Rupert Stone |
Afghanistan is back in the headlines. The 16-year US-led war – which began as a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 – is still ongoing. America has about 8400 troops posted there, in addition to thousands of international NATO forces. But the country is in meltdown, with the Kabul government controlling less territory than at any time since 2001, civilian and military casualties sky-rocketing, and terror attacks becoming more common. Kabul, the capital, once seen as a safe-haven, is regularly rocked by suicide bombs, such as the blast that tore through a Shia mosque yesterday.
Given the situation in the country, it is hardly surprising that US Defense Secretary James Mattis was grilled about Afghanistan before the US Congress this week. It has been rumored for some time that the Trump administration intends to escalate the American military presence there by thousands of troops. Mattis, taking his pew on the Hill, admitted that the US is “not winning”, but said that Afghanistan policy is currently undergoing review and that a strategy will not be finalized until July. The Trump administration is expected to deploy about 4000 more troops.
The military cannot defeat the Taliban
Such is the potency of the Taliban, that many are calling for the US to negotiate a truce. Some kind of power-sharing agreement with the militant group seems like the only way out of this mess. It is unclear from Mattis’ recent statements if he supports such a move (which was endorsed by the Obama administration)
However, experts on Afghanistan believe that a military solution to the conflict is out of reach. The Taliban, which might number about 30,000, has been gradually taking territory from the Kabul government. It has twice captured the key northern city of Kunduz in the past two years and seems on the verge of seizing major towns in the south. While further American troops may band-aid the situation, this is only a short-term solution. The Taliban’s support is growing, with Iran and Russia.
Such is the potency of the Taliban, that many are calling for the US to negotiate a truce. Some kind of power-sharing agreement with the militant group seems like the only way out of this mess. It is unclear from Mattis’ recent statements if he supports such a move (which was endorsed by the Obama administration). Mattis seemed to reject giving the Taliban a political role at a speech in Australia recently and made no explicit mention of a diplomatic solution before Congress.
However, he did say the US was pursuing a “regional” approach to the Afghan quagmire. Mattis gave no detail as to what he meant, so one can only speculate. Perhaps he means that the US will follow the advice of various hawks in Washington and crack down on Pakistan for its supposed harboring of the Afghan Taliban. Policy wonks in DC have been calling for America to sanction Pakistan and unleash strikes – maybe drone strikes – on militant sanctuaries in Balochistan, where the Quetta Shura (Taliban leadership) is based.
Or does he mean that the US will try and engage Afghanistan’s neighbors in finding a diplomatic solution? This would be sensible. Countries in the region have deep economic interests in Afghanistan and wish to see stability there. Iran and India signed a deal last year that would develop transport and trade links with Afghanistan and Central Asia via the Iranian port of Chabahar. China has ongoing mining and oil projects in the country, not to mention housing schemes, energy development, and transport links.
Beijing was also involved in the 2016 peace deal with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and has recently offered to mediate in the fractious Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. This is the sort of “regional solution” the US and NATO need to embrace if they are to stabilize the country
The war threatens these interests. In 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the commencement of a massive new scheme of trade and investment projects, modeled on the old Silk Road, called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The largest component of BRI is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a nexus of transit, industrial and energy programs throughout Pakistan. The corridor itself runs through western Pakistan down to the port of Gwadar in Balochistan but could be undermined by weak security on the Afghan border.
For that reason, China is reportedly planning to optimize security there by installing military bases and using private contractors to police the region. The murder of two Chinese hostages recently added to their resolve. Beijing may even be able to pressurize Pakistan and its Taliban guests into negotiating a truce with Kabul. China has already played a key role in brokering talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban at Murree in 2015. The talks were unsuccessful, but it was the first (and only) time Kabul has talked to the Taliban.
Beijing was also involved in the 2016 peace deal with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and has recently offered to mediate in the fractious Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. This is the sort of “regional solution” the US and NATO need to embrace if they are to stabilize the country. The Taliban is now too strong, and the Kabul government too corrupt and divided, for an American-led military victory to be possible. The only way forward is for all interested parties to come together and negotiate a diplomatic settlement.
But there is a little sign the US is following this path. Mattis’ proposals are largely security-focused. Moreover, Donald Trump has reportedly delegated authority on troop levels to the Pentagon, seemingly surrendering strategic control of the war to the military. Some analysts in Washington see this as an eschewal of a political, diplomatic approach to the conflict in favor of a purely militaristic solution. Let us hope this is wrong because military force alone will not end the Afghan war.
Rupert Stone is an independent journalist working on national security, with a focus on the US, UK, and South and Central Asia. He has written for a variety of publications including Newsweek.