New US South Asian Policy; Military Solution to Cure Afghan issue!

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On 21 August, US President Donald Trump announced new US South Asian policy. President Trump cleared the way for the deployment of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan while pillorying ally Pakistan for offering safe haven to “agents of chaos”. “My instinct was to pull out,” Trump admitted. But following months of discussion, Trump said he had concluded “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable” and leaving a “vacuum” that terrorists “would instantly fill”. “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” He said, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations” adding “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting”. “That will have to change and that will change immediately”.  “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said. “But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen,” he added, before vowing that “America will continue its support for the Afghan government and military as they confront the Taliban in the field”. He said he wants India to provide more economic assistance and development to Afghanistan.[1] Following President Trump address, US Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that America and several allies have committed to boosting their troop numbers in Afghanistan. He said President Trump has already authorized Mattis to deploy up to 3,900 more troops to Afghanistan. “I have directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make preparations to carry out the president´s strategy,” Mattis said in a statement issued after Trump´s address. “I will be in consultation with the Secretary General of NATO and our allies — several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers,” Mattis said.[2]

Reacting to the speech, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the strategy, saying it would increase the capacity of the training mission for Afghan forces. Trump’s speech showed the US was “with us, without any time limit”, Ghani told troops in southern Kandahar. Urging the Taliban to join talks, Ghani said: “You cannot win this war.” A Taliban spokesman meanwhile warned Trump was only “wasting” American soldiers’ lives.  “If America doesn’t withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, soon Afghanistan will become another graveyard for this superpower in the 21st century,” the Taliban’s Zabiullah Mujahid said. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai wrote on Twitter that he “very strongly” opposed the new US strategy. He said: “The strategy excludes bringing peace and prosperity to Afghanistan and is focused on more war and rivalry in the region. [The] US must seek peace and stability in Afghanistan rather than extending conflict and bloodshed in Afghanistan and the region.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Trump’s “conditions-based approach” and said the US-led alliance was committed to increasing its presence in Afghanistan. India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that it welcomed Trump’s “determination to enhance efforts to overcome the challenges faced by Afghanistan and in confronting issues of safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists” adding “India shares these concerns and objectives.” The UK welcomed Trump’s commitment to step up the military campaign against the Taliban, saying the US and its allies must “stay the course in Afghanistan” to reduce threats to the West.[3]

In the initial reaction, Pakistan has shown disappointment on President Trump’s speech and advised Washington to work with Islamabad “instead of relying on the false narrative of safe havens”.  “No country in the world has done more than Pakistan to counter the menace of terrorism.  No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism, often perpetrated from outside our borders,” the Foreign Office said in a statement following a crucial cabinet meeting. “It is disappointing that the US policy statement ignores the enormous sacrifices rendered by the Pakistani nation in this effort,” it added. It said Pakistan does not allow use of its territory against any country. “Instead of relying on the false narrative of safe havens, the US needs to work with Pakistan to eradicate terrorism”. [4]

In the meanwhile, on 22 August, during meeting of Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China has urged the international community to recognise Pakistan’s sacrifices in fighting against terrorism.[5] Russia, another regional player, has also advised against putting pressure on Pakistan. On 22 August, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov stated that Islamabad is “a key regional player to negotiate with”. “Putting pressure [on Pakistan] may seriously destabilise the region-wide security situation and result in negative consequences for Afghanistan,” Kabulov told Russia’s Afghanistan Daily. On 23 August, China’s top diplomat has defended Pakistan’s “important role” in Afghanistan in a phone call with United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after US President Trump accused Islamabad of harbouring militants. China State Councillor Yang Jiechi told Tillerson that “we should attach importance to the important role that Pakistan plays in the Afghanistan issue, respect (Pakistan’s) sovereignty and legitimate security concerns,” according to a foreign ministry statement.  Yang said Beijing was committed to “advancing the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan” and that political dialogue was “the only way to solve the Afghanistan problem”. He added that “China would like to continue to maintain communication and coordination on the Afghanistan problem with the US side”.[6] On 24 August, in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaking at a press conference said Russia has expressed “regret that the main focus of the new [Afghanistan] strategy announced by Washington is regulation by methods of force”. “We are certain this is a futile course,” he said, furthermore rejecting suggestions that Moscow was behind arming the Taliban. Lavrov said Moscow only contacts the Taliban for two things: ensuring safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan and pushing the Taliban to hold talks with the Afghan government.[7]

After a high-level meeting of military and political leaders under the chairmanship of PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, on 22 August, Pakistan’s foreign office issued a detailed statement[8] giving out first detailed response to the new US strategy and allegations against Pakistan. The meeting was attended by Interior Minister, Foreign Minister, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee, Army Chief, Air Chief, and Naval Chief. Gist of statement is as under:-

