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USA - Stuck in the Afghan muc

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ACCORDING to legend, Alexander the Great’s mother sent him a letter taunting him for being stuck in Afghanistan for three years after conquering Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Persia in a year. Alexander sent her back some Afghan earth to spread in her courtyard. Having tread on this, Macedonia’s nobles began to bicker and fight amongst themselves.

America’s generals have now been stuck in Afghanistan for 15 years. Unlike Alexander, they blame their failure not on the divisive realities of Afghanistan but on exogenous factors: alleged support to the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan and, more recently, from Russia and Iran. Alexander ultimately pacified Afghanistan by marrying the daughter of the insurgent leader and recruiting him to his cause. Today too — though a marriage between America and the Afghan Taliban is unlikely — ending the Afghan insurgency requires a bold political solution.
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Instead, the US commander in Afghanistan has asked for more troops to fight the Taliban as well as the militant Islamic State (IS) group. It is unclear how 15,000 US-Nato troops can achieve what 180,000 failed to accomplish in over a decade. The US insistence in seeking a military solution in Afghanistan is either the consequence of injured pride and strategic confusion or part of a wider regional strategy. It may be a combination of both.

The Moscow consultations, or a UN process, should promote a viable peace plan for Afghanistan.
America’s military presence in Afghanistan serves to prop up the regime it has installed in Kabul and provide a base to coerce Afghanistan’s neighbours and conduct drone strikes and special operations à la Abbottabad if and when needed. It also curtails the influence of Russia and China in this strategically located country.

The US military has probably concluded, correctly, that the demoralised Afghan National Army will be unable to defeat the Afghan Taliban and the best hope of arresting the Taliban’s momentum is to cajole or coerce Pakistan to join the fight against them, especially against the Haqqani network, which is reputedly the most effective element of the Afghan insurgency.

Pakistan’s Zarb-i-Azb operation destroyed the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani infrastructure in North Waziristan and forced all the groups there to relocate to Afghanistan’s ungoverned areas. The Pakistan Army has gone to great lengths to show American generals and politicians that the Haqqanis do not have ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan. Pakistan’s new ambassador in Washington has declared that the Haqqanis are not Pakistan’s “friends” or “proxies”. But neither are the Haqqanis attacking Pakistan, unlike TTP which is now based in Afghanistan and reportedly enjoys the support of Afghan and Indian intelligence. Pakistan’s priority remains to eliminate TTP and IS.

Despite Pakistan’s desire to establish a constructive relationship with the Trump administration, it appears that the US establishment remains stuck in the Obama-era paradigm of viewing Pakistan through the Afghan (and Indian) prism. The new US national security adviser’s recent statement in Kabul regarding Pakistani ‘safe havens’ caused considerable consternation in Pakistan. H.R. McMaster’s meetings in Islamabad and Rawalpindi were ‘testy’ by all accounts. His ‘talking points’ were probably prepared in the White House by Lisa Curtis, who co-chaired (with Hussain Haqqani) a recent think tank report calling for the US to declare Pakistan a “state sponsor of terrorism” unless it ended alleged support to terrorist groups like the Haqqanis, the Laskhkar-i-Taiba and the Jaish-i-Mohammad.

However, today, Pakistan is less susceptible to US pressure than in the past. For one thing, the US ‘incentives’ to the Pakistani military — Coalition Support Funds and foreign military support funds — have been suspended and are unlikely to be revived even if Pakistan accepts the US demands. Second, pressure on Pakistan could prove counterproductive if its current cooperation with the US on Afghanistan and counterterrorism is terminated. Third, the Trump administration has revived tensions with Iran and will find it difficult to confront both Iran and Pakistan at the same time. It is also preoccupied with the North Korean crisis and multiple domestic scandals and squabbles.

Most importantly, Russia and China have come to accept Pakistan’s view that the Afghan Taliban’s objectives are limited to their country and the insurgency can be ended only through negotiations. There is also an emerging realisation that the Afghan Taliban are potential allies in fighting IS (which is linked to TTP and Jamaatul Ahrar).Moscow has initiated consultations to build a regional consensus on Afghanistan and counterterrorism on the basis of these assumptions.

It is essential that these consultations lead to the formulation of the parameters of a political settlement in Afghanistan. The farce of an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ process must be discarded. The peace terms proposed by the US and Kabul: ‘reconciliation’ by the Afghan Taliban with Kabul and acceptance of the US-formulated Afghan constitution, without promising the total withdrawal of foreign forces, are obviously unacceptable to the Taliban. On the other hand, the Taliban too have displayed little flexibility, refusing direct talks with Kabul until all foreign forces have left Afghanistan.

The Moscow consultations, or a UN process, should step in to promote a viable peace plan for Afghanistan. This could include: mutual cessation of hostilities; a recognition of the ‘control’ of specific areas of Afghanistan by Kabul or the Taliban; a plan for cooperative action by Kabul and the Taliban and Afghanistan’s neighbours to combat IS and other terrorist groups; commitment to formulate a new or revised constitution which provides for power-sharing between Kabul, the Taliban and other Afghan ‘stakeholders’, and an agreement on a timetable for the staged withdrawal of foreign forces in tandem with the implementation of agreed political milestones.

Even if the US is initially unwilling to participate in formulating such a peace plan, other parties should commence the process through available forums and mechanisms. Eventually, once it becomes clear that a military solution is unavailable, the US will see the merit of joining a peace process.

A negotiated peace can open the way for the economic transformation of Afghanistan and the entire region through trade, investment and economic integration, including under China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
BY  MUNIR AKRAM,  a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

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