By Ali Hassnain
As a layman, Trump’s Afghan policy (or lack thereof) was a big a mystery to me, perhaps as big as Zardari’s source of income! I was quietly yet curiously waiting for it. However his recent outburst has left me further flustered on understanding of present and future US policy in Afghanistan.
It is futile to reinforce defeat or failure in warfare and business. Trump reminds me of a quote that is often used these days, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
On 21st August Mr. Trump declassified his long awaited secret strategy for Afghanistan. His promises during campaign were vague and it could be interpreted that he would make some “smart” decisions. He vaguely mentioned he would use India against Pakistan, ironically though they have been using India against Pakistan in Afghanistan for more a decade and a half. Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally of US (rationality lost again). At some point in his campaign if I recall correctly he also praised Pakistanis. I am a keen follower of US politics and I know well that pre-campaign policies and post-campaign actions are completely different. However it’s not prudent to expect an absolute change in policy after an administration is elected.
He did mention isolationist policies in the campaign: America First, a term from post WW1 days. As President he even said he would have or would like to meet North Korean Premiere in different circumstances. His statements are usually outrageous, for example, he once claimed he would ask Pentagon to make a policy to eradicate ISIS in 30 days which prompted a serving us General to say ‘what does he think we have been doing since September 11 2001?’
US trained thousands of militants against the Soviets in the 80s and left the region abruptly that led to civil war and an almost annihilated Afghanistan after that. In 2001 Taliban had some 60 000 odd fighters, no air force or air defence or radars; only a few hundred or a few thousand Al Qaeda fighters at the most. In essence it was a militia ruling a country trying to get international recognition. It was after Taliban’s capture of Kabul that OBL appeared on the scene with seemingly unrealistic and vague threats against US (1998).
Someone attacked innocent people in New York on September 11th 2001 for which there is no justification. It was a failure of epic magnitude on the part of FBI, CIA, NSA, state department and airport security.
Like the rest of the world Pakistan and its government was rattled by the unprecedented situation. Pakistan quickly adapted to the situation and reiterated its stance against terrorism and sided with US and UN. Pakistan had not even the slightest hint of the September 11 attacks in advance or any affiliation with Al Qaeda. Pakistan even reasoned with Taliban to hand over Bin Laden. ISI Chief himself went to Afghanistan to explain the situation to them without any success. On the other side, Pakistan unsuccessfully reasoned with a Bush administration on alternate options but it was intent on war.
In retrospect, intelligence based and helicopter based operations, selective cruise missile or air strikes, UAVs and intelligence on ground would have neutralized the threats to US and changed the regime in Kabul. It could have created a parallel government at the least. It was essentially a task for Special Forces and occasional surgical strikes. Now war is in its 16th year and apparently there are only vague goals and no end in sight.
Pakistan sided with US-led international alliance and allowed its air space, ports and land route to be used by the UN sanctioned alliance. Most logistic supplies, all cargo except some of the non-lethal cargo passed through Pakistan.
Taliban were removed and US assumed control. That should have ushered a new era of prosperity in Afghanistan after the “liberation”. But alas we know that did not happen.
US ignored ethnic and tribal rivalries; there were massive human right violations by US and its allies. There were several war crimes committed that are recognized by US herself. In effect US replaced one war lord with another. There was massive corruption and UN contractors had their share in it (still do).
So heavily paid warlords became the new flag bearers of democracy; Bush era was a turbulent one for Afghanistan. There was massive corruption, with US contractors having the biggest share. The new warlords who ruled Afghanistan under Karzai had previous tribal and ethnic grudges; they were pro-India during the civil war and allowed India to use Afghan soil against Pakistan for terrorism.
India prepared proxies in Afghanistan who dressed up, looked like and even operated like Taliban; they called themselves Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan and along with several other militant outfits they fought with Pakistan Army and attacked civilians indiscriminately. The war had spilled over to Pakistan. The period from 2007-2014 was the era when Pakistan took the most hits, economically and there was loss of human lives as well. Pakistan has lost somewhere from 60-100 thousand civilians directly due to the War on Terror. God alone knows how many died due to indirect effects.
On June 15th 2014, under the leadership of General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan Army launched a decisive operation against terrorism, named “Zarb-e-Azb”. Since then terrorists are on the back foot and look for soft targets. Currently they are near complete annihilation. Their life line comes from Afghanistan. US supported Afghan Government roughly controls 57% of Afghanistan, so 43% is essentially ungoverned or semi controlled by different militias. Pakistan is tightening border control and building a fence on the rugged terrain at the border with Afghanistan.
The fact of the matter is that the US looks clueless in Afghanistan with vague objectives and no end of war in sight. Under Bush and Obama, US carried out UAV missile strikes at will in the border area with Afghanistan, in Pakistani territory, without informing Pakistan beforehand.
