M K Bhadrakumar |
The horrific terrorist attacks in Kabul during the last fortnight provoked some exceptionally strong remarks from US President Donald Trump. At a lunch meeting in the White House with the envoys representing the members of the UN Security Council, he said on January 29:
- We’ll also discuss what more we can do to defeat the Taliban. I don’t see any talking taking place. I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now. It’s a whole different fight over there. They’re killing people left and right. Innocent people are being killed left and right. Bombing in the middle of children, in the middle of families — bombing, killing all over Afghanistan.
- So we don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time, but it’s going to be a long time. We’re all out, and that’s taking place right now, and it’s a whole new front. And it’s a whole new set of principles that we’re being governed by.
- When we see what they’re doing and the atrocities that they’re committing, and killing their own people, and those people are women and children — many, many women and children that are totally innocent — it is horrible.
- So there’s no talking to the Taliban. We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish. What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.
Three things stood out in what Trump said. One, he used the words “defeat the Taliban”, something that has never been said before as the US strategy in Afghanistan. Two, he categorically ruled out any talks with the Taliban. Three, he was confident of a military victory. Taken together, it appeared that Trump signaled a shift in US policy – the so-called ‘conditions-based’ strategy in Afghanistan.
Russia offered to take the initiative to kickstart a peace process. Do not be surprised that something similar to the Astana process to end the conflict in Syria (jointly by Russia, Turkey and Iran) may repeat in regard of Afghanistan too.
Taliban scoffed at Trump, saying he was grandstanding before his domestic audience. Indeed, there is mounting criticism in the US lately that Trump’s Afghan strategy is already spluttering.
At any rate, during an unannounced visit to Kabul on January 30, US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan made a valiant attempt to water down Trump’s rhetoric by insisting that Trump’s strategy continued to be what he announced last August – namely, that the objective is to make the Taliban realize that an outright military victory was not possible (“Taliban cannot wait us out”), which would compel them in turn to come to the negotiating table.
But the really interesting part of Sullivan’s remarks was that he didn’t make any criticism of Pakistan, leave alone point finger at Pakistan over the Kabul attacks – although there have been Afghan allegations that the recent attacks were planned in Pakistan. On the other hand, Sullivan said, “We will continue our dialogue with Pakistan… We also encourage the government of Afghanistan to continue its bilateral discussions with Pakistan. Pakistan needs to be part of the solution, and that is the focus of our South Asia strategy… we (US) are committed to follow through on that policy despite the violence of the last two days.” (Transcript)
Pakistan will actively network with Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, etc. to open a political process that will discredit the US strategy to seek a military solution. The bottom line is that an open-ended US military presence is not acceptable to the regional states neighboring Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is sitting tight and pushing back at the US. Pakistan has no intentions of cooperating with the strategy being pursued by the US commanders in Afghanistan who seek a military solution. Of course, Pakistan cannot be faulted if it estimates that the Trump administration’s strategy is doomed to fail. Why should Pakistan jeopardize its links with the Taliban – its “strategic assets” – who act as a bulwark against the perceived expansion of Indian influence in Kabul?
Pakistan has carefully weighed the costs of risking its relations with the US and concluded that its “strategic assets” by far outweigh those costs. In the prevailing geopolitical mileu regionally and internationally, Pakistan also has options to shake off US pressure. On the contrary, the US strategy has no prospects without Pakistan’s cooperation.
Equally, the Russian and Iranian stance works to Pakistan’s advantage. At a meeting in Moscow on January 31 with the special secretary in the Pakistani foreign ministry Tasnim Aslam, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov voiced support for “Pakistan’s intention to combat terrorism and extremism in a proactive manner” and offered “practical assistance to Pakistan’s efforts to build up its counterterrorism potential.”
The Taliban will keep discrediting the Afghan government through high-profile attacks and expose the dysfunctional political system and thereby undermine the planned elections in 2018-2019 that are important to shore up the legitimacy of the set-up in Kabul.
On January 30, addressing a gathering in Tehran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the terrorist attacks in Kabul and said that the US is clandestinely transferring the Islamic State fighters to Afghanistan after their defeat in Syria and Iraq with a view to create more instability and thereby justify its open-ended military presence in the region.
All in all, the terrorist strikes in Kabul underscore that the endgame in Afghanistan must be a political settlement. The Taliban is right: Trump was only grandstanding. Significantly, Trump’s hardline rhetoric about defeating the Taliban found no takers in Europe, where the opinion favors a political solution. But a political settlement will be a bitter pill for the US to swallow because it entails accommodating the Taliban in the Afghan power structure, recognizing Pakistan’s legitimate interests and the drawdown of the US presence in Afghanistan.
Why should Pakistan jeopardize its links with the Taliban – its “strategic assets” – who act as a bulwark against the perceived expansion of Indian influence in Kabul?
What we may expect, therefore, is that Pakistan and the Taliban will sit out the US surge during the coming one-year period, which looks to be the bloodiest phase of the 17-year old war. The Taliban will keep discrediting the Afghan government through high-profile attacks and expose the dysfunctional political system and thereby undermine the planned elections in 2018-2019 that are important to shore up the legitimacy of the set-up in Kabul. The pressure will mount on the Trump administration once it becomes clear that the US is unable to break the stalemate.
On the other hand, Pakistan will actively network with Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, etc. to open a political process that will discredit the US strategy to seek a military solution. Last week, Russia offered to take the initiative to kickstart a peace process. Do not be surprised that something similar to the Astana process to end the conflict in Syria (jointly by Russia, Turkey and Iran) may repeat in regard of Afghanistan too. The bottom line is that an open-ended US military presence is not acceptable to the regional states neighboring Afghanistan.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.