  • Rejected allegations; scapegoating Pakistan will not help in stabilizing Afghanistan; Pakistan had to manage the blowback of a protracted conflict in Afghanistan that created problems of refugees, drugs, arms and now terrorist safe havens in from where anti-Pakistan terrorist groups launch attacks inside Pakistan.
  • Warned that complex issues and internal dynamics inside Afghanistan pose a grave challenge for Pakistan, region and the international community
  • Stated that Pakistan has worked for years with the US and Afghanistan to promote peace through a politically negotiated outcome as the best option to bring stability in Afghanistan.
  • Sought immediate US military efforts to eliminate sanctuaries harboring terrorists and miscreants on the Afghan soil including those responsible for fomenting terror in Pakistan stating that Afghan war cannot be fought in Pakistan.
  • Highlighted that Pakistan has taken indiscriminate action and sacrificed thousands of troops and civilians; recent improvement in security situation would have not been possible would eliminating terrorist hideouts.
  • Pakistan is more interested of recognition instead of financial assistance despite suffering from human and financial losses; stated that claims of billions of Dollars in aid to Pakistan are misleading as reimbursements to Pakistan since 2001 only account for part of the logistic cost that the US used for its operations in Afghanistan.
  • Stated that through her counter-terrorism operations, Pakistan has proved controlling terrorism and can share her experience with the US and Afghanistan. This will require working together for eliminating safe havens inside Afghanistan, border management, return of refugees and reinvigorating the peace process.
  • Rejected India to be net security provider in the South Asia region when it has conflictual relationships with all its neighbours and is pursuing a policy of destabilizing Pakistan from the east and the west using terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

 

As of now, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has postponed his planned trip to the US while the visit of US Acting special assistant for Af-Pak has also been delayed by Pakistan as Foreign Minister will embark on a three-nation regional tour for consultations on the new American policy for Afghanistan and South Asia. The dates for the trip, which would take the minister to China, Russia and Turkey, are being worked out. “Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif will be visiting regional countries for consultations,” FO spokes­man Nafees Zakaria said at a weekly media briefing. The consultations would be aimed at developing regional consensus on efforts for peace in Afghanistan.[9]

On 26 August, PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has stressed the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan, saying that like previous US plans President Donald Trump’s new strategy for America’s longest-running war in that country will also fail. “From day one we have been saying very clearly the military strategy in Afghanistan has not worked and it will not work,” Mr Abbasi said in an interview with Bloomberg News. There has to be a “political settlement” he said adding, “That’s the bottom line”. Mr Abbasi said that while his government supported the fight against terrorists it would not let the war in Afghanistan spill into Pakistan.  “We do not intend to allow anybody to fight Afghanistan’s battle on Pakistan’s soil,” PM Abbasi said. “Whatever has to happen in Afghanistan should be happening in Afghanistan,” he said adding “Pakistan doesn’t harbour terrorists.”[10]

In the meanwhile, on 27 August, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has said that terrorism being a transnational threat could only be defeated through intelligence sharing and coordinated effective border management. He was addressing the Quadrilateral Counter Terrorism Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) meeting held at Dushanbe, Tajikistan, an ISPR statement said. The meeting was attended by senior military leadership of member countries including Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan, Gen Li Zuocheng, China, General Sobirzoda Imomali Abdurrahim, Tajikistan, and General Sharif Yaftali, Afghanistan. On sidelines of the event, the COAS met Afghan CGS Gen Sharif Yaftali. The COAS while assuring fullest cooperation to Afghanistan said that Pakistan cannot bring Afghan war into Pakistan. The COAS reassured Afghan side that Pakistan is open to any suggestion that facilitate peace in Afghanistan. In this spirit, he offered to form a Pak-Afg Army working group to jointly work and formulate security recommendations for government-level discussion aimed at addressing mutual concerns.[11]

On 27 August, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and his Afghan counterpart agreed to form a joint working group of the two armies, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced in a press release. Gen Bajwa proposed the working group during a discussion Afghan CGS Gen Sharif Yaftali on the sidelines of the Quadrilateral Counter-terrorism Coordination Mechanism (QCCM)’s meeting in Tajikistan. The Afghan Army chief accepted the offer, said the ISPR statement. The working group will “jointly work and formulate security recommendations for government level discussions aimed at addressing mutual concerns,” said the release. During the discussion, Gen Bajwa highlighted Pakistan’s efforts for border security. He termed “dignified repatriation of Afghan refugees” and border security management as key factors for enduring peace. COAS Gen Bajwa assured his Afghan counterpart of his “fullest cooperation” but made it clear that “Pakistan cannot bring the Afghan war into Pakistan.” Earlier, the senior military leadership of China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan had signed an outline for a cooperative mechanism at the QCCM meeting in Dushanbe. The mechanism will come into force after its endorsement by the respective governments. On the occasion, Gen Bajwa had stressed on intelligence sharing and coordinated border management among the four nations and talked about Pakistan’s achievements in connection with eliminating terrorist safe havens .[12]

