The United States, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan may be finding themselves on the same page all over again, sooner than one would have expected, with regard to the revival of the moribund Quadrilateral Cooperative Group (QCG), their moribund initiative on regional security issues, especially the reconciliation with the Taliban.
Afghanistan and Pakistan experienced one of the most heinous stretches in their recent past this February. The Afghan Supreme Court was targeted on February 7, leaving 21 people dead including nine women. Then a suicide bombing on February 11 in Laskar Gah, the center of Helmand province, caused death and injuries to over a dozen people. In Pakistan, on the other hand, a suicide bomber attacked senior police officials in front of Punjab Assembly in Lahore during a demonstration on February 13 — 16 people, including three top police officials, lost their lives. The deadliest of all these attacks took place on February 16 in Pakistan’s Sindh province, when Lal Shahbaz Qalander Sufi shrine was targeted in the Sehwan area. That attack killed over 80 and more than twice as many were injured.
China and Afghanistan established the diplomatic relationship with each other in 1955. Ever since then, China has become one of the most important neighbors of Afghanistan, due to the fact that both sides have kept the bilateral friendly companionship since thousands of years ago.
A series of unfortunate events is fast propelling Afghanistan towards yet another flashpoint. This time, conflicting global interests, uninhibited foreign intervention and a worsening humanitarian crisis could combine to tear Afghanistan apart and open up a maelstrom populated by terrorists, heroin kings and death-dealing warlords.
The OBOR has potential to pave the way for Afghanistan’s economic development by enhancing its participation in intraregional trade through improved connectivity. This will improve its trade balance by enhancing exports, and reducing costs of imports. Increased income from trade in goods and energy can be reinvested in the infrastructural development of the country, thereby reducing its dependency on foreign assistance, and enabling sustained economic stability and growth.
Recently, Russia’s ties with the Taliban were discussed by Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan. Russia has effectively allied with its former enemy, the Taliban, in Afghanistan, and declared its contacts with them.
Pakistan is running out of friends in Washington. Recent publications by influential U.S. experts, Congressional testimony by officials and signs out of the Trump administration all point in the same direction: The U.S. will step up pressure on Islamabad to crack down on terrorist groups that target U.S. troops in Afghanistan and destabilize Afghanistan and India.
During the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan in early October, an important aid-pledging event, the EU and the Afghan government entered into a contract that binds the latter to accept 80,000 asylum seekers whose claims in the EU fail.
With Washington completely engaged by tweets, leaks and partisan bickering, few took notice of the recent sobering testimony from Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. about the war in Afghanistan.
Nicholson, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, assessed the coalition's 15-year war as a "stalemate." In terms of forces, he said that the coalition had adequate forces for counterterrorism, but was short several thousand coalition troops to bolster the advisory and assistance mission "below the corps level," where hard-pressed Afghan brigades and police units are fighting hard and taking record casualties.
Nicholson also noted a number of positive developments:
• Last year, U.S. forces killed five major terrorist leaders in or around Afghanistan.
• Afghan forces successfully blocked the Taliban from its key objective of seizing provincial capitals.
• Afghan special forces and the fledgling Afghan Air Force consistently punched above their weight class.
• The Afghan Army and police — hard-pressed and shrinking — remained excellent fighters and loyal to the central government, which has proven itself to be a reliable ally.
To mark these accomplishments and set the course for the future, 39 members of the coalition last year pledged nearly $16 billion in aid during the next few years. Still, 13,000 coalition military personnel and 25,000 civilian contractors support the Afghans' efforts.
Nicholson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will also have to brief the challenges at the upcoming NATO summit.
Twenty international terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have taken up residence in Afghanistan. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan noted last month that the percentage of the 407 Afghan districts that are under government control declined by 15 percent in the past year, falling to only 57 percent of the total.
More than 40 percent of Afghan districts are "contested," or under Taliban control. While some of this is due to a strategic realignment by the Afghan high command, it also reflects fierce fighting across the countryside, resulting in record Afghan casualties — more than 30,000 in the last two years — for the 316,000 Afghan Army and police forces. Civilian casualties exceeded 15,000 in the same timeframe.
How did we get to this point? The Obama administration started off well in Afghanistan. It twice surged forces there, but then inadvertently motivated our enemies to fight harder by declaring our intention to withdraw our troops on a fixed schedule that ignored political and military conditions.
Once again, the United States followed an exit strategy that placed the emphasis on the exit and not the strategy. It is hard to argue with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said last week that we tied the military's hands and pursued an objective not of winning but of "trying not to lose."
To win in Afghanistan, we have to defeat the international terrorist groups and the rabid elements of what has become a very tired Taliban. We need to leave behind an Afghanistan free of al Qaeda and ISIS and at peace with its neighbors.
The key to victory is to improve the performance of Afghan forces on the battlefield and shift the momentum of the conflict to Afghanistan's favor. Simultaneously, the United States must press Pakistan to stop active assistance to, and passive toleration of, various elements of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
With those two measures accomplished, a major peace conference, supported by the powers in the region, may take place and achieve a better peace. In the wake of that peace conference, a war-torn Afghanistan, with the help of its friends and allies, will then be able to address its domestic problems, endemic corruption and narcotics problem.
To get to success in Afghanistan, the United States will need to step up its efforts. Here are five ways to do so:
1. The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan needs to be strengthened.
In Washington, the silence is deafening.
Ever since U.S. combat forces left Afghanistan at the end of 2014, relatively little has been heard about America’s longest war. It doesn’t often come up in policy discussions. Elected officials don’t say much about it. Even the think-tank circuit doesn’t cover it very much. And it was invisible on the presidential campaign trail.