Islamabad’s subversion has led to a resurgent Taliban, arguably the greatest reason for Afghanistan’s instability, says Javid Ahmad in The Wall Street Journal.
The stream of bad news from America’s longest war in Afghanistan is relentless. But even more worrying is the lack of debate within Washington on how to salvage the situation.
The emboldened Taliban now controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. Pakistan continues to provide the group with sanctuaries and a support network on its territory. At the same time, Islamic State has made significant inroads and has carved out a footprint in the eastern parts of the country.
The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which are boldly fighting the insurgency, are enduring an alarming number of causalities. They now suffer a 2.4% attrition rate each month. Civilian casualties have hit a record high, with 3,498 deaths and 7,920 injured in 2016 alone, and a 10-fold increase in losses caused by Islamic State.
Returning Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Europe, along with more than 600,000 internally displaced people, have created a humanitarian crisis. Last year, the United Nations reported that 9.3 million Afghans, or one-third of the population, needed immediate assistance.
Regional powers have deepened their ties with the armed groups that are fighting Afghan and coalition forces. Along with Pakistan, Iran and Russia have extended their support to the Taliban, including sharing intelligence to contain the growing threat of the Islamic State. Iran is also recruiting from the Afghan Shia minority to fight Islamic State in Syria.
Taliban fighters reportedly have access to advanced weaponry, including night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, sophisticated communication equipment as well as drones for reconnaissance and propaganda purposes. The group has significantly improved its human and open-source intelligence gathering capabilities.
The Taliban is gradually shifting from guerrilla hit-and-run tactics to more conventional military methods. It is conducting large-scale, coordinated raids and sabotage activities such as planting land mines and IEDs across major roadways to block the mobility of Afghan forces and starve them of resources. Access to sophisticated weapons and the change in battleground tactics are clear signs of outside support.
U.S. and coalition forces have won every major battle with the Taliban and other militants, but these tactical feats have not yet led to a decisive victory. This is mainly because the Taliban are free to retreat, regroup and train inside Pakistan. Islamabad’s duplicity is arguably the greatest cause of Afghanistan’s instability.
Last week, Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told U.S. Congress in his testimony that the Afghan war is at a “stalemate.”
“It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven,” he said. The general called for a “holistic review” of U.S. relations with Pakistan.
Donald Trump, who has called the war a “total disaster,” can turn failure into success in Afghanistan if he addresses as a top priority the problem of Pakistan’s covert support for the Taliban. His administration should devise a new strategy that sets clear and realistic goals.
The new approach needs to be locally tailored, regional in scope and acknowledge the reality that Afghan stability is intrinsically linked to Pakistan’s sincere cooperation.
Pakistan’s self-defeating policy in Afghanistan shows that any chaos it can manage in Afghanistan is better than a noncompliant regime in Kabul. Washington should pursue a policy of realpolitik with Pakistan, clarifying whether Pakistan is an imperfect friend or a clever adversary.
The Trump administration should take two additional actions to support its new Afghan strategy. First, speedily appoint a new U.S. ambassador and a special presidential envoy. The two should be fully backed by the White House to make deals, reach political compromises and relay tough messages to regional players.
Second, address the dangerous weakness in the offensive capabilities of the Afghan security forces to improve their effectiveness. The U.S. should focus on expanding the special-forces contingent, building the air force and buttressing Afghan intelligence units, all of which will serve as force multipliers. This is more cost-effective than sending more U.S. troops, and it would help to reduce the ANDSF’s reliance on American and coalition air power.
In the meantime, Washington shouldn’t expect the Taliban to sue for peace until it is defeated on the battlefield. Despite infighting within the insurgency, Taliban commanders and shadow governors are actively expanding their turf.
And without a sustained effort to pressure Pakistan to deny Taliban their sanctuaries, no amount of additional troops or funds will achieve success in Afghanistan.
By any measure, Pakistan’s subversive power play in Afghanistan has failed to improve its strategic position. Instead, it has alienated it from potential friends in Kabul and Washington. Tougher pressure on the Pakistani military is unlikely to cause it to reverse course, but it could force a meaningful change in policy.
There will be no quick and total victory in Afghanistan, but success is achievable. A change in U.S. strategy is overdue, and how the Trump administration decides to proceed will be among its most difficult tests.
Mr. Ahmad is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and at West Point’s Modern War Institute, and a senior intelligence manager at iJET International.