Important choices in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on surprise visit to Kabul
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) paid a surprise visit in April to General John Nicholson (L, gesturing) in Kabul to weigh sending more troops (source: dpa)

The United States has decided to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. This makes good sense, because a successful war should bring victory.

Victory should not mean humiliating one’s adversary, but it does mean reaching the objective. In the Afghan case, it will involve another long stretch of peacekeeping – not to enforce our own Western system, but to allow the development of organic, Afghan governance.

Therefore, it’s a good thing that President Donald Trump did not set a timeline for the operation.

No choice

That makes for a stark contrast with his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, who decided on a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan just before winning a second term as U.S. president. On Oct. 23, 2012, he sent out the following tweet:

“We’re ending the war in Afghanistan because after a decade of war, it’s time to do some nation-building here at home.”

But the job was not yet finished. After Mr. Obama’s decision, the Taliban began clawing back ground until it controlled more than 40 percent of Afghan territory. The Kabul government is helpless, and the Taliban will not be content to sit down to the negotiating table so long as they are winning.

In a GIS report last month, expert Bernard Siman predicted that the Trump administration would have no choice but to increase the number of troops on the ground.

Map of Afghanistan and Pakistan with Pashtun population
The Durand Line was the basis for the modern Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but by splitting the region’s Pashtun population in two, it makes defeating the Taliban harder (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Two skeletons are coming out of the Afghan closet in terms of Pakistani and Indian involvement.

The reasons for the first is clearly described in the GIS report mentioned above. The frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the so-called Durand line drawn by British colonial administrators in the 19th century, cuts in half the territory of the Pashtuns. This nation of more than 40 million is Afghanistan's largest ethnicity and Pakistan's second-largest. Pashtun communities provide the biggest source of recruits for the Taliban and shelter its fighters on both sides of the border.

Given the above facts, Washington’s recent harsh criticism of Pakistan is at least partly misguided and almost entirely useless.

New Delhi is not convinced that the Americans will stay until the job is done

India’s interest in Afghanistan is more complicated, relating to the regional balance of power and its conflict with China. Given its troubled relations with Pakistan, New Delhi must be pleased by every fresh sign of tension between Washington and Islamabad. For its part, the U.S. would very much like to get India involved in the Afghanistan campaign to help force the Taliban to the negotiating table.

New Delhi is hesitant, and for good reason. Based on past experiences, they are not convinced that the Americans will stay until the job is done. The U.S., being far away, can always pull out. But it would be a much messier proposition for India if its American ally suddenly left it in the lurch.

Persuading India that this will not happen is now up to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. They must demonstrate that Washington is determined to make the Afghanistan campaign a long-term success.

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