There was a brief window of opportunity after President Trump assumed control. He could have sat down with Pakistan and formulated a strategy. Why Pakistan? Americans keep asking. For one, almost ALL the supplies for the war effort have passed through or above Pakistan san some non-lethal cargo. Secondly Pakistan understands Afghans more than anyone else. Some 6 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan; mostly illegal and some with even illegal Pakistani ID cards. Plus there is hundreds of years of history, tribal ethical and religious connections. No one knows Afghanistan or has suffered more because of them.
Mr. Trump repeated the allegation of Pakistan’s support to the Haqqani network which apparently is invisible to American drones. Subsequent statement by his government mentioned a non-existent “Quetta Shurra”. How many times has Pakistan said if you know there are terrorists somewhere tell us! We would neutralize them! He said there would be no nation building from US in Afghanistan from now on; meaning no bridges, hospitals or creating the illusion of some sort of functioning state, so no fat commissions on that pretext.
He praised India, allegedly the world’s largest democracy. India has already heavily invested in creating terrorist safe heavens in Afghanistan to penetrate local militias and carry out terrorist attacks in Pakistan. So that box is already checked. He said Afghan economy is something for Afghan government to build and investment/co-operation would continue. Apparently he is sending 1900 more troops to Afghanistan for reasons best known to him.
US spent trillions in Afghanistan. Pakistan Army’s budget is smaller than US funded Afghan Army as of today. Most of the hue and cry is about the Coalition Support Fund which is not a loan or a grant but reimbursement for logistical support. US aid is peanuts compared to economic hit we have taken due to their War on Terror. CIA’s constant fiddling with Pakistan’s internal affairs is outrageous. ISI has been nothing but supportive against terrorists; on the other hand, CIA has been nothing but suspicious with a colonial attitude. Terrorism is one thing but how can ISI or Pakistan Army go and stop local Afghans from resisting the regime in Kabul? It is something for the Afghans to decide. Pakistan is not sending any cross border supplies or militants as the border is heavily monitored by US drones, satellite and other surveillance equipment.
Pakistan spends some 9.13 billion $ on military, up from some 6 billion couple of years back.
US funded regime in Afghanistan spends 11.6 Billion dollars on Army (No air force, missiles or navy). And Afghan National Army has no external threat; its only job is to control the territory of Afghanistan. It has failed miserably and only controls less than 60% of Afghan territory, that too with massive bribery to Taliban and other war lords; even after that the control is fragile.
If you need excuses and scapegoats you would always find them. How many times US-controlled regime in Afghanistan has resisted fencing of the border? Every time! Even measures on actual border crossings were resisted. There were several skirmishes during the last two years. Pakistan has now by force unilaterally fenced and sealed (as much as it can be sealed) the porous Afghan border from its own side. After countless terror attacks there has been crackdown on illegal Afghan refugees. Every other fortnight Pakistan catches Indian/Afghan sent terrorists. Afghan government and Indian government have repeatedly used them to carry out terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Pakistan and Afghan border terrain is rugged and harsh but Pakistan is making a gigantic effort to fence it. Should not Pakistan support a porous border if allegations of Trump and his predecessors are true?
Finally Pakistan is winning the war which we did not want or start. The truth is that Pakistan wants strict border control with Afghanistan. Shouldn’t US be helping us with that? Pakistan is the one who wants to stop illegal border crossings and yet Pakistan is the one getting blamed for terrorists supposedly going to Afghanistan.
Past is past, it cannot be changed. The question is what now?
Trump is blowing his own trumpet and scapegoating Pakistan, talking about bringing in India which barely has forces to control its own home-grown insurgencies and terrorist/resistance movements. The irony is lost on US policy makers as India shares no border with Afghanistan. However India is in Afghanistan since 2001 and it shares major responsibility of US failure in Afghanistan. Had US kept India out of equation, there was a great chance of peace. Now there are countless armed groups in Afghanistan who have different loyalties or affiliations ranging from India to Russia. US has the technology and resources to seal the Pakistan Afghanistan border, which they are not only against, their puppets in Kabul keep resisting it even when Pakistan is building it on their own side. Afghanistan is resisting but Pakistan is going ahead nevertheless on our side to regulate the border.
What SHOULD be done in Afghanistan is another topic for another time. But this policy of trump is tried, tested, failed and the vicious circle has gone on for too long. Then there is complicated Iran angle in Afghanistan; Iran is an unholy alliance with US in Afghanistan. Dear Trump, virtually everyone in Afghan government is a US puppet; they have their bags packed, numbered Swiss accounts ready for the day they have to go back. You should talk some sense because they are insincere warlords, extremely incompetent, corrupt, ruthless and not loyal to anyone.
War in Afghanistan would end one day. It is a fact that eventually all wars end. When the dust settles it would be seen as unnecessary and prolonged bloodshed due to flawed policies of US, CIA to be specific.
One does however expect Trump to eventually make the ‘smart’ move and reconsider his policy. Trump should listen to Pakistani Army Chief General Bajwa who recently said “Pakistan wants the US’s trust, not its financial assistance”. There is much wisdom in it. Mr. Trump should understand it and take it positively. It would do all sides some good.