Over the past 16 years, the United States of America and its allies have spent tremendous amount of resources both in blood and treasure to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become America’s longest war and it has spent more than $800 billion in direct war cost plus 100 billion USAID reconstruction cost, with adjusted inflation it is over trillion dollar , more than what the United States spent on German Marshal Plan to reconstruct Europe after world war II. However, Afghanistan is still one of the poorest, highly corrupt and destabilized country in the world. In fact, it is one of the favorite country for many terrorist organizations, ranging from Al-Qaida, Taliban and the ISIS, seeking to gain sanctuary and destabilize, Afghanistan, the region and the rest of the world.
Afghanistan has experienced the policy interventions of two US administrations. If I used the cricket terminology, the Bush Administration was an opener that has managed to quickly eliminate the Taliban regime and helped established a board based government in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has played in the middle order, observing intense insurgency, rectifying the mistakes committed by the Bush administration and seeking an end to the crises. The Trump administration is either finisher or loser!
Both of the past two administrations including the Trump one have not historically understood Afghanistan and the region around it. All of these administrations were either too confident or optimistic, expecting a quick fix for and an early exit from Afghanistan. While no fix has proven to be effective, Afghanistan continuous to be America's endless and most expensive war.
So where have been the missing links?
From the very beginning, since the operation enduring freedom began in 2001, the United States and its allies have altered their focus and objectives continuously without even assessing its consequences.
Winning war not peace
First, the focus of the United States was entirely on winning war and defeating Al-Qaida and the Taliban. This has resulted in washing away the initial opportunity to bring Taliban to the negotiation table and make them part of the Afghan transitional government. A very crucial opportunity missed!
Always unwelcome obligation
Afghanistan went out of America's focus when the Bush Administration invaded Iraq on the pretext of nuclear weapons and to topple the Sadam Hussain regime. America and its allies shifted their focus in a very crucial moment in Afghanistan, where insurgency was raising and where opportunity to either contained or eliminate the insurgency availed. Furthermore, at a time when Afghanistan badly needed the leadership and support of the of the United States to handle the political, security and economic transitions in 2012, It went out of focus again and America has shifted focus towards the Syrian crises, Ukraine and the failed Iraq. Another important opportunity missed!
Quick fixes and wrong allies
America’s war focused strategy was implemented through wrong allies on the ground. It alliance with the warlord, gun lords and criminals have eroded Afghanistan’s chance for long term nation building. While the war lords played in certain role in America’s mission to overthrow the Taliban regime, it has come at very bad cost for Afghanistan as country. War lords, criminals and others who have been seeking only their own individual power, were awarded with huge financial assistance and contracts and were given a crucial role in the Afghan political system. Today the Afghanistan political system is largely dominated by criminals and warlords, posing a formidable challenge to the equal and proper enforcement of rule of law. This has resulted in losing hearts and minds and provided a breeding ground to the Taliban and other groups to grow.
Terrorism as trojan horse
America and its allies have not historically understood Afghanistan and its region. Afghanistan is located in a region where enemies become friends and friends become enemies. It is a country that serves different interests to different people at different times and the Afghans are ferociously exploiting this. It is a country that has been the victim of foreign rivalries as well as the grave yard of empires. Until very recently, Pakistan has always been the usual suspect of providing sanctuary, protection, equipment and facilities to the Taliban and its affiliated groups. While this is largely true that Pakistan does provide the sanctuary and support to Taliban, it is impossible for a single country like Pakistan to sustain continuous insurgency against the world highly advanced military without the technical, political and financial support of other actors. Russian, Iranian and Chinese support to the Taliban through Pakistan is not new. In fact, it has been going on for the last few years with the sole objective not because Taliban are effective again ISIS or drug, but because they want to tackle the growing influence of the West and NATO particularly on Central Asia.
So, what are the opportunities for the Trump Administration?
