the security of America by draining precious resources essential for rebuilding national power.
It’s long past time Washington recognizes the facts on the ground mean the fight on the ground is Afghanistan’s and will never be resolved regardless of U.S. intentions or taxpayer-funded assistance. No number of American military troops will ever change their political dynamics.
The people on the ground who have to live with the outcome are the only ones who can manufacture a lasting resolution. Until — or unless — they come to a decision on their own, U.S. blood and taxpayer dollars will pour indefinitely into a bottomless pit, without even the possibility of achieving something that benefits Americans.
Trump’s instincts and Paul’s emphatic requests to end the U.S. mission in Afghanistan are both correct. For the sake of American security and economic interests, it is time to turn Afghanistan over to Afghans and focus on rebuilding our military for fights against near-peers who might actually pose an existential threat to America.
China has close and stable political relationship with Afghanistan. In addition to economic and commercial support, Beijing has always supported Kabul to restore peace in the country by participating in quadrilateral and tripartite talks to pave the way for an appropriate peaceful solution in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has always had a positive political relationship with China, though the relations were not used to be very close in the past, it’s worth mentioning that their relations have never been tense and controversial too. China has proven in history that it has always been a friendly neighbor to Afghanistan. Of course, China is distinguished for Afghanistan not only for good neighborly relations, but also for Beijing’s emerging power in economic, its recent rapid growth and development, which has turned the country into the world’s most known country for its economic growth. Sharing a border with such country is an advantage that Afghanistan has always enjoyed, and this country has been a suitable model for Afghan side for many years in commercial, political and cultural relations.
Generally, Afghanistan plays an active role in the project for three main reasons;
First, 18 years after the establishment of a transitional government in Afghanistan, the country has accomplished significant achievements in some sectors, but has not yet reached stable economic growth, self-reliant and still needs financial support from the international community. Afghanistan has received billions of dollars in international aids, however, the methods to utilize and distribute these aids were not so much in harmony with the will of the international community and the donor countries. The contributing countries seem to have already lost trust and hope in the government. In addition to this, Afghans also no longer have trust in the movement’s ability to fairly distribute the aids. In my opinion, creating a sustainable economy in the country and the provision of peace and security should be equally a priority for the Afghan government. Relying on international aids has never been a good solution, and we should define our own agenda in the light of existed circumstances in order to turn Afghanistan into an independent country, which can contribute and take advantages of regional and international economic projects, such as The Belt and Road Initiative. This will be one of the steps that will not only help Afghanistan develop its economy, but also to build broad relations with the countries in the region and beyond.
Politicians and leaders of Afghan government have repeatedly argued in political meetings and parliamentary sessions that the war has been imposed on Afghanistan, but the continuation of the violence and the government’s inability to control the insecurity, can in many cases be attributed to the inability and inadequacy of the state. The Afghan government is in the process of bringing peace across the country, although the talks and efforts about this process sometimes fade away, but one of the key targets of the previous regime and the current government is the discussion of peace talks. It is believed that without the support of the countries that influence the region and the world, the success of this process is controversial and occasionally impossible. China is one of those counties Afghanistan has repeatedly called on for its support, mainly due to its influence in the region, especially on the subjects that involved Pakistan’s government, but Kabul must understand that China is considering the unspoiled intimacy of the relationship with Pakistan. China will take part in Afghanistan's peace talks, but will never damage its good relations with Pakistan. Afghanistan's contribution to such large-scale projects will bring Afghanistan closer to China, in other words, can participate in the joint economic program of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, and will be able to help to participate in the peace process. Another issue that has led to the emergence of small groups of local terrorists in different parts of the country is lack of employment and poor economy. Economic projects such as BRI not only promote the level of economy and trade, but also offer employment opportunities, which will have positive impacts on the security issues.
The idea of "One Belt and One Road" started about 5 years ago which spread in most countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and even neighboring countries such as Pakistan. There are many investments in the construction of these countries, as an example you can refer to Ethiopia, the smallest country in Africa, the rapid economic growth of this country marks it as a mini China.
Countries such as Laos, Maldives and some others that have history of economic corporation with China, are enjoying rapid economic growth after the partnership. Afghanistan’s positive participation in the BRI will lead the country to benefit from a financial development in foreseeable years.
Afghanistan as a country that lacks economic independency is relying on the support of international community. The country is in need of such projects in order to create a stable and independent economy. With a clear program in such large economic project and with its unique geographical location the country plays an important role in “One Belt and One Road”. Taking active role in such project not only promotes its economy, but also builds a positive political relationship in the regional level.
As a conclusion, projects such as "One Belt and One Road" not only have great economic, political and security implications for China, but also can also help Afghanistan in development and peacemaking. Chinese officials have always emphasized that the One Belt One Road project is not exclusive to China alone, but to any interested and active country. China has an active part in the project and wishes to consider itself as responsible body.
