President Donald Trump said Monday that negotiations with the Taliban “are dead” and indicated that he had no further interest in meeting with the group over an end to the Afghanistan war.
The weakness of the US-Taliban negotiations resided in the fact that they concentrated on relatively narrow War on Terror yardsticks including withdrawal of American forces, a cease-fire, intra-Afghan negotiations to follow, and guarantees by the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups.
It was a list of exit criteria, not a strategy for addressing the regional nation-state dynamics of which the Afghan conflict is fundamentally a byproduct.
The War in Afghanistan has its origins in the decades-old antagonism between Pakistan and India spawned by the violence-punctuated partition of the British Indian Empire in August 1947.
Since partition, Pakistan and India have fought three wars (1947, 1965, 1971), clashed in the 1999 Kargil Conflict and engaged in many other armed skirmishes, particularly along the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Pakistan has always viewed Afghanistan as a necessary client-state, a security buffer against what they consider potential Indian encirclement and as a springboard to extend their own influence into the resource-rich areas of Central Asia.
Not surprisingly, Pakistani interference in Afghanistan long pre-dated Soviet and American involvement during the 1980s.
As early as the 1950s, Pakistan began inserting into Afghanistan Islamists associated with the its Jamaat-e-Islami party.
In 1974, then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto set up a cell within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to begin managing dissident Islamists in Afghanistan, which mounted two failed Islamist coups in 1974 and 1975.
During the late 1970s, under President Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan pursued a policy of aggressive “Islamization” with the proliferation of religious schools “madrasas” and religious political parties, resulting in a society that became ever more extreme and intolerant.
Two parallel experiences have had significant influence on Pakistan’s present-day foreign policy: (1) the successful 1980s mujahideen war to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan with the subsequent Pakistan-sponsored Taliban control of Afghanistan and (2) Pakistan’s 1998 development of nuclear weapons.
That is, Islamist fighters were found to be useful proxies for the Pakistani military and the ISI, particularly against India and Afghanistan and that retaliation for the use of those 4th generation warfare operations could be largely “immunized” by Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella.
That joint policy has led to years of attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists against India.
The prelude to America’s current involvement in Afghanistan and the main failure of the Reagan Administration’s Afghanistan policy was letting the Central Intelligence Agency blindly outsource mujahideen funding to Pakistan’s ISI, which funneled American money and arms, not to Afghan nationalists like Ahmad Shah Massoud, but to pro-Pakistani Islamists such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
It is an undisputed fact that the Taliban were created by the ISI beginning in 1994 as a means to intervene in the Afghan civil war and influence the outcome in favor of Pakistani national interests when its previous favored Islamist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, failed in that effort.
If anything, Pakistan’s behavior has been consistent. It has successfully exploited US short-term goals while pursuing its long-term regional interests, mostly those contrary to our own.
While the US has been fighting the War on Terror in Afghanistan since 2001, Pakistan has been using the Taliban as a proxy to control Afghanistan as part of its struggle with India and to promote the foreign policy ambitions of its “all weather” ally, China.
Even within the context of US-Taliban negotiations, Pakistan attempted to leverage its position by pushing for the Taliban to have an outsize political role in Kabul once foreign forces leave and to press for foreign intervention in its conflict with India over Kashmir, something India rejects.
The contents of the US-Taliban agreement that appeared publicly did not adequately address future strategic challenges. The de facto surrendering of Afghanistan to the control of Pakistan’s Taliban proxy could have dangerous, perhaps even conflicting ramifications.
First, Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the epicenter of regional Islamic militancy and an exporter of jihad.
Second, China’s growing geopolitical strength and its increased presence in Pakistan have changed the strategic dynamics of the region, largely rendering whatever remains of US South Asian policy obsolete.
The future threat is from China in the form of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. China’s aim is to dominate South Asia, first economically based on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and then militarily using its alliance with Pakistan to establish military bases, particularly on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, thus controlling vital maritime lanes and the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
Those bases would provide a critical link between China’s military facilities in the South China Sea and its naval base in Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
The only bargaining chip the US has had in the Afghan negotiations is our diminishing “presence,” which is clearly unsustainable, given the Taliban’s continuing pursuit of a military solution and the prospect of a “Dien Bien Phu” at Bagram airbase.
Between now and the beginning of a final withdrawal, the US should be identifying additional forms of influence as a basis for a new South Asian strategy.
A new strategy for South Asia should focus on preventing Chinese-Pakistani domination of the region or any US adversary from benefitting from our withdrawal by using all the elements of US power – diplomatic, informational, military and economic.
From a politico-military standpoint, two approaches, operating in parallel, are required.
We should adopt a traditional containment policy, applying regional diplomacy, especially greater cooperation with India and augmenting US naval and air power projection to counter Chinese attempts to box-in US forces in the Persian Gulf area and outflank the US naval base at Diego Garcia.
Additionally, increased financial and economic pressure needs to be applied to Pakistan to restrain its use of terrorist proxies as an element of its foreign policy.
In order to maintain a balance of power, the US should use strategic disruption, not of China directly, but of its plans to dominate the region.
Tactically, that would involve managing and, when necessary, exploiting the inherent conflicts in South Asia including state-to-state disputes, the Sunni-Shia divide and ethnic separatism within Pakistan such as the Balochistan independence insurgency and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement fighting for civil rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
The center of gravity and also the weakest link of the China-Pakistan alliance is CPEC, which is the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a collection of infrastructure projects and a network of commercial agreements designed to link the entire world directly to the Chinese economy through inter-connected land-based and maritime routes.
The guarantor of that soft power approach is the hard power of Chinese military expansion including Chinese bases to control the northern Indian Ocean.
CPEC transits two volatile regions, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, long disputed by India, and Balochistan, home of a festering ethnic insurgency since the partition of India in 1947, when the region was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan. Both are targets of opportunity for strategic disruption of Chinese-Pakistani regional ambitions.
It is late, but there may still be time to defeat Chinese South Asian ambitions “on the beaches.”
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control and cyber security subject matter expert and a veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org