Afghanistan policy is puzzle of unfriendly pieces

Afghanistan policy is puzzle of unfriendly pieces
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With all the arduous, and often bewildering, U.S. policy-making regarding to South Asia, Afghanistan is one country that doesn’t seem to be off the radar one bit. In an Al Jazeera interview aired last week, former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said that the United States is to be blamed for the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the region. He categorically stated: “In my view under the full presence, surveillance, military, political, intelligence, (ISIS) has emerged.”

A CIA operative once saved Hamid Karzai from an accidental bombing in December 2001. Later, he was selected as the interim president of Afghanistan. In addition,  for someone who used to receive payments from the CIA directly to his presidential office, and whose brother was regularly paid by the CIA, the assertion about how the Central Intelligence Agency works in Afghanistan appears to have bad timing. This is what is striking about Karzai’s interview. At some point, the Central Intelligence Agency made the wrong call, either when it selected him for the top job in Afghanistan, or in its inability to execute warfare plans in Afghanistan since then. The CIA is good enough, it seems, when it pours the money in, not so when the cash inflow stops.  

Now when the Islamic State has largely been ousted from its strongholds in Levant, the terror group is in the process of regrouping. Afghanistan could serve as one of the potential areas of relocation for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and his men. Unfortunately, there are three entities vying for space and political clout in the country: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban. These groups do collude with each other occasionally in order to ramp up attacks on foreign forces, yet each one of them would dearly like to be dominant.

These organizations are likely to bring Afghanistan to a tipping point. Now, it’s up to the policy makers in the White House to ensure they come up with a trenchant Afghanistan policy. The conflict in Afghanistan needs to be looked into from multidimensional areas involving political and military perspectives.

In terms of the political options, first thing the U.S. authorities should do is to ensure the ISIS and Al-Qaeda aren’t able to make further inroads in Afghanistan because, once that happens, the things might spiral out of control. To keep the international terrorist organizations at bay, political settlements with the Afghan Taliban and even the Haqqani network may need to be reached. The current situation in Afghanistan has become quite murky, and shrewd political calculations can help stabilize the security situation to a large extent. Trump needs to have strategic thinkers along with military strategists on board to solve the “Afghan puzzle.” America’s prestige and pride is on the line in Afghanistan, and if President Trump can achieve what President Bush and President Obama couldn’t, then he’ll surely have something substantial to take home to voters.

Bruce Riedel, a counterterrorism expert at Brookings, might have summed up the above argument on how important the war in Afghanistan is for the American president nicely. He remarked: “I’m troubled by the president’s decision to delegate authority to the Pentagon because I suspect that the White House is trying to avoid responsibility for the war. That is irresponsible. The president should not micromanage the battlefield but he has to sell the campaign at home — not walk away from it.” The fact that the POTUS needs to take charge of the situation in Afghanistan can’t be stressed enough.

During the last 16 years in Afghanistan, the United States has had certain tactical-level victories, but a strategic-level win has always eluded the American forces. The United States needs to win the war, not just the battle, in Afghanistan. One of the reasons for the failure at the strategic level is that policy makers haven’t been able to cogently locate the “centre of gravity” of the enemy forces fighting in Afghanistan. It’s not always about launching an attack where the opposition military prowess lies. The enemy weakness needs to be pounced on, instead.

Engaging the Afghan Taliban in guerrilla warfare will always be a losing bet for the U.S. troops. As I’ve written previously: “A guerrilla and an insurgent always win by avoiding losing. A counter insurgent, on the other hand, needs to win every time to ensure his power remains intact.” Intelligence operations based on deciphering the strategic weaknesses of the prominent Afghan Taliban leaders can help the U.S. identify the exact areas the ground troops need to work on.

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst for the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times and RealClearDefense, among others.