Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 26, 2018
Abandoning Afghanistan: Trump may have a point

US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out US troops from Syria, and reports that he has ordered a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan has caused ‘shock and awe’, not just among the top echelons of Pentagon but also the political and strategic community within the US and in rest of the world. There appears to be a consensus of sorts that this is an ill-advised and dangerous move. It will undermine US strategic interests because it not only means abandoning, some would say betraying and leaving in the lurch, their friends and allies, but also allows leaves the space vacant for rival powers to step in. Worse, it will undermine the War on Terror by emboldening and empowering the terrorists, especially in Afghanistan.

Conventional wisdom would support the criticism of pulling out troops leaving the job half done, and that also from places which could very easily and very quickly descend into chaos and re-emerge as epicentres or hubs of regional and global terror. But there is a counter-intuitive, and perhaps cynical, argument that will see some merit in the decision taken by the maverick sitting in the White House. Cut through all the clap-trap, the simple, if also unpalatable, fact is that there was nothing good coming out of the US troops presence in Afghanistan. This is not to deny that the US and other countries have done some remarkable work in rebuilding a devastated Afghanistan. But despite that, the fact is that the US was not winning the war. If anything, over the last decade or more since the Taliban re-emerged, their footprint has been expanding and that of the US-backed Afghan government has been receding.

To put it bluntly, the angst of the American generals over the drawdown is understandable, but they weren’t winning the war. In fact, they weren’t even able to do a good enough job of a holding operation.

Despite all the tall talk by the generals, and the confidence, even optimism, they exuded in public, things have only been going downhill in Afghanistan. Given the fatigue that had set in Washington, it was highly unlikely that the US would double down on its stated commitment of staying the course in Afghanistan. As a result, the US military was forced to the best that it could with the resources available. Since they didn’t have the wherewithal to do things differently to turn the tide of the war, it basically meant that the US forces could only do more of the same, something that wasn’t going to change the situation in their favour.

The trajectory of war that is unfolding before us is the outcome of a fundamental mistake that the Americans made when they entered this war: they were fighting the wrong war in the wrong country. Even after the Americans realized they had been had by the Pakistanis, they were neither ready to turn the screws real hard on the real enemy – the stoppage of aid by the Trump administration was too little too late and needed to be backed by the sort of sanctions that had been imposed on Iran and North Korea, which the US even now is reluctant to do – nor were they willing to fight the right war. In the face of these realities, persisting with more of the same was nothing more than reinforcing failure.

Having reached a dead-end of sorts, it made more sense to go back to the drawing board and re-think the war. This was probably never going to happen without the sort of shock that Trump’s decision will give to the system.

Shaken out of the inertia that is quite normal when you do the same thing for 17 years, the US establishment will now have to think how it can change the course of the war by thinking innovatively and perhaps fighting asymmetrically, instead of continuing to use conventional tactics which have clearly failed in an unconventional war being fought by the Taliban under the direction and supervision of the Pakistanis. After all, post 9/11, there weren’t more than a handful of US boots on the ground, and yet using the erstwhile Northern Alliance and the fearsome US airpower, the Taliban were decimated within one month of the first bomb being dropped. Of course, 2019 isn’t 2001. Back then, the momentum was with the anti-Taliban forces, as was the international support. Today, the momentum is with the Taliban while the international support is divided with some important countries like Russia, China and even Iran backing the Taliban, if not openly, then clandestinely.

The news of the US pulling out almost 50% of its troops and leaving a barebones troop strength in Afghanistan will of course enthuse the Taliban and their backers. The Pakistanis are already crowing with delight, having smelled victory. Of course, the Pakistanis have a habit of celebrating prematurely and miscalculating and misreading the dynamics of an unfolding situation. The Western analysts’ assessment that the Pakistanis would be worried over a sudden US withdrawal because they wouldn’t want a radical Islamist regime taking over Afghanistan is a misreading of Pakistani calculus. The Pakistanis are quite okay with the Islamists taking control, provided they continue to follow the instructions given by the GHQ and ISI directorate.

Having done everything possible to resurrect the Taliban and having defied the entire Western world by supporting the Taliban, it is utterly disingenuous and dishonest of the Pakistanis to now pretend that they would like a broad-based consensus government in Afghanistan.

This is at best a ‘pleasant lie’ (Prof. Christine Fair’s description for Pakistani dissemble ). And the reason why the Pakistanis are pretending to be worried by a Taliban takeover is for two reasons: one, they feel that by projecting themselves as vulnerable, they will be able to extort assistance from the gullible West, especially the Europeans; two, they fear that if the West turns its back on the Afpak region after an ignominious withdrawal of troops, there will be no one to foot the bill for running the government in Afghanistan. In the event, Pakistanis fear they will have to carry the can and bear the expenses of Afghanistan, and that too at a time when Pakistan itself is broke, running on empty and in desperate need of funds to keep its own economy afloat.

