“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. We will correct this as soon as possible,” said U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis during a recent Senate hearing. This was an unusually explicit opinion following that of General John Nicholson, head of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, who believes that the longest war ever fought by the United States is now facing a “stalemate”.
So as to rectify matters, President Donald Trump has delegated all decisions concerning a new strategy to be adopted in the central-Asian country to the Pentagon. This strategy is expected to be ready by mid-July, but for weeks the newspapers have been discussing the number of soldiers who will be deployed to support the already present 8,500. In February, General Nicholson requested a “reinforcement” of a few thousand men. He will get them. Defence Secretary Mattis agrees but is calling for a broader regional strategy, thus marking a break with the past, considering this to be “urgent”.
Where this discontinuity might arise from remains unclear. What is clear, however, is the paradox of the American administration. Trump would like to wash his hands of the Afghanistan case but cannot, nor can he replicate the policies implemented by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Further, the country’s image as a superpower must be protected. It would be tarnished if Afghanistan were abandoned in its current state: with the Taliban stronger than ever, a quarrelsome and illegitimate national unity government, a struggling economy, a rise in civilian deaths, the marginal but significant presence of Islamic State in areas close to the Pakistani border, regional powers ready to fill the void should America withdraw and 2.5 million refugees abroad as well as 1.5 million internally displaced Afghans.
Yet the superpower’s image is already damaged due to the inconsistencies between its initial objectives and the results achieved, as well as the uncertainty surrounding what the true objectives of the Afghan War were and are to this day. One of the most authoritative scholars of the country, Antonio Giustozzi, together with Ali Mohammad Ali, has analysed the United States’ commitment in Afghanistan since 2001, when the Bush administration decided to overthrow the Islamic emirate as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The result? Turbulent ebbs and flows and constant changes of pace.
Let us recapitulate. To begin with, the military intervention served to give a resounding lesson to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, accused of hosting the Saudi sheikh Osama bin Laden. Then came the idea of turning Afghanistan into a sort of ‘central-Asian South Korea’: an allied and accommodating country that would guarantee hospitality to the American troops needed to control the region. It was then considered more useful to resort to state-building, only to realise that such an operation had extremely high diplomatic, financial and political costs. Later on, acknowledging the resilience of anti-government forces, the United States came to the conclusion that the only way to exit the Afghan quagmire in a dignified manner was through a negotiation process. This idea never really took off and perhaps it finally became defunct in May 2016, when the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, appointed the successor of the deceased Mullah Omar, was obliterated by an American drone while travelling through the Pakistani Balochistan on his way back from Iran. In spite of his controversial appointment as the leader of Koranic scholars, “no other Taliban political leader was better positioned to entice a significantly large number of Taliban to support peace talks,” observes Antonio Giustozzi.
With negotiation plans frozen, the United States found themselves face to face with the contradictions of their own intervention, with the “unwritten” history of their presence in Afghanistan; “the story of how regional powers intervened to limit the damage inflicted on their interests by American involvement.” This is, in other words, the increasingly muddled “regional” issue mentioned by U.S. Defence Secretary Mattis. Between 2009 and 2013, a consensual objective was found by Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia (the regional powers observing the United States’ presence in the area with suspicion and hostility): to prevent the crystallisation of the status quo. The Saudis and the Chinese transferred money and aid through Pakistan to a number of anti-government groups, while the Iranians and the Russians preferred to establish direct contacts. Concern regarding the United States’ presence in central Asia contracted in 2015, when ISAF’s combat mission came to an end and was followed by a progressive withdrawal of NATO and U.S. troops. Thus the anti-American sentiment of the regional alliance diminished. Now it is up to the Trump administration and Defence Secretary Mattis to make a move on this fragmented chessboard, upon which the presence of the United States is itself an element of instability.
