A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate
Nearly 15 years after its launch, the United States’ war in Afghanistan is still raging, making it the longest war in American history. Nowadays, the war is barely on the world’s radar, with only dramatic developments, like America’s recent drone-strike assassination of Afghan Taliban Chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, getting airtime. But Afghans continue to lose their friends, neighbors, and children to conflict, as they have since the 1979 Soviet invasion, which triggered the refugee exodus that brought the parents of Omar Mateen, the killer of 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando, to the US.
America’s invasion, launched by former President George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, was intended to dismantle Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power, thereby ensuring that Afghanistan would no longer serve as a safe base of operations for extremists. With those goals ostensibly accomplished, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, reduced troop levels in the country, even declaring a year and a half ago that the war was “coming to a responsible conclusion.”
But, with a resurgent Taliban stepping up attacks, the war has raged on, exacting staggering costs in blood and treasure. One key reason is Pakistan, which has harbored the Afghan Taliban’s command and control, while pretending to be a US ally.
If there were any doubts about Pakistan’s duplicity, they should have been eliminated in 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in a military garrison town near the country’s capital. Yet, five years later, Pakistan still has not revealed who helped bin Laden hide for all those years. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has continued to shower the country with billions of dollars in aid.
The assassination of Mansour on Pakistan’s territory, near its border with Iran and Afghanistan, has exposed, yet again, the deceitfulness of Pakistani officials, who have repeatedly denied sheltering Taliban leaders. Like the raid by US Navy SEALs that killed bin Laden, Mansour’s assassination required the US to violate the sovereignty of a country that, as one of the largest recipients of American aid, should have been supporting the effort. The question is whether the US will acknowledge the obvious lesson this time and change course.
While Mansour’s killing may be, as Obama put it, “an important milestone” in the effort to bring peace to Afghanistan, it also exposed America’s policy failures under the Obama administration, rooted in the desire not to confront either Pakistan or even the Taliban too strongly. Obama’s objective was to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Taliban – a power-sharing arrangement to underpin a peace deal – facilitated by the Pakistani military. That is why the US has not branded the Afghan Taliban – much less Pakistan’s rogue intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – a terrorist organization, and instead has engaged in semantic jugglery.
This approach goes beyond rhetoric. America took almost 15 years to carry out its first drone strike in Pakistan’s sprawling Balochistan province, even though the Afghan Taliban leadership established its command-and-control structure there almost immediately after the US military intervention ousted it from Afghanistan. Instead, the US concentrated its drone strikes in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, allowing the Taliban leaders to remain ensconced.
The US has even made direct overtures to the Taliban, in order to promote negotiations aimed at securing peace through a power-sharing arrangement. It allowed the Taliban to set up a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. A year later, it traded five senior Taliban leaders who had been jailed at Guantánamo Bay for a captured US Army sergeant.
What the US did not know was that the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, died in 2013 in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Omar’s death was kept secret for more than two years, during which time ISI claimed to be facilitating contacts with him.
Finally, last July, Mansour was installed as the Taliban’s new leader – and he was not interested in peace talks. It was Mansour’s intransigence that spurred the US to change its tactics. Instead of using carrots to secure Taliban support for a peace deal, the Obama administration is now using very large sticks.
But even if this approach manages to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, it will probably not be enough to secure a lasting peace deal. If the US is to succeed at ending the war in Afghanistan, it must do more than change tactics; it must rethink its fundamental strategy.
The reality is that the medieval Taliban will neither be defeated nor seek peace until their Pakistani sanctuaries are eliminated. No counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded in a country when the militants have found refuge in another. While Obama recognizes the imperative of eliminating terrorist sanctuaries, he has failed to do what is needed.
Simply put, bribing Pakistan’s military will not work. Over the last 14 years, the US has given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid and armed it with lethal weapons, ranging from F-16s and P-3C Orion maritime aircraft to Harpoon anti-ship missiles and TOW anti-armor missiles. And yet Pakistan continues to provide the Afghan Taliban a safe haven within its borders.
A better approach would be to link aid disbursement to concrete Pakistani action against militants, while officially classifying ISI as a terrorist entity. Such a move would send a strong signal to Pakistan’s military – which views the Taliban and other militant groups as useful proxies and force multipliers vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India – that it can no longer hunt with the hounds and run with the foxes.
Obama’s decision last October to prolong indefinitely US involvement in Afghanistan means not only that he will leave office without fulfilling his promise to end Bush-era military entanglements, but also that the US will continue to fight the war on the wrong side of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Perhaps his successor will finally recognize the truth: the end of the war in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan.