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August 24, 2017 1:43 pm

New US Strategy in Afghanistan Is Doomed to Fail

avatar by Alon Ben-Meir


An American C-130 cargo plane in Afghanistan. Photo: US Defense Department.

President Donald Trump’s new strategy that would presumably win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan is doomed to fail — just like George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s before him.

At best, the reported dispatch of an additional 4,000 American troops will prevent the total collapse of Afghanistan and thwart the Taliban from winning. Given the complex nature of the conflict, however, the status quo will not change in any significant way.

One might think that after 16 years, the US would have learned that the Taliban will not be defeated. Indeed, the only solution rests on a negotiated agreement with the Taliban, while inviting the Afghan tribes to do the heavy lifting, since they are the only party that can effectively work with the Taliban to reach an enduring agreement.

The only pointed and correct statement that Trump made about his “new strategy” is that the US should not undertake the practice of nation-building, and certainly should not dictate how the Afghan people live their lives and govern themselves. The US, with the support of the tribes, should focus on combating terrorism, especially from Al Qaeda, ISIS and other radical extremist groups.

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The Taliban should receive a clear signal that they are an important part of the new strategy to reach a peace accord, provided that they demonstrate their willingness to negotiate in earnest and renounce terrorism.

It is true and necessary that the US must develop strategic partnerships, especially with India and Pakistan, to help in the fight against terrorism, and that Washington should use its political, economic and military assets to that end.

However, whereas India should be willing to partner with the US, it is not a given that the besieged Pakistani government will be able to fully commit itself even if it chooses to do so, because a.) the ongoing political turmoil in Islamabad prevents the development of a cohesive policy to combat the plethora of terrorist groups; and b.) Pakistan does not want to fight the Taliban — because they might soon become part of the Afghan government.

For these reasons, it is naive to think that after 16 years of fighting, dispatching an additional military force of 4,000 soldiers will change anything. In fact, at its peak of more than 100,000 American soldiers, the US was unable to dramatically change the dynamic of the conflict and create a sustainable political and security structure that would allow US troops to leave.

No one in the Trump administration, including the Pentagon, is offering any convincing argument that additional forces will win the war. At best, they can arrest the continuing advances of the Taliban, which is now in control of nearly half the country.

Trump’s effort, therefore, will succeed only if the US immediately embraces peace talks while fighting foreign terrorist groups.

There will not be a military solution to the Afghan war. Yet Trump has now the opportunity to change the dynamic of the conflict by looking at the Taliban not as the enemy, but as the partner in the search for a sustainable solution.

The sooner the US accepts this reality, the better.

In a conversation that I had with Ajmal Khan Zazai, the tribal leader and paramount chief of the Paktia province in Afghanistan, he noted that previous American military approaches have never had a chance of succeeding, due to their “[obsession] with their version of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights.'” He emphasized the fact that “Afghanistan is a tribal country, the tribes are the past, present, and the future.” Excluding the tribes from the battle against violent extremism, including Al Qaeda and ISIS, will simply not work.

To prevent repeating past mistakes, the Trump administration must now reach out to the tribal chiefs and together develop a strategy that would allow the Taliban to fully participate in peace talks.

The chiefs would require US financial assistance, to the tune of 400-500 million dollars a year (which is a fraction of what we spend today). The purpose of this would be to recruit and train their own militias to fight against the assortment of terrorists.

To be sure, the Taliban are Afghan nationals and will not be dislodged from their own land. They know that time is on their side because every foreign power has been forced to eventually leave the country. If the US wants to end this debilitating war, it must focus on local forces for a permanent solution, and leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later — and with some dignity.

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