This project is ahead of time. Therefore, Afghanistan needs to adopt its own policy and programs for it. On the other hand, China needs to pay more attention to the success of this project in Afghanistan, as the majority of Afghans have not even been familiar with the name of this project, and the success of such massive economic projects not only requires government support but also depends on the support of ordinary people.
With the support of the Afghan government, the country can focus on two key areas for success: first, to further explore and study more closely, and even raise awareness among the people by holding more joint scientific and social meetings. With the government and scientific institutions and the media such plans will not only define the project in Afghanistan, but also be vital to create a clear policy for the implementation of this project. The second principle is that China will have more tangible development plans for Afghanistan, especially in the border regions with the country and targeted cities. Afghanistan must first attract Afghans’ belief and trust in order to carry out the "One Relt and One Road" successfully.
"One Belt One Road" also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive project valued hundreds of billions of dollars, which was announced by Mr. Xi Jinping, the President of China on 9th of May 2013, at a ceremony attended by leaders of around 30 countries at the Nazarbayev University in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, for developing world’s free trade at international level. This project is the modern form of the historic Silk Road, which was until the 15th century, for 1700 years the largest trade route between Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, and has now become the focus of most countries in the world. Economically, this is a massive project and one of the president Xi’s initiatives. $124 billion will be invested in this project and 165 countries will contribute to BRI which will connect 65 countries where 4.6 billion of the world's population live.
The project has two basic components:
1. The economic route of the Silk Road that originated from China and reached Central European countries through Central Asia.
2. The Silk Road that connected China through the seas to Southeast Asia, Western Asia, Middle East and Africa.
Importance of BRI for China
The BRI is significant for China in three essential ways：
First, China is increasing its role in politics and economy across the world, investing in such projects can make China a regional economic leader, at the same time, strengthening its position in the world’s market. Additionally, taking into consideration of the BRI focuses on the world’s economy and trade, for this unique reason China wants to benefit from this project for the expansion of political and cultural relations in the region and beyond.
Second, investing in BRI is one of the major investments in China’s economic growth in recent years. The intention of this project is not only to rebuild the Silk Road, but also to launch a new route for Chinese goods that is why it’s great investment to expand and raise the profit from global trade by China.
Third, reduction in time and costs of transportation of goods to international markets; reducing shipping costs and saving shipping time, both in terms of increasing the profits of freight transport and in terms of competition in global merchant markets is a big hit for China. China's emphasis on infrastructure is aimed at making its currency (Renmin Bi) into a global currency and boost its credibility is another benefit China can bring by completing this project.
The role and importance of BRI for Afghanistan
Due to its geopolitical position as the transit route of the region, Afghanistan is known as a roundabout in the region. Afghanistan is the only country in the Middle East and Southern Asia that has no boarder with oceans and seas, as in the nineteenth century, the former Chancellor ‘Pandat Jahur Lal Nehru’ in his book "A look at the history of the world" states that if you look at the map, you can see that Afghanistan is separated from the sea by ‘Balochistan’. As a result of this, Afghanistan is like a house that does not have direct access to the main street except by crossing from the lands belonging to others, which is difficult and unpleasant. But the specific geographic location of Afghanistan has become a point of connecting economic corners in Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and East Asia, despite the fact that it has been insecure and not having any access to oceans. As Mr. Seyed Yaha Akhlaghi, the former head of the Facility for Transit of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, during the "International Convention" which took place in Kabul in August 2014 said that,
If the experience that the Ministry has in transportation is taken into consideration, the profit which can be made from this project will fund the costs for development and regulation of the country.
In the past Afghanistan played a significant role in two parts of the historic Silk Road. On the southern route of the Silk Road, which crossed the borders of China, first entered Kargizistan, then Fergana, and after passing through Balaq, Almalig and Atarra to Samarkand, Bukhara, Giohon, Bakteria (Balkh) and then to Marw and Sarakhs, From Sarakhs to Neishabur, Gorgan, Rey, Hekmatneh, Qazvin, Zanjan, Ardebil, Tabriz, and Yerevan. Then from Yerevan to Trabzon and Shaam ports on one side and on the other hand, passing through areas such as Kangavar, Bisotun, Fermits, Qasr Shirin to Baghdad and various other parts of current Iraq. Another subway route was the Silk Road from Balkh to the Dareh Shekaree and passing it to Bamyan, Kabul, Peshawar and eventually India.
Afghanistan can also benefit from BRI to regain its past status and reputation in the region. Since Afghanistan is on two routes of the of the three main routes, it is an indication of the importance of Afghanistan's role in the project, that is, from north that connects China to Russia, Europe and North Africa through Central Asia (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and its central route that connects Central Asia through Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to Iran and the Persian Gulf, Turkey and the Mediterranean.
