The Art of Dealing with the Taliban

There is no military solution to the Afghan conflict must be the mantra in Washington. The Trump administration is mulling sending 3,000-5,000 more troops to train and assist the Afghan forces, but we have already witnessed more than 100,000 US and NATO troops being unable to end the guerrilla conflict in Afghanistan. After 16 years of non-stop fighting, the US policy regarding the war in Afghanistan must focus on the political dimension rather than solely the military dimension.

In recent history, peace accords have been signed off on three continents over long standing political and territorial disputes. The ‘Good Friday Agreement of 1998’ was inked between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom and put an end to decades of unrest in the British Isles. The National Peace Accord of 1991 paved the way for the 1994 general elections in South Africa that resulted in National Unity government headed by Nelson Mandela. The National Reconciliation Process ended the decades long strife of the South African people for self-determination and an end to Apartheid. This process once again proved that a resolution by non-violent means is still possible. More recently, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers separatist insurgency in May 2009, bringing an end to a 26-year old civil war. However, the 16-year long war in Afghanistan has eluded all educated guesses about putting an end to a protracted insurgency.

The 2016 US presidential debates were mostly focused on personal insults at the expense of largely ignoring the international hot spots of Afghanistan, the Levant and the Middle East. Afghanistan, where US troops are engaged in the longest war in American history, was not mentioned even once in the entire campaign season, nor did it even make it into President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. Similarly, Pakistan, which holds the master key to resolving the Afghan war, was hardly mentioned. The stakes still remain high, as shown by the Trump administration’s mulling over a troop increase and the dropping of the MOAB on ISIS fighters in the eastern part of the country. There seems to be no end in sight.

Pakistan’s double role, as a US ally on the War on Terror while simultaneously abetting Taliban that kill US troops, has been highlighted on numerous forums, but US policy and lawmakers are not very confident as to how to deal with Pakistan. Recently, the Hudson Institute put together a comprehensive list of 10 policy proposals to deal with Pakistan, which can rightly be described as a mixed bag of carrots and sticks. The authors, however, stopped short of declaring Pakistan a State Sponsor of Terrorism, though they did propose to avoid viewing and portraying Pakistan as an American ally.

Pakistani officials claim that if the US and 45-countries strong NATO Coalition have failed to defeat the Taliban in 16 years, then how can our thinly-stretched army be expected to dismantle Taliban strongholds in Pakistan? At a cursory glance this looks like a legitimate position, but the truth is far from it.

The fact is that US and NATO allies have comprehensively defeated the Taliban inside Afghanistan, but this is a war in which fresh foot soldiers are supplied continuously from across the border. With two exceptions, the US has not targeted Taliban leadership entrenched in Pakistan, more specifically in Quetta, the Tribal belt and Karachi. The Taliban enjoys sanctuaries in Pakistan with some level of support from Pakistani officials. This is evidenced by the fact that funerals of Taliban fighters killed in Afghanistan are heavily attended by terror sympathizers in Dir, the hometown of Jamaat-e-Islami Chief Sirajul Haq. Pakistani conservative leaders have always legitimized the war in Afghanistan as Jihad, which is considered a duty in Islam.

The question on everyone’s mind is how to go after the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, especially the Haqqani Network, from a tactical standpoint and what can be done on the diplomatic front to dissuade Pakistan from nurturing extremist militants. There is a broad consensus among US policy makers and analysts but the devil lies in the details. There is a growing concern in Washington and patience is running out. If the proposed mini-surge is not accompanied by coercive measures taken against Pakistan, then it is probably aimed at buying more time for the Trump administration to admit defeat in Afghanistan.

No matter which approach is adopted, it is now abundantly clear that a cocktail of coercive actions need to be in place to force Pakistan abandon its use of terror as a tool of foreign policy, as the carrots have not yielded any positive outcomes. The other piece of the puzzle to resolve the Afghan quagmire lies inside Afghanistan itself.

Afghanistan, despite massive aid from the US and international community, is a hotbed of corruption and failed governance. Eight hundred million dollars down the road, the Afghan National Defense and Security forces are nowhere near the level to secure their own country. The recent attacks in Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and Balkh exposed the chronic weaknesses of the Afghan forces. In almost all these attacks, the Taliban have received insider help. If 16 years of donor assistance didn’t prepare the Afghan forces, it is unclear what an additional 5,000 troops will achieve.

The National Unity Government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah is anything but “Unity”. Vice President Rashid Dostum is in exile in his own country and had only recently visited Kabul. Amid torture and rape allegations, Dostum is reportedly flying to Turkey, which has been dubbed as another long exile for him. This will result in more uncertainty in Kabul, where shadow of former President Hamid Karzai has long been lurking.

In all this murkiness, China may come as an unwilling interlocutor. The Taliban have held several rounds of peace talks in China. The Trump administration has the option to take China aboard in helping resolve the Afghan imbroglio, as it is a key Pakistan supporter and holds reasonable stakes in the Afghan economic development through regional alliances.

Resurgence of an affiliate of the Islamic State has added another dimension to an already very complex situation. It is imperative for the Trump administration to come up with a comprehensive Afghan policy as soon as possible, as abandoning the country at this point is tantamount to handing it back to the Taliban.  Ultimately, the US cannot afford it, especially with the Islamic State on the run from the Levant and looking for new abodes. The mayhem in Kabul today that killed and injured hundreds underscores the need for dealing with the Taliban and other terrorists at the earliest.

Dr. Asim Yousafzai is a Washington DC based geo-science professional who regularly writes on technical and geo-strategic issues. He is the author of the book “Afghanistan: From Cold War to Gold War”. He can be followed @asimusafzai