Both Republicans and Democrats are Clueless about Afghanistan
For eighteen years, we have wrongly applied counterinsurgency doctrine to a proxy war waged by Pakistan against the U.S. and Afghanistan. Bilateral negotiations with the Taliban will not bring peace to Afghanistan nor will it provide an adequate strategy to underpin U.S. national interests in South Asia, the future threat being China in the form of the China-Pakistan alliance.
Both Republicans and Democrats are Clueless about Afghanistan
Up until now, the ill-fated U.S.-Taliban negotiations were comprised of a collection of exit criteria based on relatively narrow War on Terror yardsticks, our presence being our sole bargaining chip in exchange for Taliban assurances, largely unenforceable without that presence.
Photo credit: US Air Force
Whatever strategy we think we’ve had has been constructed of false notions and an unwillingness to accept and act upon the regional nation-state dynamics of which the Afghan conflict is fundamentally a biproduct.
The War in Afghanistan has its origins in the decades-old antagonism between Pakistan and India, spawned by the violence-punctuated partition of the British Indian Empire in August 1947.
Pakistan has always viewed Afghanistan as a necessary client-state, a security buffer against what they consider potential Indian encirclement.
Not surprisingly, Pakistani interference in Afghanistan long pre-dated Soviet and American involvement during the 1980s, but it clearly accelerated Islamabad’s use of 4th generation warfare as an instrument of its foreign policy. That is, Islamist militants were found to be useful proxies for the Pakistani military and its Inter-Service Intelligence agency, the ISI, particularly against India and in Afghanistan, and that retaliation for their use could be largely “immunized” by Pakistan’s newly-acquired nuclear umbrella and its expanding alliance with China.
One source of America’s current dilemma in Afghanistan was the failure by the Reagan Administration, allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to blindly outsource Mujahideen funding to Pakistan’s ISI, which funneled American money and arms not to Afghan nationalists like Ahmad Shah Massoud, but to pro-Pakistani Islamists such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
It is now an undisputed fact that the Taliban were created by the ISI beginning in 1994 as a means to intervene in the Afghan civil war and influence the outcome in favor of Pakistani national interests when its previous favored Islamist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, failed in that effort.
While the U.S. has been fighting the War on Terror in Afghanistan since 2001, Pakistan has been using the Taliban as a proxy to control Afghanistan as part of its struggle with India and to promote the foreign policy ambitions of its “all weather” ally, China.
For eighteen years we have wrongly applied counterinsurgency doctrine to a proxy war waged by Pakistan against the U.S. and Afghanistan. That approach was never a winning strategy as long as Pakistan controlled the supply of our troops in landlocked Afghanistan and regulated the operational tempo through its proxy army, the Taliban, who has maintained an extensive recruiting, training and financial support infrastructure inside Pakistan, immune to attack.
Bilateral negotiations with the Taliban will not bring peace to Afghanistan nor will it provide an adequate strategy to underpin U.S. national interests in South Asia, the premise of which should be that U.S. adversaries do not unduly benefit from our withdrawal. U.S. leaders on both sides of the aisle need to acknowledge some on-the-ground realities.
First, Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the epicenter of regional Islamic militancy and an exporter of jihad. Actions being taken by Pakistan in Kashmir against India are strikingly similar to those of its Taliban proxy in Afghanistan.
Second, China’s growing geopolitical strength and its increased presence in Pakistan have changed the strategic dynamics of the region, largely rendering whatever remains of U.S. South Asian policy obsolete. The future threat is from China in the form of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. China’s aim is to dominate South Asia, first economically based on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Afghanistan’s incorporation into it as a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China then plans to expand militarily using its alliance with Pakistan to establish military bases, particularly on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, thus controlling vital maritime lanes and the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Those bases would provide a critical link between China’s military facilities in the South China Sea and its naval base in Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
An Afghanistan solution should be framed within the context of a new South Asian strategy focusing on preventing Chinese-Pakistani domination. From a politico-military standpoint, two approaches, operating in parallel, are required.
We should adopt a traditional containment policy, including greater cooperation with India. U.S. naval and air power projection should be augmented to counter Chinese attempts to box-in U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf area and outflank the U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia. Additionally, increased financial and economic pressure needs to be applied to Pakistan to restrain its use of terrorist proxies as an element of its foreign policy.
In order to maintain a balance of power, the U.S. should use strategic disruption to thwart Chinese plans to dominate the region by targeting Pakistani vulnerabilities. Tactically, that would involve managing and, when necessary, exploiting the inherent conflicts in South Asia including state-to-state disputes, such as the Kashmir issue, the Sunni-Shia divide and ethnic separatism within Pakistan.
It is such a strategy Democrats and Republicans should be debating, not merely arguing over now meaningless War on Terror platitudes about Afghanistan.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control and cyber security subject matter expert and a veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org