The Democracy Forum’s latest symposium debated the Trump administration’s changing strategy on Afghanistan, and its potential impact on both the country and its neighbours

In the wake of America’s revised foreign policy in Afghanistan, The Democracy Forum hosted a panel of experts to discuss the central question: will this new approach stop cross-border terrorism in the region?

In his welcome address, TDF president Lord Bruce recalled the long US military commitment in Afghanistan.In warning that Pakistan ‘has much lose by continuing to harbour terrorists’ and referring to India as a ‘key security and economic partner’ of America, President Trump was making it clear where his sympathies lay.

All the affected countries could learn from British history, said Lord Bruce. Britain used strategic alliances in the 18th and 19th centuries to prevent Europe from being dominated by a single state, and the US might have to play a similar role in South Asia. America would need to work hard to prevent the instability of Afghanistan from spilling over and stoking up tensions between India, Pakistan and China.

Offering an Afghan perspective, Ambassador Omar Samad, a former senior adviser to the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, said that most Afghans’ answer to the question posed would be a qualified ‘yes’, though engagement on many fronts would be needed to ensure that cross border terrorism is stopped in such a way that all stakeholders are satisfied. The majority of Afghans do not expect a complete and immediate stop to the country’s insurgency, said Samad, but they do expect a gradual change in policies that feed and enable terrorism.

The Soviet departure from Afghanistan in the late 1980s led to a withdrawal of western support for the country, said Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France. Transnational terror organisations such as al-Qaeda filled the vacuum, and factional fighting was bolstered by regional rivalries. The emergence and growth of the Taliban as a proxy force that aimed to subjugate the Afghan people introduced new madrassa-fuelled social norms.

In the 1990s the country became a failed state, taken over by a conglomerate of extremist groups under the Taliban umbrella, facilitated by Pakistan’s military establishment and recognised by three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. After the Taliban was ousted in the wake of 9/11, the Afghan mission had suffered from overfunding followed by underfunding, short-term military surges and premature deadlines.

The goal must be a political peace deal rather than a solely military solution, said Samad, but the right formula had not yet been found. The problem of cross-border terrorist sanctuaries needed to be addressed, not only in Pakistan but also in other countries – elements in Iran, he said, had infiltrated Afghanistan’s intelligence system. He was guardedly optimistic about the new US policy, calling it more focused, better defined in terms of benchmarks and with more promising prospects – though a big ‘if’ concerned implementation and follow-through.

TDF President Lord Bruce gives the welcome address
TDF President Lord Bruce gives the welcome address

The US must remain flexible and conditions-based, avoiding publicly-announced end dates, said Samad. The Afghan government needed reform and measures for good governance, as well as adequate training and equipment for the security services, a diplomatic surge and intelligence sharing. Unlike past attempts, the new policy must apply necessary pressure to break the military stalemate, disrupt the link with the drug business that feeds terrorist networks, and gain space for political negotiations. An end to the violence might not be imminent, but alternative methods were needed to open the way for peace in Afghanistan, and hence the wider region.

Dr Dawood Azami of the BBC World Service examined the regional challenges and opportunities of the US Afghanistan-South Asia strategy, saying that pressure on Pakistan and public condemnation of that country by President Trump was part of that strategy, as were the increased number of troops and their greater freedom to conduct operations. The biggest challenge to the new US policy was regional rivalries, said Azami, with many neighbouring countries, most notably Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan, being against a long-term US presence in Afghanistan. There was a ‘blame game’, with Russia, Iran and Pakistan accused by the US of having ties with the Afghan Taliban, and Russia, in turn, accusing the US of supporting Daesh (Islamic State) in Afghanistan. Without the support of such key regional players, it would be a challenge for the new strategy to succeed.

Pakistan’s behaviour had changed little, said Azami, despite the Trump administration’s harsh criticism and recent official visits to reinforce his message. Drugs and Daesh’s emergence since 2016 were common problems for all the countries of South and Central Asia, yet there was deep mistrust among them. US hostility towards Iran and tensions with Russia would also have many negative ripple effects, including instability in Afghanistan.

The biggest challenge for the US government, Azami concluded, was to bring all regional players on to the same page, while for the Afghan government it was balancing its foreign policy among conflicting interests.

For Thomas H. Johnson, an Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, the answer to the question of whether the new Afghan policy would stop cross-border terrorism in the region was a resounding ‘no’. President Trump’s ‘strategy’ was unmoored in political reality or principle, akin to ‘shifting the deck chairs on the Afghan Titanic’, with demands for reform, yet no mention of specific reforms.

Johnson believed the war in Afghanistan had become a quagmire. The US had spent more in aid to Afghanistan than on the Marshall Plan after the Second World War, yet the country’s ongoing problems included a crumbling infrastructure and 40 per cent unemployment.

There was continuing government illegitimacy and corruption, a ‘totally broken’ electoral system, rising Taliban power and violence and largely impotent national security forces, which had led Washington to call for the warlords to be allowed back into the fight – a disastrous policy, in his view, as was the multiplication of Afghan objectives by the CIA military force. The US would never kill or capture its way to victory in Afghanistan, as the Taliban would fight for generations. The solution had to be political.

While dismissive of Trump’s ‘so-called Afghan policy’, Johnson was more supportive ofthe president on Pakistan – which he branded ‘a duplicit enemy’ of the US – and India, saying that India could serve a useful role in countering Pakistan’s unreliability as an ally in Afghanistan. He was in favour of turning up the pressure on Pakistan, from cutting military aid to declaring the country a state sponsor of terrorism, and expressed horror at Pakistan’s recent release from house arrest of the Mumbai attack mastermind, Hafiz Saeed.

In reaching out to India, the US had been too careful not to step on Pakistan’s toes, said Johnson. This should change, as should tolerance towards Pakistan’s harbouring of terrorist groups. The US had a lot of leverage to force Islamabad to change its ways. Afghanistan could not be solved without Pakistan, which in turn could not be solved without India. This ripple effect was key to achieving a sustainable solution.

Johnson ended on a slightly more positive note, saying that the Taliban lacked co-ordination, but the overall situation would remain bleak in the absence of major strategy changes.

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