The US Afghan Campaign, ”suffers from a persistent mission creep, insufficient force levels, meek operational strategies, an uncertain strategic direction, an ambiguous desired end state and a chronic dearth of policy stewardship and coherence at the White House, State Department and Pentagon levels” – (US Egress from Afghanistan, by this scribe, The Nation, 09 January 2019). President Trump, disappointed with the (non)progress made in the Afghan Campaign and pressed for time by his re-election ambitions, has commandeered the conduct of US’ Afghan policy himself. He has re-engaged Pakistan to bring this ill-conceived, poorly conducted and failing military campaign to an expeditious and acceptable closure. 

One harks back though, to the US’ hasty betrayal of Pakistan post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989-90. The US is in a hurry again. Will Pakistan be its fall guy, once again? 

Prior to its extrication, the US ought to have created the required strategic environment deemed imperative for the perpetuation of peace and stability in Afghanistan/South-Central Asian Region (SCAR). The US needed to leave behind a functional popular Afghan Government with an effective country wide writ and the menace of terrorism comprehensively eliminated. Afghanistan ought to have been stabilized, unified, made economically viable and set at peace with itself and within the SCAR. A Marshall Plan of sorts should have been underway for reconstruction and rehabilitation purposes. Its refugees from around the world, in particular Pakistan, should have been under repatriation. The US ought to have planned for a responsible, humane and well considered exit.

Unfortunately, nothing of the sort is in the works! The US is only fixated upon cutting its losses and leaving expeditiously.

The Afghan Peace Process has moved forward on parallel streams. The Big Three, the US, Russia and China have now incorporated Pakistan into their consultations while concurrently, the US and the Afghan Taliban (TTA/HN) talks continue in Doha. The four   major issues under discussion are; the withdrawal of US and foreign troops from   Afghanistan, an effective ceasefire, an intra-Afghan dialogue including the National Unity Government (NUG) and the assurances that no terrorist groups will be ever allowed to use Afghan territory for their nefarious activities. 

The peace process as a whole faces many pitfalls. The US-Afghan talks are stagnating primarily because they do not seek a comprehensive solution to the Afghan imbroglio. These talks do not include the representatives of the entire Afghan nation but only those “terrorists” who the US and its allies have failed to defeat in the last eighteen years. Furthermore, the decisions and agreements reached here will be imposed upon the entire Afghan nation, about half of which disagrees defiantly and vociferously with the TTA/HN schools of political, diplomatic, military, social and religious thought! The Afghan nation is seriously polarized. Pakistan has been tasked to ensure a meaningful and fruitful intra-Afghan dialogue and a whole of the Afghan nation solution. It is a near-impossible task. If Pakistan went to Washington without having taken the TTA/HN on board already then it has erred grievously. If it took them into confidence, then we might have some hope!

The US, TTA/HN and NUG have still to agree to the form of government that will ensue once the former departs. The TTA/HN prefers the Islamic Shariah while the others are inclined towards the Afghan Constitution and western parliamentary democracy. Where and how will the twain meet? An interim/caretaker government can only work if there is an agreed to legal framework/Constitution enforced prior to the US’ departure. If it is left to the TTA/HN to carry out the intra Afghan dialogue post-US exit, then most probably it   and its rigid ideology will reign supreme.

Furthermore, the scourge of terrorism still prevails in Afghanistan. Of late, the IS has “smoothly” relocated itself from the Levant to join the plethora of terrorist groups already milling around there. It is now restructured to meet its gruesome objectives in the SCAR. It has reorganized itself into three groups, IS Khorasan, IS Pakistan and IS India. This constitutes the new look Terrorism Central in the SCAR. In a worst case-scenario the IS could incorporate all the smaller terrorist groups to make a very menacing and unified terrorist organization. It could further exploit their “local expertise” to launch terrorist attacks in specific territories. It could incorporate the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for terrorist activities in the CARs and Russia, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for China, its own and local cadres for Afghanistan, Iran and India and employ the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan and Jamaat ur Ahraar against Pakistan! It could provide organizational capacity, administration, leadership, recruitment, funding, weapons, explosives, equipment, motivation, strategic direction and operational and tactical support to all these groups. This increases its terror potential manifold and portends endless instability for the region. What is then the strategic compulsion for the IS to relocate here, at this point in time when the US is about to exit? Is this a western Trojan Horse in the region? Is it here to retain a modicum of presence and control of the region? Is it here by strategic design for coercion/policy implementation purposes in the SCAR? Should Pakistan (CPEC), China (BRI), Iran, India and Russia be concerned? This Terrorism Central has, of necessity, to be destroyed prior to any movement of US troops out of Afghanistan. A joint operation by the US and its allies, ANSF, Pakistan and the TTA/HN must be launched to exterminate this threat as a pre-requisite to any peace plan. Regional powers like China, Russia and even Iran (?) must be co-opted. If the US balks, then a regional solution, SCO led, must be found out at priority. 

Palming off this responsibility to the TTA/HN post US withdrawal is poor, inexplicable, and incomprehensible strategy, or is it?

A comprehensive and practical solution for Afghan peace still has many unmet caveats and remains elusive. President Trump’s impatience betrays his urgencies and compulsions. The TTA/HN senses this and will not compromise now; rather it will raise the stakes further. For this Afghan Campaign to end, one of them will have to give in. Who blinks first, will be known soon.