The U.S. Department of Defense Department just submitted to Congress its semiannual, June 2018 report titled “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”
The take-home message, like every such report for at least the last 10 years, remained the reassuring “progress is being made.” It is the contemporary equivalent to the Vietnam War assertion that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Although the strategic conditions in the region have changed dramatically, the mission is the same:
“Our purpose in Afghanistan remains to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe-haven from which terrorist groups can plan and execute attacks on the United States, or our allies and citizens abroad…To accomplish this, we continue to support Afghanistan and train, advise and assist its military and police forces.”
The strategy being implemented to achieve that mission is:
“The key to success remains sustained military pressure against the Taliban in order to eliminate the idea that they can achieve their objectives through violent conflict. The targeted investment of U.S. assets and personnel have increased the lethality of the [Afghan forces] this fighting season.”
In other words, progress is being made, but the Pentagon does not say just how much “lethality” will be needed to convince Taliban leaders that they cannot “achieve their objectives through violent conflict.”
There is an extensive Taliban infrastructure and support network in Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan, which includes education, recruiting, training and financial and command and control centers — none of which has been subjected to the “lethality.”
The enormous expansion of Islamic fundamentalist religious schools, madrassas, in Pakistan, largely through funding by Saudi Arabia, has provided a growing supply of potential jihadis to fight in Afghanistan. Well-organized and networked recruiters target the poor or disillusioned, reaching well beyond the Afghan refugee or Pashtun population in Pakistan and numbering in the tens of thousands. Pakistan will never run out of cannon fodder for its proxy war in Afghanistan.
Nazir, a typical potential recruit, is from the Balochi ethnic group, has no connection to the war in Afghanistan and lives hundreds of miles away from the border. In high school, he was subjected to a steady diet of the glories of jihad from his Arabic teacher and the school religious cleric, who distributed jihadi literature and cassettes to the students. After graduation, Nazir experienced a period of financial difficulties and was quickly referred to a Balochi Taliban recruiter based in Quetta, the headquarters and support base of the Taliban Quetta Shura. According to Nasir, nearly all the doctors in Quetta have been required to treat injured Taliban fighters in private hospitals far better supplied and equipped than hospitals for ordinary residents. Ultimately, Nazir did not go to Afghanistan, but scores of other young men from his region did.
It should be clear that the increase in “lethality” pursued by the Pentagon will, at best, only keep pace with the flow of jihadi fighters, educated, recruited, trained and supported in Pakistan.
It should also be clear that you get to the Taliban through Pakistan and you get to Pakistan through China. So, is “lethality” really the most relevant criterion?
U.S. strategy has simply not kept pace with the changing conditions on the ground in South Asia. The goal of those changes, primarily orchestrated by China, is to remove the U.S. presence from the region and position China as the peace mediator and alternative economic engine.
An American withdrawal from Afghanistan will only be a humiliating defeat, if the U.S. is forced into strategic retreat because we do not have a plan in place to address the changing conditions in South Asia.
The future of U.S. policy in South Asia does not reside solely in Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. should be burden shifting and preparing to counter Chinese hegemony. Some of that effort involves learning to manage instability, to which our adversaries are no less susceptible and include national rivalries, ethnic separatism, and the Sunni-Shia divide.
The U.S. would actually gain greater leverage in Afghanistan by strategic disruption of Chinese ambitions in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan e.g. the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, than by continuing a fruitless, exhaustive and thankless policy of trying to establish and maintain stability in Afghanistan from which we will accrue a diminishing number of strategic benefits.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.