Two world figures recently weighed in on the never-ending war in Afghanistan with opposing positions: U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced a troop surge, while United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for a political solution. Neither seems to think the other’s approach will work.
The answer may lie somewhere between the two. I don’t see this war ending until someone forces Pakistan to stop harboring terrorist groups that keep Afghanistan destabilized.
It’s possible that can be achieved with both the carrot and the stick – a combination of diplomacy and military strength – but nobody in power seems to be seriously addressing the real problem.
In an unannounced visit to Kabul, UN Secretary-General Guterres said, “The international community, the neighboring countries … related to the Afghan crisis need to come together to understand that this is a war that has no military solution, that we need to have a political solution, we need to have peace.”
His words came on the heels of Gen. Mattis’ decision to send about 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Mattis pledged, “We will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” and concluded with: “Working with the Afghan government and our allies and partners, we will achieve victory against the terrorists abroad.”
Gen. Mattis is a respected military officer who sees through the eyes of a warrior. It’s not uncommon for a general to ask for more time and more troops. Unfortunately, he is taking the same road that took us nowhere before.
For the past 16 years, we have seen many operations under different names conducted by the U.S and its allies, each celebrated as victory, while bombs wasted countless lives and treasure as Afghan civilians suffered.
I recall talking to one of Gen. David Petraeus’ staff members in 2011, who told me the general had a new strategy and was reading a book about an ancient warrior whose approach was to choke his victim as does a boa constrictor. Gen. Petraeus would suffocate the Taliban insurgency.
I also remember when British general and NATO commander Nick Carter claimed victory because he was able to travel safely by car from Kandahar to the Spin Boldak district. Some among the U.S. military resented Gen. Carter’s claim because they also fought hard for the victory.
But was it a victory? Today, the Taliban roam those same areas freely, as they do in most of rural Afghanistan.
The lesson from Afghan history is that more troops alone will not defeat the insurgency, and that lesson continues to be ignored. Gen. Mattis should revisit the history of foreign intervention in this country.
Nearly four decades ago, the Soviet Union sent more than 100,000 troops into Afghanistan. The Red Army fought for nine years, then left in defeat. U.S. forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for 16 years, and Gen. Mattis himself admitted last week that “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now.”
Why? Because the insurgents have a safe haven where they can train, rest and launch attacks: Pakistan, home of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which believes it has a national interest in countering rival India’s influence in Afghanistan.
If nearly 109,000 Soviet troops failed to uproot the insurgency, what a difference will 4,000 U.S. troops make?
Hope remains lost until there is fundamental change in Pakistan’s military establishment – specifically, the ISI, which thinks it has a right to meddle inside the borders of its western neighbor, Afghanistan. Staffed primarily by members of Pakistan’s armed forces, the ISI has been working to keep its neighbor weak and under its thumb – a destructive belief left over from the imperial era.
The ISI is engaged in a political “Jurassic Park”-type experiment. Dozens of terrorist groups are allowed to thrive inside Pakistan, but it’s looking more like the end of the Jurassic Park movie when the raptors become a voracious threat to the stability of Pakistan itself, as well as to central Asia.
The ISI may be patting itself on the back for milking the U.S. and its allies of cash in return for “fighting terrorism” while at the same time drone-bombing Pashtun tribes in Waziristan and giving sanctuary to terrorist groups, including Taliban leaders. But perhaps they are coming to a tipping point.
The Trump administration may be ambiguous about the Afghanistan situation, but Congress and the Defense Department seem fed up with Pakistan’s deceptive policies.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “The sovereign nation of Pakistan is engaging in hostile acts against the United States and our ally Afghanistan that must cease,” adding that military action should be an option.
Also, China has a strong motive to pressure Pakistan out of its hostile actions: China’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road” project – a resurrection of the old Silk Road trade route between Asia and Europe – will pass through northern Afghanistan. If Pakistan continues to use terrorist groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network to disrupt Afghanistan, it could damage China’s economic interests.
President Xi Jinping recently met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Astana and offered to mediate between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Xi Jinping pointed out that China considers Afghanistan a friend and will play a constructive role in advancing Afghanistan’s peaceful reconstruction and reconciliation process.
For its part, Pakistan gives lip service to redemption; Gen. Mattis said he spoke by phone to Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, who “reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to counter all militant groups operating in its territory.”
We’ve heard such statements before. So far, nothing has changed on the ground, and Afghanistan remains embroiled in a war without end.
Gen. Mattis’ 4,000 extra troops won’t change it, nor will Secretary-General Guterres’ diplomacy. But maybe both of those approaches, combined with pressure from an economically motivated China? We can hope and dream.