India’s security interests at risk from U.S. readiness to capitulate to Taliban

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

This year is Afghanistan’s 40th year in a row as an active war zone. Betrayal, violence and surrender have defined Afghanistan’s history for long, especially as the playground for outside powers. The US-Taliban “agreement in principle” fits with that narrative. By promising a terrorist militia a total American military pullout within 18 months and a pathway to power in Kabul, the US, in essence, is negotiating the terms of its surrender.

It is worth remembering how the US got into a military quagmire. The US invasion in October 2001 ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul for harbouring the Al Qaeda planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the key Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Ramzi Binalshibh, were later found holed up inside Pakistan. Yet, paradoxically, the US, while raining bombs in Afghanistan, rewarded Pakistan, as President Donald Trump said last year, with more than $33 billion in aid since 2002.

The quagmire resulted from the US reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control bases in Pakistan. In modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. This also explains why terrorists remain active in the Kashmir Valley.

Rather than take out the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries, the US actively sought “reconciliation” for years, allowing the militia to gain strength and terrorize Afghans. The protracted search for a Faustian bargain with the Taliban also explains why that ruthless militia was never added to the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This approach counterproductively led to an ascendant Taliban expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in growing numbers.

Now, desperate to exit, Trump has sought to accomplish what his predecessor, Barack Obama, set out to do but failed — to cut a deal with the Taliban. It was with the aim of facilitating direct talks with the Taliban that Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. Then, to meet a Taliban precondition, five hardened Taliban militants (two of them accused of carrying out massacres of Tajiks and Hazaras) were freed from Guantánamo Bay. The five were described by the late US senator, John McCain, as the “hardest of hard core”.

Instead of the promised Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, the Trump administration clinched the tentative deal with the Taliban without prior consultations with Kabul and then sought to sell it to a sceptical Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In doing so, it has unwittingly aided the Taliban effort to delegitimize an elected government. Given that Ghani was blindsided by the “framework” accord, it is no surprise that Washington did not care to take India, its “major defence partner”, into confidence either.

Let’s be clear: The Taliban do not represent most Pashtuns, let alone a majority of Afghans. Many in their ranks are Pakistanis recruited and trained by Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence, just as ISI teams up with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed against India. The US-Taliban deal nullifies then US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ promise that “we’re not going to surrender civilization to people who cannot win at the ballot box”.

Indeed, the deal represents not only a shot in the arm for the resurgent Taliban but also a major diplomatic win for its sponsor, Pakistan, which facilitated the accord. Contrary to speculation that US reliance on Pakistan is on the decline, the interim deal, and the imperative to finalize and implement it, underscore the US dependence on the Pakistani army and ISI. In effect, Pakistan is being rewarded for sponsoring cross-border terrorism.

All this holds important implications for India, which, as Mattis said in October, “has been generous over many years with Afghanistan”, earning “a degree of affection from the Afghan people”. Once US troops return home, America will have little ability — especially if it does not leave behind a residual counterterrorism force — to influence events in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt. If the Taliban were to again capture power in Kabul with Pakistan’s assistance, the benefits for Afghans from the more than $3 billion in assistance that India has given since 2002 would melt away.

Despite growing US strategic cooperation with India, Washington, by its unilateralist actions, is paradoxically increasing the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. India will have to do whatever is necessary to shield its vital interests in Afghanistan, or else developments there would adversely impinge on Indian security, including in the Kashmir Valley.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s Pakistan policy adrift

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

incpakConsider two developments in recent days that speak volumes about India’s Pakistan policy: Just as the United States moved to unilaterally withdraw from a major arms-control pact (the Intermediate-Range Forces, or INF, Treaty), “incredible India” — as it calls itself in international tourism-promotion ads — welcomed an inspection team from a terrorist state to scrutinize Indian hydropower projects that are being built under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).

And, as if to mock the Indian foreign secretary’s formal protest over his call to separatist Umar Farooq four days earlier, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mohammad Qureshi on Saturday telephoned another secessionist leader in Kashmir Valley, Ali Shah Geelani. Qureshi and Pakistan’s all-powerful military generals think they can get away by provoking India.

