Strong Rhetoric Belies Flaws in Approaches on Afghanistan

The construction of a canal in a village in the Bamyan Province of Afghanistan. (Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik via AP)

The repetition by US Defense Secretary James Mattis during his recent visit to Islamabad that Pakistan should “redouble” its efforts against Islamist militants has further strained an already tumultuous relationship. For years the US has asked Pakistan to “do more” in shutting down sanctuaries that allow militants from the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network to operate. These recent public statements, however, mask the broader disarray in US foreign policy and the flaws in the new approach to Afghanistan and South Asia unveiled earlier this year.

The American strategy has come under fire from numerous quarters deeply familiar with the region’s history, politics, and security. Public opinion in Pakistan has not necessarily been one of surprise as it has of disappointment. Lacking in detail and strong on rhetoric, the policy is criticized for not offering anything new in terms of an end strategy and for remaining ambiguous on measurements for evaluation. As a result, there has been a significant change in engagement with the US government, not only by Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also from strategic regional partners. Where Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised Trump’s strategy, Pakistan’s reaction has markedly contrasted.

Beyond diplomatic concerns, there are also strategic issues at hand. While the policy aims to allow a more fluid “conditions based” approach—in contrast to the “time based” of the Obama administration which, although flawed, allowed for staggered troop withdrawal—it lacks benchmarks. The new US administration also professes a strong commitment to expanding the authority of armed forces in targeting terrorists, raising serious concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability in “real-time” military operations.

Perhaps of most concern is that a military-focused strategy which shifts from nation-building in Afghanistan is unlikely to achieve “victory.” Attacking enemies or defeating ISIS or the Taliban may mark a military achievement, but does little to address the root causes of extremism and violence or the deep-seated narratives that appeal to young, susceptible minds.

Afghanistan Needs Nation-building

Achieving stability in Afghanistan will depend primarily on nation-building strategies. The focus has so far been overwhelmingly on security driven state-building, meaning police and security forces being responsive to US-friendly governments and acting based on US national security interests. Nation-building in the form of economic and political development that includes investment in education, water projects, roads, and other infrastructure—far more essential yet difficult to achieve—remains inadequate. The issue is not only financial; governance and accountability issues also need to be addressed. For example, roads built with US and Western donor money are falling apart due to lack of maintenance by the Afghan government and the subsequent cut-off of funds by the US. Reconstruction that ignores economic, political, and social challenges risks further entrenching conflict.

Legitimacy remains a key component of nation-building in the latter form. In this connection, ensuring that foreign troops cannot command—a trait absent from the previous Karzai government, often viewed as an American puppet—is also central. As the war in Afghanistan continues into its sixteenth year, large swaths of land have fallen back into Taliban control, the country lacks a large, educated professional class that can form the beginnings of a robust and informed civil society, and most importantly, the country remains devoid of any valuable natural resources that could provide much needed revenue.

A new generation of young, educated, and trained Afghans may be able to undertake the initial phase of nation-building, but they require sustained and committed investment from both the Afghan government and the international and multilateral community. Investment in education and job creation in particular will help mitigate the factors that often push young people towards violent activities. As long as unemployment and violent extremism remain rampant problems in Afghanistan, investment in nation-building will not yield immediate benefits.

What about Pakistan?

In unveiling his strategy, President Trump singled out Pakistan for providing “safe havens for terrorist organizations” and called on the government to do more to target militants and demonstrate its commitment to peace and security. In the immediate aftermath, numerous bilateral diplomatic visits were cancelled and even US Ambassador Hale’s meetings to assuage senior civilian and military personnel did little to ease the situation. In his inaugural visit to Pakistan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underscored US concern for the government to eradicate militancy, but explicitly acknowledged the country’s sacrifices and the critical role it plays in Afghanistan’s stability.

While this rhetoric is not new, Trump’s harsh delivery generated public outcry and condemnation in Pakistan. The National Security Committee (NSC) “outrightly rejected the specific allegations and insinuations.” The NSC reaffirmed Pakistan’s own interest in peace and stability in Afghanistan and concluded in no uncertain terms that the government’s regional policy will not be dictated by American interests and priorities. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif also spoke firmly during a recent trip to the US, where he stated that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and made the case that the US is turning a blind eye to its own historical, political, and strategic ambitions in the region.

It is unlikely that either country is intentionally seeking confrontation, and while strong rhetoric of this kind may yield pressure in the right direction, it is a dangerous hand to play. Pakistan is unlikely to demonstrably shift its strategy or attitude towards militancy and should the hard lines continue, both sides may inadvertently find themselves too far out to back away. Given Pakistan’s location, resources, military strength, and influence, they have a central role in helping to achieve stability in Afghanistan. They have already made tremendous sacrifices in stamping out terrorism in the region and faced the brunt of civilian and military casualties. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, close to 63,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks since 2003. Attempts by the US to isolate Pakistan by criticizing or encouraging India’s greater influence will create further fissures in their relationship.

Making matters more complicated is explicit support for Pakistan from Russia, Iran, and China, which provides the government room to wiggle and adopt a hard-line response. Though the US has already begun to place conditions on future aid to the country based on its ability to tackle militant groups like the Haqqani network, at the diplomatic level, China and Russia have assured Pakistan that they will veto any US effort to enforce UN sanctions on the country. A little more secure and a lot more confident, Pakistan has—for the time being—a few more friends to rely on in both challenging American policy and countering Indian influence.

Public opinion in Pakistan has generally supported the official statements from civilian and military quarters. A deep history of mistrust means the public largely rejects US dictates on how to address regional matters, particularly on Afghanistan and India. With elections slated for 2018, politicians clamored for media airtime—calculated specifically for domestic consumption—to reject and challenge US allegations and assertions.

What Now?

Ultimately, a quick fix strategy that focuses on military gains in Afghanistan that is not accompanied with sustainable efforts towards nation-building will face tremendous challenges. Nation-building is a long-term process and cannot be achieved as part of counterinsurgency operations with US troops. Local engagement is the key component of any such practice, but in Afghanistan’s case, it also needs to include dedicated pressure and interest from all concerned nations. Unfortunately for all involved, if the goal is to declare a clear victory, Afghanistan may not be the moment to shine.

Arsla Jawaid is a Concord Fellow and consults for policy institutes on issues of violent extremism and youth radicalization.