Trump’s Afghan War

American efforts in Afghanistan are back to square one these days as a second troop surge seems to be on the cards, recently General Nicholson apprised the Senate that thousands of troops are required in Afghanistan as the U.S. mission is in a ‘stalemate’, he also went on to admit that the Taliban had gained at least 15% more ground in 2016 even though 13,000 international troops remained in the country. The Commander of CentCom, Gen. Joseph Votel has also recently confirmed that a new military strategy is to be employed which will require more American troops.

In retrospect, it has been 15 years wasted for the U.S. in Afghanistan even after losing thousands to this ‘endless war’, Defense Secretary James Mattis has re-affirmed it with his remark that the Taliban “eroded some of our successes.” In fact, he has been mulling over whether more troops should be sent to Afghanistan since quite some time. Without any doubt, the Taliban are much more consolidated than the Kabul government today, they perpetually gain territory whilst the ineffectual Afghan forces cannot deliver, especially when “tens of thousands” of absent or non-existent soldiers are on the Afghan Army payroll. The Afghan state has rapidly lost control of many districts and its forces have suffered unsustainable losses, the reality is that the U.S. draw-down was not the end of the Afghan war within.

During the elections, President Donald Trump was emphatically anti-war and he publicly advocated withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling it ‘nonsense’ and a waste of money even on Twitter with “Let’s get out of Afghanistan,” constantly. Encouraged, the Afghan Taliban sent him an open letter which said , “The responsibility to bring to an end this war also rests on your shoulders.” The situation seems more unpredictable now, as the U.S. just sent hundreds of additional troops to Syria with more to follow as a new war strategy is taking shape. Eventually, a new fighting season may be in the offing if the Trump administration is willing to open two fronts.

In the meantime, Russia has abandoned its previously passive stance on the Afghan situation, lately, a new scenario has emerged in which the geo-strategic and geo-economic interests of Russia, China and Pakistan converge, none of these nations can go ahead with their plans for trade and development if Afghanistan remains destabilized. It is crucial to contain any militant uprisings within that country, an outfit like ISIS which plans to occupy territory can be a permanent obstruction in the way of progress for the entire region.

As the Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan rightly stated, “Our concern is that Daesh not only threatens Afghanistan, but it is also a potent threat to Central Asia, Pakistan, China, Iran, India and even Russia. We have ties with the Taliban to ensure the security of our political offices, consulates and the security of Central Asia.”

This was followed up by a tripartite meeting held in Moscow to discuss Afghanistan’s security, a conference including six countries – Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan was also hosted by Russia in February.

Thus, Russia has had to initiate talks with the Taliban in a bid to bring peace to Afghanistan, Moscow is also sharing information and cooperating on strategy to contain a new chapter of ISIS in Afghanistan, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Strangely though, India is unhappy with this new state of affairs in Afghanistan, it happens to have five consulates there to further its interests, out of which three happen to be situated near the Pak-Afghan border. With this level of influence, India could have played a positive role a long time ago if it wanted, but now it seems more likely that India will remain opposed to negotiations with the Taliban as it maintains that they need be crushed whilst ignoring the dangerous ISIS development, apparently it does not feel any threat from the terror outfit.

Fortunately, Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran have an identical stand on the matter and are intent on preventing any ‘spill-over effect’ from Afghanistan.

China also held direct talks with the Taliban last year, it is pursuing the matter with determination and it hosted a delegation of top Taliban leaders only last week, aiming to get the Taliban leadership involved in the Afghan peace process positively.

The first country to bear the brunt of Afghanistan’s instability is Pakistan, recently the 2600 km long Pak-Afghan border with Afghanistan has had to be closed due to infiltration of terrorists, shoot at sight orders have had to be issued. Afghan soil has always been used to launch attacks on Pakistan, with an ongoing civil war, Afghanistan is easily exploited and it has turned into a hideout for the new ISIS chapter and other mercenaries. Pakistan has conveyed its concern to Afghanistan which has agreed to go forward with an ISINDScooperation led by Pakistan in order to curb the menace of terrorism in the region. The resolution of Afghanistan’s problems lies in dialogue, it can even reap benefits from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor if peace prevails instead of becoming the next ‘ISIS war theatre.’

If allowed to grow unabated, the terror network is all set to spread to Central Asia, a permanent strategy to counter this imminent threat has to be worked out as the economic future of the entire region is at stake, the maintenance of security in Afghanistan has become essential for all regional countries, especially those that are part of the CPEC.

In this prevailing scenario, matters might get further complicated with the U.S. stepping in to fight the Taliban, this diversion would enable ISIS to settle in properly and wreak havoc for a long time. As it is, the Kabul government is rapidly shrinking and it cannot establish its writ in even half of the country, the domestic situation is bound to worsen if an American troop surge happens now. The U.S. has already spent fifteen years and more than $1 trillion on its previous Afghan war without any solid results. There should be more concentration on what the Afghan people really want, the civil war in Afghanistan could be settled with a dialogue process and fresh elections, there is no real need to start a new war. What remains to be seen is whether Afghanistan does become a second battle-ground for the Trump administration in its very first year in office. Some things never change as it seems like the U.S. is tempted to open the Pandora’s box again.

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Sabena Siddiqui

Contributing Analyst at CommandEleven
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on China, the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She is contributing analyst for China's state websiteChina.org.cn, Hong Kong-based Asia Times, Russian think tank Katehon and Islamabad-based think tank, CommandEleven.
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