In the absence of a clearheaded Pakistan policy backed by political resolve, India continues to send confusing and contradictory signals, encouraging Pakistan’s continuing roguish conduct.

India’s welcoming of the three-member Pakistani inspection team, led by that country’s Indus commissioner, illustrated how its incoherent approach to Pakistan has spawned even appeasement.

In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India entered into the IWT by giving away the Indus system’s largest rivers as gifts to Pakistan. Since then, the congenitally hostile Pakistan, while drawing the full benefits from the treaty, has waged overt or covert aggression almost continuously — and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them.

Whereas the U.S. has ditched the INF Treaty over an alleged Russian violation of its terms, India clings to the IWT’s finer details, even though Pakistan is waging proxy war by terror against it. Like the IWT, the INF Treaty is of indefinite duration.

Pakistan’s use of state-reared terrorist groups to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts can be invoked by New Delhi as constituting reasonable grounds for Indian withdrawal from the IWT. The International Court of Justice has upheld the principle that a treaty, including one of indefinite duration, may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances

Still, India not only adheres to the IWT’s finer details, it even goes beyond. For example, under IWT’s Article VIII, the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is to meet once a year. Its next meeting was due in March 2019. But, thanks to India’s zealousness, the PIC met much earlier in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting.

It was at that meeting that India agreed to advance Pakistan’s inspection tour to October 2018. The last such tour occurred in 2014 and the next one, in keeping with the IWT provision for a tour “once every five years”, was due by the end of 2019. The local bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir forced the October tour to be deferred to January-end.

Before returning home on February 1, the Pakistani team examined three Indian hydropower projects currently under construction — the Pakal Dul, which will generate up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity, Ratle (850 megawatts), and Lower Kalnai (48 megawatts). The team also visited the already operational 900-megawatt Baglihar, a project that Pakistan tried earlier to stop by invoking the IWT’s dispute-settlement provisions. But the international neutral expert that was appointed to resolve the dispute ultimately ruled in India’s favour.

Pakistan, however, could seek international intercession again by using the information its inspection team collected last week to mount technical objections to the Indian projects under construction. Indeed, even before the team visited India, Pakistani officials publicly raised objections to the spillway or freeboard of these projects.

Pakistan’s interest lies in sustaining a unique treaty that incorporates water generosity to the lower riparian on a scale unmatched by any other pact in the world. That interest arms India with significant leverage to link the IWT’s future to Pakistan’s observance of basic international norms.

Yet, India is letting go the opportunity to reframe the terms of the Indus engagement.

India’s pusillanimity is apparent from yet another development last week. After the Indian foreign secretary summoned the Pakistani high commissioner to lodge a protest over Qureshi’s call to Umar Farooq, the Pakistani foreign office the next day summoned the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad in reprisal. This raises the question as to why India does not downgrade its diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Why maintain full diplomatic ties with a country that New Delhi branded “Terroristan” in 2017?

There is no reason for India to keep diplomatic relations with a terrorist state at the high commissioner level. Downsizing diplomatic missions and doing away with high commissioners should be part of an Indian strategy to employ peaceful tools, including diplomatic, economic and riparian pressures, to reform Pakistan’s behaviour.

Sadly, India is all talk when it comes to imposing costs on the next-door terrorist state. Indian policymakers do not seem to realize that words not backed by action carry major costs. They not only affect India’s credibility but also undermine its deterrent posture by emboldening the enemy.

Isn’t it telling that Pakistan continues to gore India although it is much smaller in economic, military and demographic terms? Such aggression is the bitter fruit of India’s present approach, which essentially has remained the same under successive governments. However, it is still not late to reverse course.

India ought to talk less and act more. To tame a rogue neighbour, India must emphasize deeds, not words. For starters, it must discard the fiction that it can have normal diplomatic relations with a sponsor of terrorism.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.

Trump’s Gift to the Taliban

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The just-announced “agreement in principle” between the US and the Taliban should be called what it is: a Faustian bargain that will lead to still more violence in the region, and perhaps in the West. By abandoning Afghanistan, the Trump administration is repeating one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes of the past few decades.