Commander of the US and NATO Forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson has alleged that the US knows the Afghan Taliban leadership is in the Quetta and Peshawar areas. “The Quetta Shura, Peshawar Shura, these shuras are identified by cities inside Pakistan, we know Afghan Taliban leaders are in these areas,” he said. In an interview with Afghan media TOLOnews, US commander, He said the issue of sanctuaries outside the country was serious and has to be addressed. “Support for terrorists and insurgents has to be reduced, has to be stopped,” Nicholson told TOLOnews. “I am primarily focused on activities inside Afghanistan,” but other officials are looking into the issue of sanctuaries in Pakistan, he said. He said that the US wants a peaceful solution in Afghanistan but that the “Taliban need to know they cannot win militarily.” He said he hopes they enter the peace process adding “In the meantime we will put increasing pressure on them inside the country and on the external sanctuaries.”[13]

In the much awaited strategy for Afghanistan, the US administration under President Trump backtracked from his election promise of withdrawing troops and ending Afghan war. Instead, as expected, the US President has decided to increase the number of troops while blaming Pakistan for supporting Afghan Taliban asking her to change policy. The new US strategy seeks to tread on military solution instead of giving a chance for political settlement of the issue. In fact, the new US strategy is for whole of South Asia as Pakistan and India also figured into it suggesting that while formulating Afghan strategy, the US administration gave regional interests a top priority and Afghan strategy is driven by her regional strategic interests thus providing room for instability in Afghanistan to remain as from insurgency point of view, the US is going to re-try a policy to put military pressure on insurgents to push them to wall contemplating their submission. Simultaneously, the US desires to put further pressure on Pakistan while allowing US regional strategic partner India to step in the equation. Thus the strategy actually excludes regional players and Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours from any role. While the strategy gives India much greater role, the US fails to recognize Pakistani concerns with regards to India particularly her support to anti-Pakistan elements and their sanctuaries on Afghan soil suggesting yet again that strategic interests driven the policy.

On the other hand, Pakistan is perturbed for allegations against her in complete disregard to her sacrifices and contributions in the fight against terrorism.  Pakistan advocated for action against anti-Pakistan elements hiding in Afghanistan; called for border management; return of refugees and reinvigorating the peace process. Pakistan also rejected India to play a role of security provider alleging that India is pursuing a policy of destabilizing Pakistan using terrorism as an instrument of state policy. It looks that from Pakistan’s perspective, political means are only viable option while use of force could be kept aside for the time being. The US, on the other hand, prefers use of force as first option with the room for negotiations for some time later. Will the situation in Afghanistan evolve the way the US has perceived it to be, will be million dollar question with no probabilistic answer. Although majority of regional players are more interested in political dialogue, the US and NATO forces prefer use of force. Thus, international opinion on Afghan crisis remain divided and it is likely to remain so in near future as well.

At present Pakistan is garnering support of key regional players, the mood in Islamabad suggests any US attempt to think of “boots on ground” would be resisted and Pakistan will continue to push for dialogue process to initiate though there will be least possibility of it happening either, primarily due to distrust that exists between Pakistan and sitting Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani.  Courtesy economic interests and power politics attached with the US/west, Afghan government would be least propelled to leave the orbit. While differences on policy level remain, a working mechanism could exist that could be applied in the current situation. While the US/NATO forces may follow their strategy in Afghanistan, Pakistan may be allowed to carry forward her anti-terrorism policy in such a way that movement of insurgents across Afghanistan-Pakistan border is curtailed through an effective border  management; intelligence sharing and taking action against elements within respective territories; and continuously making efforts for creating an environment for resumption of peace talks through involvement of regional and international players. Notwithstanding current differences and anxieties between Pakistan and the US, complete breakdown of relationship between the two at this crucial junction would be a recipe for disaster for Afghanistan as well as for entire region and even beyond. Sense should prevail.

[1] https://www.dawn.com/news/1353164/trump-backs-off-afghan-withdrawal-lambasts-pakistan-over-terrorist-safe-havens

[2] https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/225201-US-allies-to-boost-troop-numbers-in-Afghanistan-Mattis

[3] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/world-reacts-trump-strategy-afghan-war-170822102826834.html

[4] https://tribune.com.pk/story/1488626/pakistan-disappointed-us-reliance-false-narrative/

[5] https://tribune.com.pk/story/1488442/china-urges-world-community-recognise-pakistans-sacrifices-war-terror/

[6] https://www.dawn.com/news/1353636/respect-pakistans-sovereignty-and-legitimate-security-concerns-china-tells-us

[7] https://tribune.com.pk/story/1490141/new-us-afghan-plan-futile-course-russian-foreign-minister/

[8] http://www.mofa.gov.pk/pr-details.php?mm=NTI5Nw,,

[9] https://www.dawn.com/news/1354043/khawaja-asif-to-embark-on-three-nation-tour-to-discuss-us-policy

[10] https://www.dawn.com/news/1354443/trumps-afghan-strategy-will-not-work-abbasi

[11] https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/226382-Terrorism-can-only-be-defeated-through-intelligence-sharing-coordinated-border-management-Gen-Bajwa

[12] https://www.dawn.com/news/1354291/pak-afghan-military-leadership-agree-on-forming-joint-working-group

[13] https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/226364-Afghan-Taliban-leadership-is-in-Quetta-Peshawar-alleges-US-Commander

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