TDF special report
LONDON: In the wake of America’s revised foreign policy on Afghanistan, The Democracy Forum, London hosted a panel of experts at the University of London’s Senate House recently to discuss the central question of whether this new approach will stop cross-border terrorism in the region.
Three distinguished speakers gave their opinions on the possible outcome of President Trump’s ‘New Afghan Policy’. While there was some optimism expressed, the general consensus was that it would not have any positive result. Professor Thomas H Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, raised a laugh when he described Trump’s new policy as ‘shifting the deck chairs on the Afghan Titanic’.
The answer to the question of whether the new Afghan policy would stop cross-border terrorism in the region was a resounding ‘no’. President Trump’s ‘strategy’ would not make any difference. Johnson said he believed the war in Afghanistan has become a quagmire that is unwinnable without significant strategic changes.
He spoke of the present Afghan situation, with its continuing government illegitimacy and corruption, its ‘totally broken’ electoral system, the rising power and violence of the Taliban and the largely impotent national security forces, which has led Washington to call for the warlords to be allowed back in to the fight – a disastrous policy, in Johnson’s view, as is the multiplication of Afghan objectives by the CIA military force.
The US will never kill or capture its way to victory in Afghanistan, he said, as the Taliban is energised and will fight for generations. The solution must be political. Johnson was vocal in his condemnation of Pakistan in its approach to Afghanistan, branding it ‘a duplicity enemy’ of the US, definitely not an ally.
‘Let’s call them what they are’, he said, ‘They have indirectly and directly killed my students.’ The US has spent more in aid on Afghanistan than it spent on the Marshall Plan after the Second World War, yet the country’s ongoing problems include a crumbling infrastructure and 40 per cent unemployment. Johnson was dismissive of Trump’s so-called Afghan policy; He also expressed concern over the significant increase in air sorties and the failure to address issues such as Afghanistan’s corrupt and dysfunctional central government, a disastrous economy and rising ethno-linguistic tensions. However, the professor was more enthusiastic about Trump’s statements regarding Pakistan and India, saying that India could serve a useful role in countering Pakistan’s unreliability as an ally in Afghanistan. He was in favour of turning up the pressure on Pakistan, from cutting military aid to declaring the country as a state sponsor of terrorism. In reaching out to India, the US has been too careful not to step on Pakistan’s toes.
This should change, Johnson said, as should tolerance towards Pakistan’s harbouring of terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network and others, created by the country’s intelligence agency. He also expressed horror at Pakistan’s recent release from house arrest of Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed, adding that the US has a lot of leverage to force Islamabad to change its ways. Afghanistan cannot be solved without Pakistan, which in turn cannot be solved without India.
This ripple effect is the key to achieving a sustainable solution. During lively Q & As, the professor suggested a plan to bring parts of the Taliban into the Afghan government in a UN-brokered temporary split to the country, with the Taliban administering south of the Helmand River and Kabul administering everything north, since post-WWII history has proved that when radicals have to administer, they become more moderate. Offering an Afghan perspective, Ambassador Omar Samad, a former Senior Advisor to the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, said that most Afghans’ answer to the question posed would be a qualified ‘yes’, though engagement on many fronts would be needed to ensure that cross border terrorism is stopped in such a way that all stakeholders are satisfied. The majority of Afghans do not expect a complete and immediate stop to the country’s insurgency, said Samad, but they do expect a gradual change in policies that feed and enable terrorism.
In a brief overview of Afghanistan’s history from pre-9/11 to the present day, he spoke of how the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s was accompanied by a withdrawal of the western world from Afghanistan and a level of apathy towards the political situation there, which resulted in a vacuum that was filled by transnational terror outfits such as al-Qaeda throughout the 1990s, and factional fighting bolstered by regional proxy rivalries. Despite clear warnings by Afghan Taliban forces that an attack on the West was imminent, few experts grasped the essence of the threat brewing in that region before 9/11.
That and other attacks in Europe served as tragic wake-up calls to get Afghanistan back on track, but to no avail so far. The goal must be a political peace deal rather than a solely military solution, said Samad, but the right formula has not yet been found as various ‘toothless’ peace initiatives have been tried and failed. The problem of cross-border terrorist sanctuaries needs to be addressed, not only in Pakistan but also in other countries of the region. Overly cautious policies on Afghanistan over the past decade have hurt the country but Samad was quietly optimistic about the new US policy, calling it more focussed, better defined in terms of benchmarks and with more promising prospects – though a big ‘if’ concerned implementation and follow-through.
It must, insisted Samad, remain conditions based and take into account regional as well as internal Afghan dynamics, addressing such issues as safe havens that offer everything from indoctrination to training and financing for extremists. Samad stressed the importance of keeping the Afghan government on track with initiatives such as reforms and measures for good governance, and of adequately training and equipping the security services, a diplomatic surge and intelligence sharing.
Unlike past attempts, the goal of this new policy must be to apply necessary pressure to break the military stalemate, disrupt existing structures such as the nexus that exists with the drug business that feeds terrorist networks, and offer other solutions until we enter the political realm. Peace in Afghanistan might not be imminent, concluded Samad, but we need to try alternative methods to create peace and a common vision for peace and prosperity. Dr Dawood Azami of the BBC World Service examined the regional challenges and opportunities of the US Afghanistan-South Asia strategy, saying that pressure on Pakistan and public condemnation of that country by President Trump was part of that strategy, as were the increased number of troops and their greater freedom to conduct operations. The biggest challenge to the new US policy was regional rivalries, said Azami, with many neighbouring countries, most notably Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan, being against long-term US presence in Afghanistan. He spoke of the ‘blame game’, with Russia, Iran and Pakistan accused by the US of having ties with the Afghan Taliban, and Russia, in turn, accusing the US of supporting Daesh in Afghanistan.
Without the support of such key regional players, it will be a challenge for the new strategy to reach its intended goal. Despite the Trump administration’s harsh criticism of Pakistan and recent official visits, very little progress has been made and little has changed in Pakistan’s behaviour. The main concern, however, is the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan since January 2016, and the regional players have all accused each other of supporting that group. Drugs and Daesh, said Azami, are common problems for all the countries of South and Central Asia, yet there is deep mistrust among them, with Russia saying that Daesh is a US proxy, Pakistan naming it a RAW construct and Indian and Afghan officials seeing it as a Pakistan proxy.
US hostility towards Iran and tensions with Russia will also have many negative ripple effects and impact on instability in Afghanistan, with the potential to create problems for both the Afghan government and the US. The problem of Afghanistan cannot be solved by one country, said Azami, as it is an international issue that needs the cooperation of all the important regional players, many of whom have their own tensions and rivalries. The biggest challenge for the US government, he concluded, is to bring all these players on to the same page, while for the Afghan government it is balance its foreign policy as there are conflicting interests.