Brahma Chellaney, a Project Syndicate column

talibanimageAfter the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, thereby eliminating a key nexus of international terrorism. But now, a war-weary US, with a president seeking to cut and run, has reached a tentative deal largely on the Taliban’s terms. The extremist militia that once harbored al-Qaeda and now carries out the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks has secured not just the promise of a US military exit within 18 months, but also a pathway to power in Kabul.

History is repeating itself. The US is once again abandoning war-ravaged Afghanistan, just as it did three decades ago following a successful covert operation by the CIA to force the Soviets out of the country. The US, desperate to end its longest-ever war, appears to have forgotten a key lesson of that earlier abandonment: it turned Afghanistan into a citadel of transnational terrorism, leading to civil war and eventually bloodshed in the West.

The accord reached between the Taliban and the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, reads like a wholesale capitulation on the part of the Trump administration. In 2014, the US signed a security pact with the Afghan government that granted the Americans access to nine military bases at least until 2024. But the US has now agreed to withdraw all of its forces in exchange for a mere promise from a terrorist militia that it will deny other terrorist networks a foothold on Afghan territory. Never mind that the Islamic State is already operational in Afghanistan and poses a challenge to the Taliban itself.

Though the agreement has been dubbed a “peace” deal, it will almost certainly lead to even more Islamist violence, not least against Afghanistan’s women. The Taliban are determined to re-impose the medieval practices they enforced during their harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. Whatever gains Afghanistan has made in terms of women’s and civil rights may soon be reversed.

Make no mistake: the Taliban are brutal and indiscriminate in their use of violence, and they refuse even to recognize the country’s legitimate government, which will make fleshing out the new “framework” accord exceedingly difficult. A number of key issues must be spelled out unambiguously, including when the ceasefire between the Taliban and US-backed Afghan forces will take effect. And even then, it is highly doubtful that the Taliban will agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

In fact, having been emboldened by a series of US concessions over the past six years, the Taliban have escalated their terrorist attacks and made significant battlefield gains against Afghan forces. So, if anything, they will see the new agreement as an implicit validation of their impending victory. They know that time is on their side, and that most Americans favor a US exit. That means they will probably play hardball when negotiating the details of a final deal.

In addition to representing a major victory for the Taliban, the accord is also a win for Pakistan, which harbors the militia’s leadership and provides cross-border sanctuaries for its fighters. Just last year, Trump cut US security assistance to Pakistan, tweeting, “they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”

It is worth remembering that when Trump took office, he promised to reverse the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by “winning again.” But just two years later, he has apparently decided that it is the extremists who will be winning again.

Far from breaking with former US President Barack Obama’s failed approach, as he promised, Trump has now fulfilled his predecessor’s quest for a deal with the Taliban. Having also recently announced a military drawdown in Syria, Trump has made it clear that the US will readily throw its Kurdish and Afghan allies under the bus in order to extricate itself from foreign entanglements of its own making.

To be sure, America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban has been in the making for years, which explains why the group is conspicuously absent from the US Department of State’s annual list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, despite having killed more civilians in the past year alone than any other outfit. To facilitate talks with the Taliban, Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in 2013. And a year later, he traded five senior Taliban leaders for a US Army sergeant (who was later charged with desertion).

Moreover, to lay the groundwork for a deal, the US war planners have long refrained from targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control base in Pakistan, thereby effectively undercutting their own military mission in Afghanistan. As the top US military commander in Afghanistan admitted in 2017, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”

The US has come full circle. The Taliban, like al-Qaeda, evolved from the violent jihadist groups that the CIA trained in Pakistan to wage war against the Soviets in the 1980s. After suffering the worst terrorist attack in modern world history, the US turned against the Taliban, driving their leaders out of Afghanistan.

But now, in search of a face-saving exit from the Afghan quagmire, America is implicitly preparing to hand the country back to the same thuggish group that it removed from power 17 years ago. Sadly, once American troops leave Afghan soil, the ability of the US to influence events there, or to prevent a new terrorist attack on the US homeland, will be severely limited.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Remake the terms of the Indus treaty

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, January 22, 2019

indusThe Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), the most generous water-sharing pact in modern world history, remains a large millstone around India’s neck. Far from seeking to get rid of that millstone, India next weekend will welcome a three-member Pakistani team for an inspection tour of Indian hydropower projects in the basin of the Chenab, the largest of the six Indus-system rivers in terms of the rate of cross-border flow.