Afghanistan is not only important from its geographic point of view for China, but also from security and political point of view as neighboring country. China is facing similar problem with security in Xinjiang to that of Afghanistan as a result terrorist activities. Focusing on security in the region can build a close relationship and common goal between the two countries in fighting against terrorism. Afghanistan is a more distinct neighbor to China in comparison to other China’s neighboring countries, due to the vast and largely undisturbed underground sources and mines of the country. China is a country that is turning from an agricultural country to an industrial one, Afghanistan is full of valuable natural resources and commercial market, a partner such as Afghanistan is necessary for China’s economic growth.
Second part of the article will be published in the next issue
April 27, 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of war in Afghanistan. This coming October, the United States will mark 17 years on the ground there. It is past time for this conflict to end and even the Taliban seems to be coming around to that sad conclusion. The Taliban made a peace offer to the United States, President Ghani countered with an open-ended offer, local Taliban leaders have reached out to their opposite numbers on the ground, and most importantly, there have been spontaneous peace demonstrations in nearly half of Afghanistan’s provinces. The people, as usual, are out in front of their leaders.
Convergence is the phenomenon that charts the networking and transformation of illicit networks, like the Taliban. It is a widespread phenomenon and has created dysfunctional dynamics across the globe, from the FARC in Colombia to Hezbollah in the Levant to insurgents in the Philippines and North Africa. My task today is to consider what convergence means for making peace in Afghanistan.
To state the bottom line up front, convergence means that the fractiousness inherent to all things Afghan will be magnified. It will complicate peace making and peace building. It will militate against the grand bargain-type solutions to peace making that more organized states and insurgent groups tend to pursue. Convergence is a complicating factor, but not an insurmountable obstacle to peace.
By making peace in Afghanistan, I do not mean concluding negotiations or signing documents, which are only first steps toward the goal, but rather, the creation of real peace, where we have an Afghanistan at peace at home and with its neighbors, a peace as good as that which existed from 1933 to 1978.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider the creation of a classical peace agreement. The most commonly noted method is the grand bargain approach, where, in this case, between 4 and 12 parties would negotiate formally in one or more connected fora.
If there could be a grand bargain in Afghanistan, the first step in creating a comprehensive peace would be an agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Without that meeting of the minds, no comprehensive peace negotiation can succeed. By reason, carrot, or stick, Pakistan must work alongside Afghanistan to create a grand bargain, or at least, a meeting of the minds.
At or around the same time, there must be a reversal of the Taliban’s military fortunes. Insurgents don’t quit when they are winning, or when they think the other side is going to falter. The coalition in Afghanistan has new tools, more personnel, and wider authorities to get the job done. This is not likely to be a good season for Taliban fighters, although they have considerable opportunity for terror strikes and small tactical victories.
After the two neighboring governments have made an agreement and the Taliban has been “softened up,” then the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban could come to terms.
After a pact was signed, the real work would come in the execution of the agreement, not in the negotiations. Following an agreement, peace building among former combatants and ethnic groups in the country can take place. Over the next few years, processes like DDR--- disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants---will follow.
A Grand Bargain and all that needs to precede it are improbable in the next year or two. There is virtue in studying and preparing for some sort of Grand Bargain, but this process has a troubled past, and its present is fraught with complexity. Pakistan finds it hard to change its ways. They imagine the specter of India in their rear area. The Taliban swear that they won’t negotiate with the Government of Afghanistan and require the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Too many Afghans and Pakistanis have found ways to make war work for them. Peace will break many rice bowls.
Short of an effective grand bargain that leads to a comprehensive peace, what can be done in the meantime?
First, for the foreseeable future, the most rewarding approach to peace in Afghanistan may well be what I call, “Peace in Pieces.” It could proceed alongside grand negotiations or come after those negotiations. Most likely, it will precede them.
Peace in Pieces does not mean that a Grand Bargain-type negotiation could not take place. Both could well coexist. In the unlikely event of a near term Grand Bargain, there would be problems of implementation. For example, if Pakistan and Taliban Central agreed to make peace, what is the likelihood that all the major insurgent field commanders would obey? Even if the Grand Bargain could be achieved, somewhere between many and a significant number of major insurgent commanders would likely continue to fight and have to be talked down off the ramparts.
Likely, however, activities under the heading of Peace in Pieces can and should precede a Grand Bargain negotiation. The Government of Afghanistan and the coalition could assess the Taliban forces, target commanders on an area basis, and then, using carrots and sticks, “negotiate by action,” and then later in person to make a separate peace. Negotiation by action could include persuasion, bribery, or even using reinforced offensive tactical operations. Ceasefires in place could play a role as well.
