President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE deserves a praise for unveiling his new Afghanistan policy after a torturous, months-long debate. The new policy moved beyond specifying future U.S. troop numbers to defining a larger strategic end state in Afghanistan.
It drew a clear distinction between America’s friends and foes and sent the right message to the Taliban and their patrons that U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is unwavering and that we will no longer telegraph our exit with artificial deadlines.
Many have criticized the new policy as a status quo, but it was welcomed in Kabul. Afghan leaders have applauded the U.S. shift from a calendar-based approach to one based on conditions on the ground, although those conditions need to be properly defined to ensure the United States does not sign on to a forever war.
Crucially, the new policy makes one striking departure from past U.S. policies: a new approach toward Pakistan, a poster child for terrorism. The policy rightly distinguishes Pakistan as a clever adversary and not an imperfect friend, and makes clear that Washington would no longer tolerate Pakistan’s duplicity.
For years, Pakistan has pressed the Afghan government to reach a political settlement with the Taliban, which is Islamabad’s preferred option, but has refused to allow the Taliban leaders to engage in negotiations with Afghanistan, especially when Pakistan’s needs were unmet. In his speech, Trump urged the Taliban to engage in peace talks, but he was right to not give up U.S. military efforts against the group that would eventually force them into the negotiating table.
However, this will not happen without Pakistan’s cooperation. The challenge is that there are multiple competing voices among those who run Pakistan’s Afghan policy about what accommodation they expect in a political deal for them to relinquish the Taliban. On the one hand, there are elements within Pakistan’s security hierarchy that relish chaos in Afghanistan, which they can manage over a noncompliant regime in Kabul.
These forces view destruction as power and leverage and use terrorism as a tool to create disorder. This has emboldened the Taliban, who are energized by their territorial gains in Afghanistan and believe that time is on their side.
On the other hand, there are also elements in Pakistan that are fretful about the infusion of radicalism into the ranks of its powerful military. For instance, radical Islamic ideals that appeal to unemployed youth are now also affecting lower- to mid-level members of Pakistan’s military.
Although this blowback effect has not yet been morphed into tangible threats within the army, Pakistan’s military realizes that if this trend continues, it will most likely create subversive insiders in the army that will threaten its stability from within. Unfortunately, these minority voices go unnoticed and their concerns often receive scant attention.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has not publicly sought a political deal, and they are unlikely to sue for peace. A cursory look at past peace efforts shows that each of them failed either because of bad faith, miscalculation, bad timing or they were torpedoed by Pakistan. There is another problem: The Taliban has no single pro-peace voice or a messenger who could authoritatively speak for the group to negotiate peace.
There is also no Taliban leader who can coalesce the entire group around a political deal and deliver on it. Nor would any Taliban leader freely engage with the Afghan government without Pakistan’s consent.
How Pakistan’s policy unfolds in response to the new U.S. policy remains to be seen, but there are reasons to believe that any shift in Pakistan’s policy would be short-term and tactical. First, several of Pakistan’s political parties are supporting radicalization and flirting with jihadi mindsets, including calling for a jihad against the United States in Afghanistan.
Even Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan’s main opposition party, has said that the Taliban are fighting a "jihad" in Afghanistan that is justified by Islamic law. Khan’s recent response to the new Afghan policy was that it was the outcome of the “Indian and Jewish lobby.” Such public condoning of terrorist activities inspires violent ideologies and provides a space for insurgents to recruit.
The underlying thinking in Islamabad may well be that it can still achieve its traditional goals through different means, perhaps even by creating another proxy group. Even if Islamabad changes its posture towards the Taliban, the distasteful history of Afghan-Pakistan relations would likely hamper the policy shift. There would also be no positive change in Pakistan’s strategy unless it genuinely supports political inclusivity in Afghanistan.
Second, the mainstream media in Pakistan, rather than being a force broadly supportive of Afghanistan’s stability, often does the opposite. A broad cross-section of Pakistani media (social and print) frequently claim that America has failed in Afghanistan and that it should pull out. Elements in the Pakistani media are also stoking paranoia and anti-Americanism among the people, while openly advocating on behalf of the Afghan insurgency.
Under such conditions, the mini-surge of 3,900 additional U.S. troops would be crucial in tilting the Afghan stalemate in favor of the Afghan government and would help boost the offensive capabilities of Afghan forces. This would include doubling the size of Afghan special forces to 30,000 soldiers, bolstering the Afghan air force and improving the leadership and intelligence collection capabilities of Afghan forces that will serve as force multipliers.
To be sure, future concessions from Pakistan are likely to be tactical in nature and should be taken with a grain of salt. Trump’s speech should be followed through with concrete actions, including extending drone strikes to Taliban and Haqqani leadership in Pakistan and imposing targeted financial and travel sanctions on known Pakistani intelligence and military personnel who abet these groups.
Diplomatic isolation of Pakistan should also be on the cards if Islamabad does not deliver. Finally, Kabul must resist the temptation of trailing into hasty and high-risk peace talks or accepting conditions that favor Pakistan’s interests at the expense of Afghan security.
Javid Ahmad, a non-resident fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.