Contrast this with the record of other powers on binding accords. China’s 2017 breach of bilateral accords by denying India hydrological data resulted in many preventable deaths in Assam floods. The U.S. is now dumping the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after unilaterally terminating another IWT-style pact of unlimited duration — the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

A scofflaw Pakistan, despite being in dire financial straits, remains wedded to terrorism, including inflicting upon India death by a thousand cuts. Yet the much-larger India, instead of imposing deterrent costs, continues to treat Pakistan with kid gloves, as underscored by the impending visit of the Indus commissioner-led Pakistani team.

While Pakistan flouts international norms and rules, India adheres to the IWT’s finer details — and goes even beyond. For example, under IWT’s Article VIII, the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is to meet once a year. Its next meeting was due in March 2019. But, thanks to India’s zealousness, the PIC met much earlier in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting.

It was at that meeting that India agreed to advance Pakistan’s inspection tour to October 2018. The last such tour occurred in 2014 and the next one, in keeping with the IWT provision for a tour “once every five years”, was due by the end of 2019. The local bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) forced the October tour to be deferred to January.

The Pakistani side, like in 2014, will use its upcoming tour to collect new information on Indian projects and then mount technical objections to their designs and seek international intercession. Even before the team’s visit, Pakistani officials have raised objections to the spillway or freeboard of the projects to be inspected.

The lopsided IWT, which keeps for India just 19.48% of the total Indus-system waters, is the world’s only inter-country water agreement embodying the doctrine of restricted sovereignty, which compels the upstream nation to forego major river uses for the benefit of the downstream state. India has failed to fully exercise even its IWT-truncated rights. For example, India has built no storage on the Chenab, Jhelum and the main Indus stream, although the IWT permits it to store 4.4 billion cubic meters of these rivers’ waters.

On the three rivers, India is allowed to build run-of-river hydropower plants without dam reservoirs. Yet India’s total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not match the electric output of a single major dam in Pakistan, such as Tarbela, opened in 1976, or Diamer-Bhasha, whose construction is about to begin. In the lower basin, where India has full rights, the substantial waters of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej untapped by it go to Pakistan as bonus outflows.

To bring Pakistan to heel, India needs to fashion water as an instrument of leverage. Such leverage can serve as the most potent instrument in India’s arsenal against Pakistan — more powerful than the nuclear-weapons option, which essentially is for deterrence. Building leverage in the Indus Basin is a cheaper option for India to reform Pakistan’s behaviour than fighting a war. Indeed, peaceful options — from mounting escalating riparian pressures to waging economic, cyber and diplomatic warfare — can effectively tame Pakistan.

India gains little from its present approach. For example, despite India’s scrupulous observance of the IWT provisions and its concessions, Pakistan accuses it of not fully complying with the treaty’s terms. Pakistan will never be satisfied. Nor will it stop “internationalizing” every disagreement as part of its water-war strategy against India. Add to the picture its proxy war by terror. While trampling on basic norms, Pakistan claims interminable water rights.

In this light, an increasingly water-stressed India should unilaterally remake the terms of the Indus engagement. Four of the six Indus-system rivers originate in India. The other two begin as small rivers in Tibet and gain major flows in India. For starters, India should keep its Indus commissioner’s post vacant. Without formally withdrawing from the IWT, India must assert its upper-riparian rights. India cannot keep bearing the IWT’s burdens without any tangible benefits accruing to it from the treaty.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s Kartarpur Headache

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New Delhi must proactively thwart Pakistan’s effort to revive Sikh militancy in Punjab

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, December 14, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently raked up the issue as to why Kartarpur today is in Pakistan, not India. At Simla in 1972, for example, India could have traded the return of captured territories and 93,000 prisoners of war for a Kashmir settlement and border adjustments to secure Kartarpur — and more. Yet, despite holding all the cards, Indira Gandhi surrendered at the negotiating table India’s major gains from martyrs’ sacrifices.