As far as the Taliban are concerned, the news of withdrawal will only make them even more rigid on their demands in any negotiations. Already on the ascendant, they will smell blood and shed a lot more of it in their quest to grab power. While it is entirely possible that the Taliban might string the Americans along in negotiations – this suits the Pakistanis because the grapevine is that one reason for the Saudi and Emirati munificence in terms of dollar deposits to prop up Pakistan's crumbling economy is partly as a quid pro quo for delivering the Taliban on to the dialogue table – these negotiations are unlikely to lead to a peaceful solution. In a recent analysis, the US based foreign policy expert Dr Kamran Bokhari explained why talking to the Taliban is pointless.

According to Bokhari, “Structurally and operationally, the Taliban remain a jihadist movement…Both the Taliban’s jihadist ideology…and the fact that all the group’s resources have been spent waging an insurgency, have prevented the Taliban from…developing a public-level political capacity. They simply aren’t ready to enter the existing Afghan constitutional system, much less to operate by its rules…The Afghan state simply lacks the coherence and therefore the absorptive capability to subsume the Taliban.” In any case, why would the Taliban want to end the fighting and agree to share power when in their own assessment they are on the verge of winning everything? Chances are that there will be not let up in Taliban operations even in the winter months, and there could be a major offensive next spring.

There are of course many serious analysts who believe that the Taliban too are tired and that they also realise that they will not be able to repeat their sweep of Afghanistan in the 1990s. There is however no hard evidence on ground to back this analysis and assessment.

If anything, whatever ground realities exist at this point in time that militate against the possibility of a Taliban sweep, might not survive the severe blow to the confidence and the growing sense of abandonment in the Afghan system caused by the talk of a drastic drawdown on troops by the Americans.  Once these ground realities change, the battlespace will be reshaped. Even if it is argued that important regional players that might be surreptitiously backing the Taliban right now do not want to see them controlling Kabul, the question is whether when a hyper power like the US wasn’t able to stop the Taliban advance, these regional players will be able to?

Even if the US remains engaged militarily, albeit in a much watered down manner, it might not be able to halt the march of the Taliban, certainly not with the current playbook of using airpower, even less so given the unsustainable losses being suffered by the Afghan National Security Forces and the low morale of the troops. While use of air power is certainly useful, it won’t be enough to change the ground dynamic. The reason is that over the last 17 odd years, the US has liberally used air power against the rebels, but that hasn’t changed the trajectory of the war. The Taliban seemed to have gamed the use of air power and have avoided set piece battles in which they will be sitting ducks. Given the terrain and nature of tactics adopted by the Taliban, the efficacy of air power is somewhat limited. Over the last decade and a half, the Taliban have suffered enormous losses but never lost the momentum. The chances of fresh casualties dissuading and deterring them from pressing ahead are therefore pretty slim.

Clearly, as things stand, Afghanistan is facing a dreadful prospect of even more bloodshed than what it is currently suffering. Very broadly, there are three possible scenarios that could unfold in the months ahead. The first is that the Afghan state collapses and powerful warlords beef up their forces to confront and resist the Taliban. In other words, yet another bloody civil war. The second is that the Taliban extend their sway over the entire country. This too will not be a peaceful end to the imbroglio because given the bloodlust of the Taliban, there will be reprisals and massacres galore. The Taliban have already declared their intentions on this count and demanded that if the Kabul administration wanted peace it should, among other things, “hand over the cases to the Islamic court of national traitors for their crimes against humanity”. The third scenario, which looks a little bleak right now but cannot be ruled out entirely, is that the Afghan government along with the US rework their war strategy and tactics to push back the Taliban. The thing is that even if this became possible, it would mean more bloodletting and fighting in the country.

The third scenario will depend critically on whether the US is now going to turn its back on Afghanistan or will only rework its war plans. If the former, then the third scenario will be a non-starter. However, if the US remains committed to Afghanistan in one form or another, then this scenario can play out. The thing is that even if there is a complete US withdrawal, the intimations of the imminent demise of the Afghan government and state might turn out to be highly premature provided someone keeps funding the Afghan state and provisioning its armed forces. It is possible that despite the fatigue with the Afghan war, the Americans might decide that funding the Afghan state is far cheaper and more affordable, and might even be more efficient than abandoning the Afghan project altogether. The problem however is that the appetite for funding Afghanistan might not be there in the US in the event of a complete withdrawal. In that case, if some other countries – perhaps its time for the Europeans to shell out a few billion dollars to keep Afghan running – pick up the slack, things might still work out. But without someone picking the tab in Afghanistan, it will not be possible for the state to survive.

The Americans could also decide that, while it makes sense to effect a complete withdrawal since the remaining troops will hardly be enough to make any significant improvement in the security situation, outsourcing Afghanistan to private contractors (read mercenaries) might be a possible exit route. But this would be an unmitigated disaster. Not only will it mean a huge spike in the bloodshed, it will also rob the Afghan government of every scrap of legitimacy in the country.

There are therefore no easy answers in Afghanistan. Nor are there any clean solutions available. But is all fairness to Trump’s impatience with the quagmire in Afghanistan and his seemingly impulsive decisions, the war in Afghanistan wasn’t going to be won with more of the same, which is what the generals were recommending. Even the so called stalemate that the generals were promising was a bit of a chimera considering the expanding footprint of the Taliban. Trump has at least ended the inertia. Whether this leads to something better or ends up in worsening the situation – at least in the short run the latter is an imminent possibility – is something that remains to be seen.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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