Washington’s new approach to Afghanistan
29 Aug 2017|

On the morning of 31 May 2017, a 1,500-kilogram truck bomb was detonated outside the German Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul, only streets away from the US and Australian missions. Windows were smashed all the way from Great Massoud Square to the Haji Yaqub mosque in Shahr-e Naw, over 90 people were killed, and over 500 were injured. If ever there was an indicator that a fresh approach to dealing with the insurgency in Afghanistan was required, then this was it.

On 21 August, after a somewhat agonising series of discussions involving senior US military personnel plus a motley group of presidential associates, US President Donald Trump gave a speech at Fort Myer, Virginia, that sought to outline such an approach. President Trump’s speech was very well received in Afghanistan, met with some consternation in Pakistan, and was quietly welcomed by a satisfied Indian leadership.

The positive reception accorded to the speech in Afghanistan was more significant than most external commentaries picked up. It’s not so much the numbers of US troops in Afghanistan that matter in shaping the future trajectory of the conflict; rather, what’s important is the psychological message that the reaffirmation of a troop commitment sends.

Regimes in Afghanistan in recent decades haven’t fallen because enemies have fought their way to the seats of power in Kabul; in that respect, the fall of Berlin in April 1945 is a poor precedent for making sense of the real sources of danger in Afghanistan. By far the greatest risk is that of a cascade, brought about by the phenomenon of bandwagoning. Cascades occur when actors re-position themselves on the basis of their perceptions of what others are thinking and doing, and it was cascades that finally brought down the communist regime of Dr Najibullah in April 1992, and the Taliban regime in November 2001.

This by no means implies that the Taliban enjoy broad popularity in Afghanistan. On the contrary, a careful survey conducted by the Asia Foundation in 2016 found that 77% of respondents had ‘no sympathy at all’ for armed opposition groups. The problem is that prudential as well as normative calculations can shape people’s alignments. Even those who loathe the Taliban might calculate that it’s in their interest to align with them if they seem likely to return to power anyway. It’s therefore extremely important that actors such as the United States signal that this won’t be allowed to happen—and that, fortunately, was read as one prominent element of Trump’s speech.

The other key element of Trump’s speech was its discussion of Pakistan. Here, he pulled no punches:

For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror … The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. … We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.

It is in this context that Trump’s welcoming of a greater role in Afghanistan for India needs to be understood. In the short run, such a statement might seem almost calculated to infuriate Pakistan’s military establishment, but the longer run message for Pakistan is nonetheless a clear one—namely, that the United States retains the option of swinging firmly behind India on a range of issues on which Pakistan would strongly prefer that it not do so, most notably the Kashmir dispute. More broadly, however, much will depend on the willingness of President Trump to supply some bite to match his bark. The US on the whole has a poor record of following through on signals of this kind. When in 2011 the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, bluntly referred to the terrorist Haqqani network as a ‘veritable arm’ of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, it was barely a matter of hours before other US officials began to back away from the statement. That kind of equivocation is to be avoided at all costs f the president’s speech is to have a positive effect.

There are actually a number of firm steps that can be foreshadowed to modify Pakistan’s approach, starting with a signal that generals’ sons and daughters might need to consider going to graduate school in Russia or China rather than the Ivy League. It would also be a positive step if the US and its allies such as Australia were formally to designate the Afghan Taliban a terrorist organisation, something which its campaign of bombings against innocent civilians would well justify. Positive incentives have thus far failed to modify Pakistan’s behaviour. Now is the time for a different approach.