In effect, Indira pardoned Pakistan in the style of Prithviraj Chauhan, who routed invader Mahmud Ghori on the battlefield, only to set him free — an action that encouraged Ghori to return later to wage the Second Battle of Tarain, where he defeated and executed the Rajput ruler. Just like Prithviraj Chauhan, Indira paid with her life for her blunder. Left free to avenge 1971, Pakistan, before focussing on the Kashmir Valley, engineered a bloody Sikh militancy that ultimately spawned Indira’s assassination.

Against this background, Modi must pay heed to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s warning that the Pakistan army and Inter-Services Intelligence, with the aim of reviving Sikh militancy, planned the Kartarpur corridor even before Imran Khan took office. Pakistan’s army chief has taken a keen interest in the corridor plan, which explains his presence at the Kartarpur ceremony. The corridor, if it opens, will likely become a major security headache for India.

India, unfortunately, chose the 10th anniversary period of the four-day Mumbai terrorist attacks for the corridor’s cornerstone-laying ceremonies in India and Pakistan. This not only conveyed a regrettable message that India lacked a sense of remembrance, but also handed the 26/11 perpetrator, Pakistan, a propaganda coup.

Indeed, Pakistan used the occasion to ominously greet the Indian delegation with Sikh separatist posters and an in-house Sikh militant. The ill-timed ceremonies apparently were intended to let Modi take a positive message to the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Over seven decades, India has bent over backwards to make peace with Pakistan, only to be repeatedly kicked in the face. Consider, for example, India’s globally unparalleled water generosity in the form of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Or its big-heartedness at Tashkent and Simla.

Or India’s initiation of “composite dialogue” in the 1990s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore, his Agra summit with General Pervez Musharraf, his second Pakistan visit in the twilight of his rule and, just months after 26/11, Manmohan Singh’s Chamberlainian appeasement at Sharm el-Sheikh.

Or take the olive branches Modi has extended — from inviting Nawaz Sharif  to his 2014 inauguration and opening an unpublicized dialogue at the national security adviser-level to making a surprise Lahore visit and later sending his foreign minister to Islamabad. Nothing has worked.

Indeed, India’s peace initiatives and magnanimity have had the opposite effect of emboldening Pakistan’s scofflaw actions. Modi’s Lahore visit, for example, led to the Pakistan military’s scripting of terrorist attacks on a raft of Indian security bases, from Pathankot to Uri. Yet, on the 26/11 anniversary eve, Modi oddly voiced hope that the Kartarpur corridor would have the same momentous impact in uniting two societies that the Berlin Wall’s fall had.

The 10th anniversary of 26/11 should have been a sombre occasion to remember the victims of one of modern history’s worst terrorist carnages and to spotlight Pakistan’s continued protection of the masterminds. India ought to have reminded Pakistan that its day of reckoning will come before long.

Unfortunately, amid the corridor-related fervour, India did not remember even the martyrs, such as the cop Tukaram Omble, who, by ensuring Ajmal Kasab’s capture alive, provided the clinching evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11.

India laid the corridor cornerstone on its side of the border on the opening day of the 26/11 anniversary period, with an oblivious Indian vice president calling it a “historic day”! Indeed, such was the oozing zeal that India sent not one but two ministers to the Pakistan-side ceremony.

Make no mistake: Pakistan may be isolated and cash-strapped, yet it gladly remains a terrorist state. Lest we forget, the Nirankari sect guru’s 1980 assassination paved the way for Pakistan to script terrorism in India. To incite tensions and militancy in Punjab, Pakistan, as the first line of attack, targeted Nirankaris, who are at odds with mainstream Sikhs as they believe in a living guru and reject the militant brotherhood of the Khalsa.

Just when Pakistan has laid bare its designs to use the Kartarpur corridor to indoctrinate and radicalize Sikh pilgrims from India, a recent attack on Nirankari worshippers outside Amritsar with a Pakistan-origin grenade suggests the ISI may be reviving its old strategy.

