Forward Operating Base Torkham, in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan (army.mil)
It’s past time the United States did some soul-searching and accept responsibility for exacerbating an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. This will require a rethink of Washington’s current handling of Afghanistan and indeed its entire view of the region. Steve Coll recently made a cogent argument in the New York Times that the U.S. should seriously engage with China and other regional powers. However, this is impossible so long as Washington remains convinced that Pakistan alone is the primary impediment to peace rather than its own mistakes.
Initially, the Pentagon approached Afghanistan as a special operations-dominated theater with the goal of eradicating high value members of al-Qaeda. The rationale behind pouring further resources into Afghanistan after those targets departed was the fear that a failed state would become a terrorist safe haven. But this only makes sense if it is accepted that unlimited power projection and nation-building are both sustainable and desirable.
Numerous failed states around the world have become susceptible to violent non-state actors. Afghanistan was just one of last year’s 15 most fragile countries based on factors like societal cohesion, poverty, and political legitimacy. Yet rather than deploy large numbers of troops to multiple failed states, America chose instead to ramp up drone strikes and special operations activities. Nevertheless, Washington still has a troop presence in Afghanistan and refuses to leave.
At times more than 100,000 U.S. troops have been stationed in Afghanistan and foreign troops have numbered a few thousand to over 40,000. Allied boots on the ground from countries such as the U.K. and Australia have been able to significantly impact the battle space and have fought in some of the most volatile parts of Afghanistan, including Helmand’s notoriously dangerous Sangin Valley. I served in support of the Australian-led Special Operations Task Group, which at its height pacified large swaths of Uruzgan province. Not only did these militaries take casualties for an American-led war, they were force multipliers in the U.S. fight against the Taliban.
American soldiers also served alongside less capable allies. U.S. Marines have lauded the Georgian army for its enthusiasm and bravery while also complaining of incompetent soldiers who went into battle lacking basic combat skills. One explanation for the outsized role of Georgia’s inexperienced military was their immunity from Washington’s oversight and U.S. public opinion. But the more relevant reason had little to do with Afghanistan. Tbilisi naively hoped Georgia could earn U.S. protection in future conflicts with Russia while Washington’s own hubris led it to think that this would deter Moscow’s expansionist ambitions. Yet Georgia still moved further into Moscow’s orbit. This is emblematic of Washington’s overall approach to Afghanistan: refusing to leave while holding it hostage to peripheral geopolitical concerns.
The five countries that matter most for Afghanistan’s future are Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India. Washington policymakers still largely view influence abroad as a zero-sum game with Russia and China, especially as the latter considers its own military base in Afghanistan. A CNN report last summer that suggested Russia is arming the Taliban without concrete evidence also exacerbated the situation. This prevents close cooperation even though neither country has an interest in a failed Afghanistan or one controlled by Islamists. Sour relations between Washington and Moscow have also made it difficult to seriously consider northern NATO supply routes through the Central Asian republics.
Moving military supplies through Iran remains impossible even as trade with Afghanistan increases. It didn’t have to be this way. Shortly after 9/11, there was limited cooperation between Iran and the U.S. Tehran had its own grievances with the Taliban, including the group’s 1998 murder of 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif, and had even considered its own invasion of Afghanistan (instead it opted to lend material support to the Northern Alliance). The potential partnership was not to survive the mutual rhetoric of the Bush and Ahmadinejad administrations, however.
Pakistan’s initial reluctance to partner with the U.S. in the War on Terror was understandable given valid fears that a new government in Kabul might challenge its border or result in a bloody sectarian conflict. However, Pakistani policymakers are fooling themselves if they think that Islamabad’s cordial relationship with the Taliban could have maintained peace had it not been for 9/11, since a similar event was likely to happen anyway.
Both Islamabad and Washington compete to wear the cloak of victimhood. Pakistan remains in denial about its support of the Haqqani Network and other militant groups, while the U.S. has failed to acknowledge Pakistan’s staggering losses, with the recent suicide bombing in Swat sending more innocent lives to the morgue. Washington further irks Islamabad by refusing to officially validate its concerns about India’s activities in Afghanistan. Yet former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel admitted, “India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front.” Islamabad knows that the U.S. is regionally isolated, and President Trump’s attempt to change Pakistan’s behavior has only served to alienate it further.
Last week, General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that he speaks to his Pakistani counterpart weekly and is seeing “positive indicators.” Nevertheless, in June, Pakistan will be placed on the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for its support of terrorism even though key members doubt that action’s potential effectiveness. With the Afghan government proposing talks with the Taliban that could include a ceasefire and prisoner exchange, now is the time for the U.S. to prioritize diplomacy over coercion. Barnett Rubin’s recent open letter to the Taliban is an authoritative recounting of missed opportunities for peace. While Rubin places some blame on Pakistan, he reminds us that the Taliban remain independent and it is a deficit of diplomacy that has strengthened their clandestine alliances.
To resolve the Afghan war the U.S. must seriously engage Moscow and Beijing, thereby indirectly reaching Tehran as well. President Trump should use his budding relationship with Prime Minister Modi to demand that India invest in Afghanistan but resist the urge to harass Pakistan. The Pentagon must swallow the bitter pill of a counterinsurgency defeat because surges and air strikes will not end this conflict. President Trump must acknowledge that his refusal to announce a timeline for departure is meaningless when regional players know the U.S. will eventually have to leave. An end to the war in Afghanistan lies in dialogue and if Washington doesn’t adapt it will soon get left behind.
Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. He has written on South Asia and U.S. foreign policy for The National Interest, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, and other outlets.