By Barnett R. Rubin
February 1, 2017
The United States can best achieve its objective of denying international terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan by implementing an integrated diplomatic and military strategy.
The immediate goal is to defend the country’s government and strategic assets. In the medium run, we need to continue trying to stabilize that country’s shaky political order and keeping its state and security forces trained and funded. Over the long term, the United States would have to support efforts to build a more self-sufficient economy linked to Afghanistan’s neighbours.
A political settlement, not just with the Taliban but also with Pakistan and other regional states, is essential for moving beyond the medium term. Reaching a settlement would require the United States to keep an open-ended troop presence as its main bargaining chip, while demonstrating willingness to discuss and negotiate a timetable for complete troop withdrawal with Afghanistan, its neighbours and the Taliban.
Some Americans and Afghans, looking only at the short run, hope President Trump will strengthen the position of the United States and the Afghan government against the Taliban. Mr. Trump discussed sending more troops in a December telephone call with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, The Wall Street Journal reported. He may exert stronger pressure on Pakistan to stop harbouring the Afghan Taliban and employ tougher military measures against the Taliban in Afghanistan, though there is no basis for believing that either of those measures would work better than they have for the past 15 years.
Hopes that Mr. Trump would sustain such fruitless measures fly in the face of his own words. In October 2015 he told Chris Cuomo of CNN that Afghanistan was a “mess” and that “we made a terrible mistake getting involved there.” Mr. Trump added that he “would leave the troops there, begrudgingly.”
The United States has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan and finances the Afghan security forces and the rest of the state at a cost estimated to be around $4 billion a year. The Trump administration is unlikely to sustain that level of spending, since it is reportedly considering how to cut federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years.
Stabilizing Afghanistan with less United States assistance would require an end to Pakistan’s harbouring the Taliban and a political settlement in Afghanistan. But geographic and geopolitical factors limit how much the United States can pressure Pakistan. The United States needs Pakistan for access to landlocked Afghanistan. In 2011, after several incidents, Pakistan closed United States ground transit. Access through Iran is impossible. In 2011 Russia allowed supplies to transit to Afghanistan from the north. Today, it would either refuse or exact a heavy price, probably in Europe. Is Afghanistan more important than NATO?
Efforts to change Islamabad’s behaviour work best in cooperation with its “all-weather friend,” China. Senior officials in Beijing told me last December that China’s cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan would continue regardless of differences over the South China Sea, North Korea or trade. Challenging the “One China” policy, as Mr. Trump has started to do, would end all United States-China cooperation, including on Afghanistan.
The administration’s counterterrorism policy would make a political settlement impossible, which is probably fine with Mr. Trump. A peace process requires differentiating the Taliban from global jihadists, integrating the former so as to isolate the latter. The leaked draft of an executive order to revive torture and re-establish black sites, however, referred to “a global armed conflict with ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other associated international Islamist terrorist groups,” and made no distinction among them.
Any effort presupposes a United States presence, however begrudging, in Afghanistan. Anti-Taliban Afghans have seen the United States as a protector rather than occupier, but will their welcome survive an American president who believes “Islam hates us” and bars Muslim refugees from our shores?
In March 2011, when Terry Jones, a Florida pastor, burned copies of the Quran, demonstrators in Mazar-i-Sharif killed seven United Nations employees. In February 2012, American guards at the Bagram detention centre burned “extremist publications” that turned out to be copies of the Quran and religious tracts. Two thousand demonstrators gathered outside Bagram, demanding the departure of United States troops. Over the coming weeks, Afghan soldiers killed at least six American soldiers in apparent retaliation.
The United States could quickly wear out its welcome as the Trump administration bars Muslim refugees. Any moves to send new prisoners to Guantánamo, torture detainees, inflict more civilian casualties, bar Afghans from entering the United States, tolerate or encourage the persecution of Muslims in the United States, or move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem will hurt American ability to work in Afghanistan.
Expanding the economy requires cooperation with neighbours to connect Afghanistan to markets. Regional states have started infrastructure projects that could do so. China’s Belt and Road Initiative will link western China to the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and South Asia. It includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (C.P.E.C.) from Xinjiang to the Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea shore. Crises in United States-China or United States-Pakistan relations would make Afghan integration with C.P.E.C. even harder than it is now.
Afghanistan has an alternative to C.P.E.C. Iran and India are developing the Iranian port of Chabahar and connecting it to Afghanistan’s main highway. The three countries signed a transit agreement last May. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, concerned about the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, visited New Delhi in January to confirm Japanese participation. On Jan. 28, thanks to the relaxation of sanctions after the nuclear agreement, Iran announced contracts for $3.2 billion in direct investment in projects on the coast around Chabahar. President Trump could cooperate with India and Japan, but additional sanctions on Tehran could hinder investment in Chabahar and inhibit implementation of the transit agreement.
If America is first on Mr. Trump’s list of priorities, the “mess” in Afghanistan seems to be pretty far down. Afghanistan’s future will depend on the United States as much as it will on China, India, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. The United States could help shape regional arrangements that would do more to stabilize Afghanistan and stop terrorism than a thousand drone strikes, but not if we view our presence solely as part of a global war on Islamist terrorism and make it impossible to engage Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Barnett R. Rubin is the director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Program at the Centre on International Cooperation, New York University