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Opinion

No easy escape from Afghan war for Trump

Russia, China and Iran now backing Taliban and stymieing US peace efforts

The U.S. will find it difficult to pull out of Afghanistan in the face of increased foreign support for the Taliban.   © Reuters

Not for the first time, the U.S. is showing signs of desperation in trying to end its war in Afghanistan, by renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Taliban and -- yet again -- reviewing combat strategy.

Ending the longest war in American history, which marks its 17th anniversary on Oct. 7, appears integral to President Donald Trump's broader plan to roll back America's "imperial overreach" -- the phenomenon of a great power going into decline when it takes on excessive global commitments.

In contrast to China's use of economic tools to achieve strategic objectives, the U.S. has too often reached for the gun instead of the purse. Many in Washington now believe U.S. retrenchment must include staying out of faraway wars and making allies pay their fair share for defense.

In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration ended the CIA's covert operations to train and arm rebels in Syria -- a large-scale program that had begun under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. Ironically, it was Obama who in 2013 underscored the danger of perpetual war for U.S. power by recalling the warning of America's fourth president, James Madison, that "no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

Today, extricating the U.S. from the military quagmire in Afghanistan is seen as important to reversing America's relative decline, including focusing on domestic renewal. A year ago, Trump acknowledged that his "original instinct was to pull out" but that he had been convinced that "a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida." Now, with U.S. patience wearing thin, his administration has stepped up efforts to end the war.

But international geopolitics promises to play spoilsport. U.S. foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Afghan Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to America's main battlefield foe, the Afghan Taliban, seems intent to continue running with the hare and hunting with the hounds -- pretending to be a U.S. ally while harboring the Taliban's network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Afghan Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after U.S. forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. According to one estimate, the daily fatality toll among Afghan security forces has jumped from 22 in 2016 to about 57 recently. Both Kabul and Washington now admit that Afghan casualties have risen to unsustainable levels.

About 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, including 4,000 added by Trump, plus some 26,000 American military contractors.

Trump, instead of the promised fundamentally different approach, is now seeking to essentially repeat Obama's failed effort -- to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which the U.S. needs the full backing of Pakistan's powerful generals. To win their support, the U.S. has assassinated three successive chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban, a group that poses no real threat to American forces but is the nemesis of the Pakistan military.

After the latest killing in May, which came about four months after Washington cut most security assistance to Pakistan, the U.S. held face-to-face talks in July with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar.

The Obama administration first sought to make Qatar's capital, Doha, a negotiations hub by allowing the Afghan Taliban to establish a de facto diplomatic mission there in 2013.

To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not included the militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the U.S. has assassinated a major Afghan Taliban leader inside the militia leadership's sanctuary, Pakistan, was in 2016 when a drone strike killed the new chief after he adamantly opposed any peace talks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul recently on his way back from New Delhi, said reconciliation efforts with the militia had gained "traction."

But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the U.S. as a means to undercut the Afghan government's legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. The Taliban have gained the momentum against regime forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive. Taliban battlefield victories are denting government morale and making it less likely that the insurgents will agree to a deal.

Washington, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks, has advised Afghan troops to pull back from vulnerable outposts and focus on safeguarding cities. Making force protection the priority clearly signals a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban is new support from Russia, Iran and China. With U.S. sanctions hurting the Iranian and Russian economies and Trump's trade war against China potentially laying the foundation of a new Cold War, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to step up pressure on the U.S.

The revival of the "Great Game" -- the 19th-century Anglo-Russian rivalry for Central Asian influence -- makes it harder to pacify war-torn Afghanistan. Behind the changed geopolitics is a major role reversal.

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan used Islam as a tool to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with the CIA arming thousands of Afghan mujahedeen -- violent jihadists that later spawned al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat and aided the 2001 U.S. overthrow of the five-year-old Taliban regime. But now Russia and Iran are seeking to assist the Taliban against the shaky, U.S.-backed Kabul government.

Meanwhile, China has long had a dubious approach toward the militia. On the day of the 2001 New York World Trade Center terrorist attack, a Chinese delegation signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement with the isolated Taliban regime in its de facto capital, Kandahar.

Seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban. It has received Taliban delegations in recent years and offered to mediate peace talks. The Taliban has promised not to attack China's much-delayed, $3 billion project to mine huge copper deposits at Mes Aynak, near Kabul.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, has pursued a consistently anti-Taliban policy. Despite its warming ties with Washington, India is concerned that U.S. direct talks with the Taliban could lend respectability to a fanatical terrorist organization.

But the U.S. clearly appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement. But the spoiler roles of Russia, China and Iran and the Taliban's battlefield successes make such a deal less likely. As American senator John McCain predicted before his death, the conflict in Afghanistan would continue "on a low-burning simmer for a long time to come."

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning "Water, Peace, and War."

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