Before negotiating in person, the Ghani government and the coalition would have to have an agreed-on package of incentives. What could a group gain beyond those things that are given to individuals who reconcile? Could the bruised Taliban forces receive government medical care? Could their best men be integrated into the ANA and ANP? Could Taliban leaders become district heads or even Provincial governors? Could they have candidates in the next parliamentary elections? How would the government protect compliant Taliban groups from the wrath of other Taliban elements?
In summary, opportunities for Peace in Pieces may arise of their own accord, but they can also be created by Afghan government and Coalition assets working in teams to focus all instruments of power on selected Taliban entities, working from the most vulnerable groups back toward the more powerful and coherent groups.
Second, to prepare to engage in any sort of negotiation, the Ghani government and the Coalition need to have plans for peace implementation on a local and later, on a national level. Issues there may include: modifications to the Constitution to allow local and provincial elections, DDR, aid to local fighters, land reform, improvements to local justice systems, repair to reconstruction sites, etc.
Local Community Development Councils will be central to reintegrating the Taliban groups. Based on the old National Solidarity Program and President Ashraf Ghani’s Citizen’s Charter, these 35,000 local, democratic, gender-integrated development councils are tailor-made to decide local issues associated with reintegration. With permission, World Bank funding could be used by the councils to help the national government make and keep peace on a local level.
The Afghan Government would have to lead on this process, but to delay planning only helps the enemy. A small group of government and Coalition interagency planners should be charged with planning for both Peace in Pieces or the Grand Bargain negotiation. Judging from peace demonstrations, the planners may be behind the situation on the ground in many areas.
Third, the theory of convergence suggests that there will always be a Taliban and some of it will be dysfunctional to building a stable peace. The Taliban is already a set of complex and multifunctional organizations and networks. There may be a few elements that are purely insurgents, but most groups are already engaged in some sort of illicit activities, with narcotics and smuggling being the most obvious, but profiteering from checkpoints and taxation perhaps being the most common. The Taliban’s illicit networks will morph and complicate peace building after any kind of negotiation.
A post-peace Taliban group has options. It might become a political party. Others could become an organization of holdout insurgents or terrorists --- like the offshoots of the IRA. A Taliban group may even keep the same name, abandon its ideological roots, and become primarily an organized crime network, as much of the FARC did in Colombia. It is also possible that years hence, groups using the Taliban brand would become synonymous with small-time bandits or smugglers.
The networks of the Taliban could also evolve into quasi-legitimate business groupings, part legal and part illegal. This is highly likely with the Taliban associated with narcotics traffic, which already involves extortion, private security, transportation, laboratory and inventory management, and genuine agribusiness.
Consider the frightening model that Hezbollah provides. It is at once a Lebanese political party, an insurgent group, a well-supplied militia, an Iranian expeditionary force, and an organized crime network, involved in car theft, kidnapping, and narcotics trafficking on three continents. The government will have to work hard to keep the Taliban from becoming a significant fraction of a Hezbollah equivalent.
All of this will complicate peace making and peace building. In the end, the development of an effective Afghan state will take place after the end of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban, the end of the nationwide insurgency, the end of a multi-generational battle against Taliban remnants, the defeat of corruption and narcotics trafficking, and the development of functioning governmental institutions and rule by law. Our children and their children will have their work cut out for them! Washington doesn’t want to hear that, but it is true nevertheless.
That brings me to a final point and that is about time and optimism. There is much confidence being spread about these days. That is understandable at a time of rising resources and a new strategy, but it is also risky. Consider this press statement by the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on March 28th of this year:
Dunford believes the right levels of resources now back the strategy, and this should bring new capabilities, boost confidence and build momentum in Afghanistan. This should bring pressure to bear on the Taliban to stop fighting and give them the incentive to reintegrate with the Afghan population and, more broadly, to seek some political process in Afghanistan for peace.
“With the conditions-based strategy now, the Taliban is looking at perpetual war that they cannot win,” Dunford said.
The chairman further saluted the growing capabilities of the Afghan Air Force and the American advisory effort, noting their potential contribution to securing more of the population to assist the 2019 election, helping to reduce casualties among Afghan forces, and furthering the process of reconciliation. These are high aspirations.
We must temper our optimism. The public in the United States has read comparatively little of the new strategy compared to what it reads about terrorist bombings in Afghan cities. We must be careful of optimistic statements that portend this year is the one where there will be, in effect, “a light at the end of the tunnel,” when at the same time so many terrorist strikes in Afghan cities could have the effect on the US public of a slow-motion Tet Offensive. We must be careful of generating expectations that are not liable to be accomplished in a single year or fighting season.
In the end, the creation of peace in Afghanistan will be as difficult as it is both warranted and overdue. If we can’t have peace as a whole, we need to begin by creating Peace in Pieces.