Why more troops won’t help Afghanistan

Wednesday, 07 June 2017 03:13 Written by  Barnett Rubin Read 165 times

Last Wednesday, a tanker truck, one of many that carry empty septic tanks in Kabul, a city with no sewage system, navigated through bumper-to-bumper traffic past the Afghan intelligence agency’s compound, the residence of former President Hamid Karzai, and the Iranian and Turkish embassies, to Zanbaq Square. Video from a surveillance camera shows that police halted the driver at a checkpoint as he tried to turn into the city’s diplomatic quarter.

 

That turn leads toward the German and Indian embassies, the U.S embassy, the headquarters of the U.S.-nato military command, and the C.I.A. station, where military officers, intelligence officials, and diplomats had spent the previous months preparing papers, some of which were titled “Winning in Afghanistan,” for President Trump’s policy review. When the Kabul police asked the tanker driver to show the clearance card required to enter the neighborhood, he detonated more than a ton of explosives that had been hidden in the sewage tank. It was 8:25 a.m. The explosion killed more than a hundred commuters and bystanders, and maimed hundreds more. Whoever sent the bomber on his mission had chosen the target to send a message, but exploding a truck bomb that killed only Afghan commuters and policemen was a message that no group, so far, has cared to claim.

The Kabul police chief said at a press conference that the intended target was the German embassy. But the author of the attack is still unknown. The Taliban disclaimed responsibility, and no evidence has surfaced that isis was involved. Afghan intelligence officials pinned responsibility on a component of the Taliban based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Haqqani Network, acting “at the instruction and in direct collaboration with” Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The Afghan Ministry of Interior said that the explosives came from Pakistan. Whether it was aimed at the German embassy or one of the U.S. or nato installations, the attack was probably related to the upcoming decision by the Trump Administration and nato allies over whether to send back some of the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by President Obama.

The blast, directed against the current government and its international supporters, did more than blow up people and property: it also shook whatever confidence Kabul residents had in the government. The next day, demonstrators gathered at the site of the attack. Some were looking for solidarity in their grief; others sought a target for their rage. They soon found one in the National Unity Government, or N.U.G., established in September, 2014, as a result of U.S. mediation in that year’s bitterly disputed Presidential election. The creation of the N.U.G. was the latest of a series of attempts to find a governing formula acceptable to both élites drawn from the Pashtun tribes that have ruled Afghanistan for centuries and non-Pashtun groups, led by Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, who headed the resistance to the Taliban. The 2014 agreement made Ashraf Ghani, a former official of the World Bank and the United Nations but also a Pashtun, the country’s President, while giving his Tajik-supported rival, Abdullah Abdullah, a newly created post of chief executive officer. Ghani found that the forced partnership made it hard to run the government, while Abdullah and those who supported him felt that he was being marginalized. In the aftermath of the explosion, protests against government negligence and incompetence escalated to charges (with no evidence) that some Ghani appointees were complicit with the bombers.

As the crowd swelled on Friday, some demonstrators tried to march on the Presidential palace. Presidential guards, who claimed that the demonstrators were armed and throwing stones (the opposition disputes this), fired on them, killing at least seven people, including the son of the deputy speaker of the Senate, who represented Panjshir. His funeral, the next day, became another site of terror when, just after the imam opened the funeral prayers with the chant of “Allahu akbar,” God is great, three of those in attendance, likewise crying “Allahu akbar,” detonated explosives hidden in their shoes. Twenty people were killed.

The troop-increase proposal that Trump has received from American generals would not prevent such events. The plan calls for several thousand more American troops and an indefinite U.S. financial commitment, of more than twenty billion dollars per year, to strengthen the Afghan security forces and roll back Taliban gains. More troops, more training, more bombing, and more money might budge the front lines, but the main problems are not at the front but in the rear—in the political divisions in the Afghan government, in the sanctuary the Afghan Taliban have enjoyed in Pakistan, and in the hostility of many regional countries to the U.S. presence.

More troops, in the absence of an effective diplomatic strategy, could make Afghanistan less rather than more stable. General John Nicholson, the top American commander in the country, said that the additional troops are needed “to maintain a regional counterterrorism platform” in Afghanistan. This might sound unthreatening to Americans, but it sounds different in the region. Washington used counterterrorism as a rationale for regime change in Iraq and other interventions. American bases in Afghanistan enable the U.S. to enhance electronic surveillance of neighboring countries. Tensions between Washington and regional powers are rising. Nicholson recently accused Pakistan, Iran, and Russia of providing various types of support to the Taliban, and those countries might increase their aid to the Taliban, and other countermeasures, in response to a U.S. escalation that they suspect may be aimed at them.

The U.S. can do relatively little to resolve Afghanistan’s domestic political conflicts. Competition among regional powers has escalated the stakes and violence of those conflicts, however, and a sustained diplomatic effort, coordinated with military and economic aid, might be able to deescalate them, which would facilitate efforts to secure Afghanistan from international terrorists. The regions around Afghanistan have changed dramatically since the U.S. intervened in 2001, but U.S. policy has not used the leverage it might gain from those changes. The economies of China and India, and even of Pakistan and Russia, have grown faster than that of the U.S. China and India are building the region’s infrastructure through a series of mega-road, rail, and port-building projects, which aim to connect their economies to the energy resources of Russia, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf, and to the international markets of Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.

U.S. and Chinese interests, therefore, converge. Faced with more weeks like the past one, China will not be able to risk the long-term investments it needs. The best chance of changing Pakistan’s policy of harboring the Afghan Taliban is through partnership with China, which now has far more influence in Islamabad than does the U.S., thanks to its massive infrastructure projects there. India, blocked by Pakistan from direct access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, is circumventing Pakistan by building a port in Iran with Japanese help. The convergence of interest among the U.S. strategic partners India and Afghanistan, the U.S. ally Japan, and the U.S. adversary Iran provides multiple opportunities for deal-making that will be lost if the Trump Administration adopts a policy centered on putting more U.S. troops in Afghanistan and reflexive hostility to Iran.

On June 6th, the Afghan government is hosted the first meeting of the Kabul Process to build a regional consensus for peacemaking. The Kabul Process is a rebranded version of the Moscow Process, which Russia started last fall, convening first China and Pakistan, and then adding Iran, India, and Afghanistan. The Trump Administration, which declined Russia’s invitation to the third meeting, in Moscow in February, is attending the meeting in Kabul. The goal of the process is to build consensus on how the Taliban could become political stakeholders in the future of Afghanistan. In the view of Moscow and other regional powers, such a political settlement would also create conditions for the U.S. to withdraw its unwanted military presence.

The Afghan government has decided to proceed with the Kabul Process meeting despite the terrorist attacks and political dissension of the past week. An effective process would require sustained U.S. engagement and support, and the changes in the region could provide leverage for the effort. So far, there is no sign that the Trump Administration, which has not even nominated an ambassador to Afghanistan, is looking beyond the simplistic dichotomy of more troops versus disengagement.