August 23, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to Afghanistan in an Aug. 21 address to the nation. His speech highlighted the familiar challenges associated with the Afghan theater, namely Washington’s desire for Kabul to take on more responsibility for the war; Pakistan’s role in providing sanctuary for militants; and a realization that a hasty withdrawal of troops could have dire consequences — such as Afghanistan becoming a base once more for transnational extremists.
At the same time, however, Trump’s speech was a deviation from the norm. He remained deliberately vague about exact troop numbers and military deployments. He also singled out India — which is Washington’s preferred partner in South Asia — in taking on greater responsibility in Afghanistan through providing economic assistance, while acknowledging New Delhi’s role in promoting stability in the “Indo-Pacific region,” which suggests that Washington already sees India as a potential ally against an increasingly dominant China. As important as Trump’s invocation of India was the prospect of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Many in Washington realize that a conferred resolution is preferable to a never-ending, low-intensity conflict.
But looking beyond the political rhetoric, a number of critical factors inevitably define the U.S. approach to dealing with Afghanistan.
First, any enhanced commitment is squarely about conflict management as opposed to conflict resolution. In 2011, the United States had around 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with almost 10,000 British troops and 30,000 additional NATO personnel. But even this wasn’t enough to defeat the Taliban insurgency, or even force the group — or its increasingly fractured leadership — to enter meaningful negotiations. Therefore, sending a few thousand troops now isn’t expected to make a dramatic difference on the battlefield. Instead, Washington’s goal is to tip the scales in Kabul’s favor, ensuring a more favorable stalemate in which the Afghan government can maintain control over key urban centers and more capably manage the insurgency.
The 2014 NATO drawdown exposed the organizational weaknesses of the Afghan National Security Forces, which in turn enabled the Taliban to resurge. In the years since the bulk of the International Security and Assistance Force thinned out, the Taliban have reportedly made territorial gains of around 40 percent — 11 percent captured for sure, and a further 29 percent contested. And even this number may underestimate the real extent of Taliban control of Afghan territory. The group even briefly captured the city of Kunduz in 2015, marking the first-time capture of a major urban center by the Taliban in the current war’s history.
Second, the United States’ strategic perspective on the way the war should be handled differs from other regional power brokers, namely Pakistan. The United States sees Afghanistan as the base used by al Qaeda to launch the 9/11 attacks on its shores, which shattered the illusion of American invincibility in a post-Cold War world. Though Washington disagreed with the political ideology of al Qaeda’s patrons, the Taliban, the United States was willing to tolerate a Taliban government during the 1990s so long as it stabilized Afghanistan enough to turn the country into an energy bridge linking Central Asia with South Asia.
But the Taliban lost favor with the United States because of the group’s sheltering of al Qaeda and refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. This justified a military intervention with the goal of destroying al Qaeda and dismantling its Taliban supporters — a mission that continues to this day. Changes in U.S. military tactics notwithstanding, Washington’s goal remains the same: to prevent Afghanistan from once again playing host to transnational extremist organizations capable of attacking the United States and its allies.
Third, Pakistan’s strategic perspective on Afghanistan equally differs from the United States’. When Pakistan sees Afghanistan, it sees India. Unlike al Qaeda, which is a stateless organization that boasted less than a thousand core members at its peak, India is a country of 1.3 billion people and a competing nuclear power. The circumstances of the Partition of British India in 1947, which led to the birth of Pakistan, paved the way for several subsequent regional conflicts, including the 1971 war that resulted in Pakistan’s own partition, when Bangladesh broke away — crucially, with Indian military support. From Islamabad’s viewpoint, India represents an existential threat vastly superseding any danger posed by al Qaeda, or any other jihadist outfit that targets the Pakistani state, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter.
Islamabad’s goal in Afghanistan, then, is to deny India a foothold by supporting the Taliban to extend its strategic depth as a means of hedging against a potential Indian military thrust. Pakistan’s expectation is that in exchange for receiving its support, the Taliban will maintain an anti-India posture upon entering the power-sharing agreement widely expected to someday draw the war to a close. Ultimately, Islamabad wants to avoid the presence of what is perceived as a hostile power on both sides of its border.
But Pakistan also supports the Taliban for another reason. The Durand Line, as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is known, has long been a spoiler in relations between the two countries, with Kabul claiming its true boundary through Pakistan’s tribal areas. Periodically, Afghanistan leaders have even pushed for the creation of Pashtunistan, a homeland carved out of the Pashtun regions in both countries. Since Pashtunistan would pose a major threat to Pakistan’s security, Islamabad’s support for the Taliban is also based on the assumption that once in power, the Taliban will bury the specter of Pashtunistan once and for all by formalizing the Durand Line, thereby easing the task of border security and enabling Pakistan to shift more of its attention toward India. This is based on a historical strategy of Islamabad promoting religion over ethnicity in Afghanistan as a form identity to undermine ethno-nationalist movements capable of threatening Pakistan.
These factors will prevent an easy resolution to the conflict, something that Washington is well aware of. In some ways, it might be simpler to actually work out a deal with the Taliban, but even that option is seeded with problems now. The Taliban has gradually become a decentralized organization with a core leadership overseeing various — and occasionally competing — factions. This undermines the unified face needed for successful negotiations. Moreover, any attempts to pull India into a more active role in talks would only strengthen Pakistan’s resolve to delay the start of meaningful negotiations until Islamabad feels it has achieved a more favorable outcome in Afghanistan. It could also push Islamabad even closer to China.
Nonetheless, India will still try to use this opportunity to extract Washington’s support in a growing trilateral alliance between the United States and Japan — especially as India is facing off with China on the Himalayan front. Neighboring powers including China and Russia, meanwhile, want a stable Afghanistan, but prefer Washington to manage the country’s security. But to hedge against Washington’s influence over a civilian administration in a post-conflict Afghanistan, Beijing and Moscow have an interest in backing elements of the Taliban, which explains their participation earlier in this year’s conferences. So, for all the promises made by Trump, the prospect of an immediate solution to Afghanistan is illusory.
— The United States Sets Its Sights Beyond Afghanistan originally appeared at Stratfor.