Kabul’s quarrelsome national unity government expects Trump to set aside the prudence shown by the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry, who believed it was necessary to move delicately, not on a whim, both at a domestic and regional level. President Ashraf Ghani hopes that Trump will translate his suspicion of Islamabad in the implementation of concrete policies; he also does not mind hostility towards Tehran, with whom Kabul struggles to establish a dialogue. However, if Washington were to apply pressure on both Tehran and Islamabad, it may be the Taliban who would emerge stronger and more united. Furthermore, Washington has few means available to persuade Islamabad to set aside its traditional policy in support of the Taliban. The “land of the pure” is no longer so dependent on the United States and should Washington raise the stakes excessively, for example by aiming to apply significant financial sanctions, this move would not be tolerated by countries in the Gulf nor by China, Russia and Iran. The only alternatives available are the threat of reinforcing the Afghan army, which Pakistan would rather remain weak, and America’s links with India, Islamabad’s historical antagonist. In this case too, one must move delicately; if managed in an excessively heavy-handed manner, àla Trump, this would risk distancing Islamabad even more from Washington and exacerbating the dischord with Kabul.
Similar contradictions arise in relations with Iran who from 2007 to 2015, have undermined US and NATO efforts through the support of anti-government groups. Worried about the frailty of the Afghan state, Tehran then took a step back. It does not want the government to collapse nor does it want the Taliban to return to power. But, should Trump decide to increase the number of soldiers in Afghanistan, observes Giustozzi, the Revolutionary Guards – on whom the Afghan case depends – might change their minds. “In 2016 and at the beginning of 2017, the Revolutionary Guards encouraged their allies and clients among the Taliban to avoid applying pressure on Afghan government forces, concentrating instead on expanding their presence in Afghanistan and fighting against Islamic State.”
Paradoxically, it is the Islamic State itself that could provide the United States with further legitimacy. If the threat of the so-called “Khorasan Province” were to become more significant, Washington would have an additional reason to justify the presence of American troops in Afghanistan. For the moment, the Caliph’s men can only boast considerable support in the area near the Pakistani border, mainly in the provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar, but have carried out a number of bloody attacks in the capital Kabul and are dangerously exploiting religious denominational divisions. Russia, in particular, has expressed concern that al-Baghdadi’s militants are active in its own “backyard”. The group’s strategy to establish an Islamic caliphate, according to Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, “poses a threat not only to Afghanistan, but also to neighbouring countries.” For this reason, Russia has announced that it wishes to reinforce its two central Asian military bases in Tajikistan and Kirghizstan with new weaponry.
Even if a common denominator were to be found around the “threat” of the Caliph in central Asia, the Afghan issue would remain unresolved. The solution, nowadays, appears to involve China. The Chinese and the Saudis have already tried to get all the players to sit at the negotiating table. China, in particular, holds the best hand of cards; they are “very close to the Pakistani authorities, have good and close relations with Iran and Russia as well as with Afghanistan, and could also be an acceptable interlocutor for the Saudis,” writes Giustozzi. It is unlikely, however, that the Trump administration would be prepared to work closely with Beijing, let alone allow China to lead the peace process and therefore direct the country’s future structure.
As we wait to see what decisions the Trump administration make, there are two elements that remain fixed. The first is that “more troops, in the absence of an effective diplomatic strategy, could make Afghanistan less stable, rather than more stable,” as observed in the New Yorker by Barnett Rubin, an expert on the region. The second is that “no matter how many troops Mattis decides to send this summer,” that alone “will not rectify the political crisis in Kabul,” writes Ahmed Rashid. This is an expected and predictable crisis and one sparked precisely by the United States. Three years ago, in order to put an end to the dispute concerning the outcome of the presidential elections, the then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry imposed on the two opponents, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, a political agreement for a two-headed national unity government. This ended up institutionalising the antagonism between the two men and paralysing all government activities. Who knows whether U.S. Defence Secretary Mattis will bear this in mind when drafting a new doctrine for the old Afghan War, the longest war ever fought by the United States.
Translated by Francesca Simmons