Afghanistan: US and Pakistan policy #33

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Syllabus: Mains paper 2: International relationship

'The US policy in Afghanistan is constrained by Pakistan'. Comment. 

What happened recently?

  • Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani was in New Delhi on September 19 for a day-long working visit.
  • The visit was of a low-key nature.
  • Pro forma references to the Strategic Partnership and the New Development Partnership were made but there were no new announcements.
  • India reiterated its support for ‘an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace and reconciliation process’ with the Taliban though it is clear that the strings are being manipulated from other capitals.

What has been the impact of Changed US Policy?

  • There has been no impact of changed US policy.
  • A year after U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his new Afghanistan policy, the stalemate continues.
  • The objectives of the U.S. policy announced last year were to break the military stalemate on the ground by expanding both the presence and the role of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
  • Incidents of violence and civilian casualties keep going up.
  • The Taliban leadership and the Haqqani network retain their sanctuaries in Pakistan and enjoy the support of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

What were the changes in US policy?

  • Operational constraints in terms of calling for surveillance and air support were eased.
  • The Obama approach of announcing timelines for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan was replaced by a conditions-based approach.
  • Pakistan was put on notice and US President Trump was critical about Pakistan’s duplicity in being “a non-NATO ally” and providing safe haven to insurgent groups.
  • Earlier this month, the U.S. announced that it was cancelling $300 million in military aid to Pakistan.

Why US’s Pakistan policy has failed repeatedly?

  • The Pakistani military and the ISI do not support the idea of a territorially united, peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
  • Pakistan’s security establishment does not find such a shift in its interest.
  • The ISI is unlikely to support the idea of a complete Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
  • This is because, after the jihad in the 1980s, when the Mujahideen leaders finally took control in Afghanistan in 1992 after the Najibullah government fell, they stopped listening to the ISI even as they started fighting among themselves.
  • This led to the emergence of the Taliban, assisted and nurtured by Pakistan.
  • The ISI prefers a controlled instability in Afghanistan where the Taliban enjoys some power but wants more as this keeps the group dependent on the ISI.

US’s dependence on Pakistan

  • The U.S. is unable to get out of this bind as long as it maintains a significant military presence in Afghanistan and therefore remains dependent on communication and supply routes through Pakistan.
  • It is unable to take stronger measures such as directly targeting the insurgent safe havens in Pakistan, terminating its status as “a non-NATO ally”, sanctioning specific military officers or considering placing Pakistan on the list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’.
  • The U.S.’s dependence provides the security establishment in Pakistan a degree of influence in the corridors of power in Washington.

Talks with Taliban

  • The U.S. opened direct talks with the Taliban two months ago.
  • In the past, the U.S. had refrained from doing so, maintaining that this would undermine the legitimacy of the Kabul government.
  • The US has also expressed concern about the growing presence of the IS.
  • The IS argument was used by Russia to open up direct talks with the Taliban more than a year ago.
  • Iran has its own channels to the Taliban.
  • Concerned about Uighur militants, China is planning to train and equip an Afghan brigade to be deployed in Badakshan even as it seeks Taliban help in securing its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects.
  • This has given the Taliban a new legitimacy — exactly as Pakistan had wanted.

What is the way forward?

  • Realizing that the end game is approaching, the Taliban too has changed tack.
  • In the areas under its control, instead of destroying the schools, clinics and courts, it is running them by co-opting or replacing local officials who remain on the government’s payroll.
  • It realizes that it needs to emerge from being a shadowy underground insurgency and demonstrate governance skills.
  • The U.S. also appears to be seeking a managed exit, leaving after a successfully conducted election so that the blood (2,400 U.S. lives) and treasure (nearly $1 trillion) can be justified as having delivered an honorable outcome.

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Hemant Bhatt

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