The road to Afghanistan peace does not lie in Kabul

The road to Afghanistan peace does not lie in Kabul

Rahmatullah Nabil - Melissa Skorka
Given wide-ranging authority by the Trump White House to determine its own course of action, the Pentagon is now considering troop levels in Afghanistan. But as the U.S. administration decides on a military strategy, the last 16 years have shown that Washington cannot rely solely on its troops to secure the Afghan state or stop groups like the Taliban from using the country as a base for attacks against the West. The U.S. must pursue political solutions as well.

For Washington, that task includes looking beyond buttressing the Kabul regime to engaging with major regional powers, namely Pakistan, China, and India. A fresh approach to Islamabad is particularly important. Trump must increase the pressure Washington is putting on Pakistan to contain the expansion of the sanctuary it provides for extremists like the Haqqanis - today one of the most influential Islamist militant organizations in South Asia. 

Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan is hardly new. For decades it has tried to ensure that whatever regime rises to power in Kabul aligns with Islamabad’s interests. The Trump administration’s announcement that it is considering expanding U.S. military involvement in the region, however, changes Pakistan’s calculus.  

The current Afghan unity government was formed in Kabul in 2014 after a disputed election required Washington to mediate a power-sharing agreement between political rivals. Today, President Ashraf Ghani continues to face unresolved ethnic tensions, causing deep unease in the country’s diverse communities, who see themselves being increasingly marginalized. 

Another complicating factor in the current political crisis is the wider proxy war. Over the past few years, Russia and Iran have expanded their presence in Afghanistan in order to counter the Islamic State, while simultaneously increasing challenges to U.S. power and the Western-backed government in Afghanistan. 

One potential worst-case scenario is the collapse of the central Afghan government. If that happens, U.S. and NATO troops could find themselves fighting a Taliban-dominated territory stretching across Afghanistan to the border of Iran.

To create a more effective U.S. policy, Washington must deal with the Ghani administration’s political crisis. Unwilling to unite ethnic factions, the Afghan state remains paralyzed to the point that most observers believe it would collapse without indefinite U.S. backing. The Trump administration must therefore appoint an envoy to enforce the existing legitimate power-sharing arrangements between the Kabul regime and diverse ethnicities, which would help secure and stabilize the country and the region at large.

At the same time, the U.S. must work with the next-generation leaders of the Afghan army and national police to address infiltration of the Afghan security forces by Taliban-Haqqani factions. The anticipated additional U.S. troops will strengthen NATO’s combat support role to train and mentor the Afghan forces and help them aggressively counter the militants’ hold on territory in Afghanistan. But countering their infiltration will entail a restructuring of regional strategy, as the U.S. will have to work closely with the Ghani administration to execute political and security reform while confronting Pakistan’s support for Islamist extremists.

To that end, Washington should expose Pakistan’s duplicity publicly where it supportsU.S.-designated terror organizations like Haqqani, and begin sanctioning Pakistani military and intelligence leaders who support proxies. Although such measures would be drastic against an ostensible ally (and would require judicious application to protect sources and methods), previous approaches to address Pakistan’s sanctuary for militants have failed.

Equally important, the White House must adopt a different approach to the larger proxy war and hold major powers accountable for their support of violent extremists that threaten regional stability.

Washington should strengthen its alignment with India, and co-operate with China on regional concerns of mutual interest, in particular growing terrorism and economic security. Bolstered relationships with the major world powers, in particular with Saudi Arabia, which has good relations with Pakistan, could help contain its expanding sanctuary for extremists and more effectively forge a diplomatic solution between Kabul, Islamabad, and its Taliban-Haqqani proxies. That political solution, in turn, could de-escalate the Afghan conflict and help stabilize the South Asia region.
*This abridged article is taken from Reuters