Afghanistan continuous to be the unwelcomed obligation for the Trump Administration and its allies. Since taking over office, the Trump Administration has been largely focused inward, trying to make America great again. while it may be a priority for the Trump Administration to make America great again and it obviously should, it is crucial not to throw away the baby with the bathwater. The situation in Afghanistan is quickly changing. ISIS is consolidating its foothold, Taliban are increasingly gaining ground and Russians are coming back. Shifting focus and objectives again may endanger the gains of the last 16 years. Afghanistan has come far away, but it still needs the commitment from itself and from its allies to withstand these formidable challenges. In doing so, the Trump Administration should keep its focus on:
Seek a peace deal with the Taliban
While Pakistan has largely been proven ineffective to bring Taliban to the negotiation table, the Trump Administration has the opportunity to draw upon the influential role of other allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirate. Despite various diplomatic struggle and different incentives offered, Pakistan has not changed its position in regards to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan will continue to advance its policy of “good and bad terrorists” as long as it wants to secure its strategic depth through proxies and violence. The gulf countries, particularly Saudi can make some head ways if not non, in bringing those Taliban to the negotiation table who are willing and seeking to make a peace deal with the Afghan Government.
Fix the problems within the Afghan Government
While a regional response to addressing the Afghanistan’s, problem has largely been failed due to the trojan horse nature of terrorism, the future of Afghanistan largely depends on its government. Honestly speaking, if Taliban are part of the problem, then the present National Unity Government of Afghanistan is not part of solution either. Afghanistan needs a government that is highly accountable, capable and responsive to the needs of its citizens. It needs a government that is competent and willing enough to enforce the rule of law through an independent and fair judiciary. It needs a governance system with institutions that are governed by the “rules of the game”, not by the rules of tradition, ethnics, political affiliation and patronage. The SIGAR report, released in 2017 encourages the procurement reform by the Afghan National Unity Government. However, it stressed that there is more work to be done and that procurement needs to become depolitised. The report presents dare concerns about corruption in the top-ranking officials within the Afghan army, who are selling army assets, weapons and resources to the insurgents. This has limited capacity of the Afghan army to effectively contain insurgency and secure ground in key hotspots such as Helmand and in the North, where insurgent gain increasingly more ground and support. American objective of sustaining the current government in Afghanistan will not last longer unless it put immense pressure on the Afghan Government to immediately address corruption in key sectors such as security, judiciary, public services and the appointment of public servants. Winning the hearts and minds of the average Afghan is the initial pre-requisite to win over insurgency and ensure long term peace in Afghanistan.
Keep the presence of the US force objectively to ensure scalable deterrence
The United States has more or less 8400 troops in Afghanistan, with the mission to train, assist and equip the Afghan security forces. While making a capable Afghan army, particularly an Afghan air-force is crucial, the United States should broaden the mandate of its forces beyond training per se. It needs to keep the number of forces at least at the current level to showcase a strategic deterrence in short to medium term until the prospects for peace with Taliban and other groups becomes clear. America needs to carefully learn lessons from its ill-planned withdrawal from Iraq and its consequences for the Iraqi government and army.
Adopt a whole of regional security strategy
It has long been recognized that a destabilized Afghanistan can threaten the stability of the entire region and the rest of the world. It is a strategically located country where every major power either regional or international strived to hold feet in order to keep their opponents under watch. But can America and its allies sell and transform this strategic location from competition to cooperation? Well, there has been some diplomatic struggles by the United States including the Old Silk Road Initiative and the Istanbul Process aimed to make Afghanistan a regional economic hub, but none have provided any tangible results. The problem is that the entire region suffers from complex hostilities and historical rivalries that shaped the mind sets of ruling politicians, governments and the militaries. For Afghanistan, it is very unfortunate! Afghanistan economic security mainly depends on the region. American leadership and successful diplomacy is needed to transform Afghanistan’s strategic location to the one where the East and West cooperate rather than compete.
Last but not least, a secure and prosperous Afghanistan largely depends on the Afghans themselves. Afghans need to prioritized Afghanistan themselves rather than waiting for others to make their country peaceful.