May 11, 2017 9:00 pm JST
Brahma Chellaney

America's deepening Afghanistan quagmire

Trump needs to break with failed US policies on the Taliban

The proposed dispatch of several thousand more U.S. troops to war-torn Afghanistan by President Donald Trump's administration begs the question: If more than 100,000 American troops failed between 2010 and 2012 to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, why would adding 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers to the current modest U.S. force of 8,400 make a difference?

For nearly 16 years, the U.S. has been stuck in Afghanistan in the longest and most expensive war in its history. It has tried several policies to wind down the war, including a massive military "surge" under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, to compel the Taliban to sue for peace. Nothing has worked, in large part because the U.S. has continued to fight the war on just one side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan divide and refused to go after the Pakistan-based sanctuaries of the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network.

As Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged earlier this year: "It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven." Worse still, the Taliban is conspicuously missing from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, while the procreator and sponsor of that medieval militia -- Pakistan -- has been one of the largest recipients of American aid since 2001, when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan helped remove the Taliban from power.

The mercurial Trump has revealed no doctrine or strategy relating to the Afghan War. But in keeping with his penchant for surprise, Trump picked Afghanistan for the first-ever battlefield use of GBU-43B, a nearly 10-metric-ton bomb known as the "Mother of All Bombs." The target, however, was not the U.S. military's main battlefield enemy -- the Taliban -- but the so-called Islamic State group, or ISIS, which Gen. Nicholson told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee earlier had been largely contained in Afghanistan through raids and airstrikes.

To be sure, Trump has inherited an Afghanistan situation that went from bad to worse under his predecessor. A resurgent Taliban today hold more Afghan territory than ever before, the civilian toll is at a record high, and Afghan military casualties are rising to a level that American commanders warn is unsustainable. In the Taliban's deadliest assault on Afghan army troops, a handful of militants killed more than 140 soldiers last month at a military base in the northern province of Balkh, prompting the country's defense minister and chief of army staff to resign.

The enemy's enemy

Not only is the Taliban militia at its strongest, but also a Russia-organized coalition that includes Iran and China is cozying up to it. Faced with biting U.S.-led sanctions, Russia is aligning with the enemy's enemy to weigh down the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Indeed, as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the geopolitical chessboard on which Moscow can play against the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a new "Great Game" is unfolding in Afghanistan.

Almost three decades after Moscow ended its own disastrous Afghanistan war, whose economic costs eventually contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to reemerge as an important player in Afghan affairs by embracing a thuggish force that it long viewed as a major terrorist threat -- the Taliban. In effect, Russia is trading roles with the U.S. in Afghanistan: In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan promoted jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the Central Intelligence Agency training and arming thousands of Afghan mujahedeen -- the violent jihadists from which al-Qaeda and the Taliban evolved.

Today, the growing strains in U.S.-Russia relations -- with Trump saying "we're not getting along with Russia at all, we may be at an all-time low" -- threaten to deepen the American military quagmire in Afghanistan. Trump came into office wanting to befriend Russia yet, with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head over alleged election collusion with Moscow, U.S.-Russian ties have only deteriorated. Russia has signaled that it is in a position to destabilize the U.S.-backed government in Kabul in the way Washington has undermined Syrian President Bashar Assad's Moscow-supported regime by aiding Syrian rebels. Gen. Nicholson has suggested that Russia has started sending weapons to the Taliban.

Against this background, the odds are stacked heavily against the U.S. reversing the worsening Afghanistan situation and "winning again," as Trump wants, especially if his administration follows in the footsteps of the previous two U.S. governments by not recognizing Pakistan's centrality in Afghan security. Trump's renewed mission in Afghanistan will fail if Washington does not add sticks to its carrots-only approach toward the Pakistani military, which continues to aid the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups.

No counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when militants have enjoyed cross-border havens. The Taliban are unlikely to be routed or seek peace as long as they can operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, where their top leaders are ensconced. Their string of battlefield victories indeed gives them little incentive to enter into serious peace negotiations.

Still, the U.S. has been reluctant to go after the Taliban's command and control base in Pakistan in order to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the militia. For eight years, Obama pursued the same failed strategy of using inducements, ranging from billions of dollars in aid to the supply of lethal weapons, to nudge the Pakistani military and its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency to target the Haqqani network and get the Taliban to the negotiating table. According to Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard G. Olson, the U.S. has no "fundamental quarrel" with the Taliban and seeks a deal.

Troop surge

If the recent visit of Trump's national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, to Afghanistan and Pakistan is any indication, a fundamental break with the Obama approach is still not on the cards. In fact, the Trump team has proposed reemploying the same tool that Obama utilized in vain -- a troop surge, although at a low level.

To compound matters, Trump is showing himself to be a tactical, transactional president whose foreign policy appears guided by the axiom "Speak loudly and carry a big stick." In dropping America's largest non-nuclear bomb last month in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, Trump was emboldened by the ease of his action days earlier in ordering missile strikes against a Syrian air base while eating dessert -- "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen" -- with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It is easy to drop a massive bomb or do missile strikes and appear "muscular," but it is difficult to figure out how to fix a broken policy. This is the dilemma Trump faces over Afghanistan. In the same Pakistan-bordering area where the "Mother of All Bombs" was dropped, two U.S. soldiers were killed in fighting just days later.

Unlike Obama, who spent eight years experimenting with various measures, extending from a troop surge to a drawdown, Trump does not have time on his side. Obama, with excessive optimism, declared in late 2014 that "the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion." The reverse happened: Security in Afghanistan worsened rapidly. The Taliban rebuffed his peace overtures, despite Washington's moves to allow the group to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar and to trade five senior Taliban leaders jailed at Guantanamo Bay for a captured U.S. Army sergeant.

Today, the very survival of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government is at stake. Problems are rapidly mounting for the beleaguered government, which has presided over steadily deteriorating security. Its hold on many districts looks increasingly tenuous even before the approaching summer brings stepped-up Taliban attacks.

The revival of the "Great Game" in Afghanistan, meanwhile, threatens to complicate an already precarious security situation in South, Central and Southwest Asia.

If the U.S. continues to experiment, it will court a perpetual war in Afghanistan, endangering a key base from where it projects power regionally. The central choice Trump must make is between seeking to co-opt the Taliban through a peace deal, as Obama sought, and going all out after its command and control network in Pakistan. An Afghanistan settlement is likely only when the Taliban has been degraded and decapitated.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including "Water, Peace, and War."

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