History does not spare those who have bad memory of the past. Wiser are those who gain from past lessons and improve upon them to make it better for the generations to come.
Does President Donald Trump’s policy on Afghanistan, recently announced after much deliberations, fit into that category?
Broadly, it provides for continued American presence at enhanced levels and without any deadlines, while decisions will be made by local commanders based on ground realities. The decision to remain on the ground as long as it is required is a wise policy, but meagre enhancements of force levels may not lead to desired results. The policy hence looks more to hold the current positions and keep the Taliban and Al Qaida at a distance as long as possible.
If the policy is not about quickly weakening the Taliban and force it to reach a negotiated settlement, then it cannot be considered wise. To my mind, it is a policy tested before and it is a failed one as it has no clear strategy nor goal posts.
Can this now be done differently? Are there any “good practices” in the past that can serve as a possible model to apply in Afghanistan?
Yes, there is. Perhaps unthinkable, but true. The ongoing battle in Syria can offer a formula that can work even in Afghanistan.
Sounds bizarre? May be.
The defeat of the Islamic State (IS) and weakening of multitude of other terrorist/insurgent groups in Syria has become possible only because of one fact: a well-coordinated strategy between the Russian Federation and the United States. Washington has given a clear `lead role’ to Moscow without appearing to be playing only a side mantle.
A coordinated effort while leaving the `lead role’ to a more suitable power on the ground.
That is the key to success. Even in Afghanistan.
The US has had such a `lead role’ all these years in Afghanistan, acquiesced by Russia. The “missing” part is “co-ordination”. The US-led NATO had reposed all their “faith” in Pakistan, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, rather than coordinating with Russia, which knows Afghanistan better than any one of them and was willing to play a supportive role. Moscow had provided air fields and logistical facilities in the country and in Central Asia to move equipment and other essentials to American forces in Afghanistan, when Pakistan closed its borders.
A similar situation is re-emerging. With US adopting a seemingly `tough’ policy toward Pakistan for its continued support to terrorist groups, Islamabad has already dropped hints of counter measures. These include closing borders, interrupting US supplies to its forces in Afghanistan and creating other hurdles which will impact its operations there.
Islamabad is quite good at playing this card of `blackmailing’. It repeatedly played it, improving upon every time, with “excellent” results from its point of view.
Now, will the US again fall into the Pakistani trap, or adopt the better model enacted in Syria while keeping check on `spoilers’.
I am sure that if President Trump has his way, he would opt for the second. Russia needs to reciprocate if there is such approach. The US is obviously the “lead player” in Afghanistan and Russia must play a coordinated supportive role. Spoilers, Pakistan and Iran, have their vested interests. They need to be told to keep off or face the wrath.
This will have a chance to succeed and could further prove to be a role model in other battle grounds.
Prime Minister Modi has built up excellent relationship with both the Presidents and he can take the initiative to talk to them on telephone to press the idea as India has high stakes in Afghanistan.
(The article earlier appeared in the Economic Times on 3rd October 2017 under the title`The ongoing battle in Syria can offer a formula that can work even in Afghanistan’ https://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/et-commentary/the-ongoing-battle-in-syria-can-offer-a-formula-that-can-work-even-in-afghanistan/)