Sikh militancy cost India dearly, triggering the disastrous Operation Bluestar and a PM’s killing. Its potential resurgence at a time when illicit drugs from Pakistan have become a scourge in Punjab could possibly tear India apart. India, with its ostrich-like approach and perennial preoccupation with electoral politics, would do well to remember the old adage, “a stitch in time saves nine”, lest history — to quote Karl Marx — repeat itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

Pakistan’s double game stymies Trump’s Afghan peace effort

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The US war in Afghanistan has already lasted more than twice as long as World War II, exacting a staggering cost in blood and treasure. With the longest war in American history completing 17 years this month, US patience appears to be wearing thin. Recent American moves — from renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban to changing the combat strategy — indicate that President Donald Trump’s administration is desperate to end the war.

downloadThe newly appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad blindsided the Afghan government by holding unannounced face-to-face talks recently with the Taliban in Qatar. Khalilzad’s negotiations — just ahead of Afghanistan’s Oct. 20 parliamentary elections that the Taliban sought to disrupt — constituted the second round of US-Taliban direct talks in about three months.

The revived “Great Game”, however, is clouding the renewed US peace effort. US foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. And Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to the Taliban, continues running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a US ally while harbouring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after US forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. Still, almost 15,000 American troops remain, while some 26,000 US military contractors in Afghanistan continue doing many jobs that soldiers would normally do.

Pakistan holds the key to a US peace deal with the Taliban. Then US President Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to co-opt Pakistan by extending multibillion-dollar aid packages to that country. Now, under Trump, the US has renewed efforts to win the support of Pakistan’s powerful military generals, including by assassinating the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in May. In fact, three successive Pakistani Taliban chiefs have been killed by US military strikes, with each assassination intended to win Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghan war.

For its part, the US, seeking to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, has not included that militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the US has assassinated a major Afghan Taliban leader inside the militia leadership’s sanctuary, Pakistan, was in 2016 when a drone strike killed the new chief after he adamantly opposed any peace talks.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul last month on his way back from New Delhi, claimed that reconciliation efforts with the Taliban had gained “traction”. But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the US as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. Through battlefield victories, the Taliban have already gained the momentum against government forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive.

An emboldened Taliban, in the recent talks in Qatar, demanded a timeframe for an “end to the US occupation” and removal of all Taliban leaders from US sanctions lists. Meanwhile, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, Washington has advised Afghan troops to pull back from sparsely populated areas and focus instead on safeguarding cities. Consequently, not only have vast swaths of Afghanistan become no-go zones, but also the priority accorded to force protection is signalling a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban are the new avenues of support from Russia, Iran and China. But while Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat before establishing contact with the militia, China has always had a dubious approach toward the Taliban. When 9/11 happened, a Chinese delegation was in Kandahar signing an accord with the isolated Taliban regime. Now, seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, is the only power to pursue a consistently anti-Taliban policy. India is concerned that the US-Taliban direct talks, besides marginalizing the Afghan government, lend respectability to a terrorist organization that enforces medieval practices. But the US appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement.

However, an enduring peace deal appears unlikely as long as Pakistan continues playing a double game and the US refuses to go after the Taliban’s cross-border safe havens. The Trump team knows this and yet is seeking to repeat Obama-era failed efforts, including wooing the Taliban.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

No easy escape from Afghan war for Trump

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Russia, China and Iran now backing Taliban and stymieing U.S. peace efforts

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The U.S. will find it difficult to pull out of Afghanistan in the face of increased foreign support for the Taliban.   © Reuters

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

Not for the first time, the U.S. is showing signs of desperation in trying to end its war in Afghanistan, by renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Taliban and — yet again — reviewing combat strategy.

Ending the longest war in American history, which marks its 17th anniversary on Oct. 7, appears integral to President Donald Trump’s broader plan to roll back America’s “imperial overreach” — the phenomenon of a great power going into decline when it takes on excessive global commitments.

In contrast to China’s use of economic tools to achieve strategic objectives, the U.S. has too often reached for the gun instead of the purse. Many in Washington now believe U.S. retrenchment must include staying out of faraway wars and making allies pay their fair share for defense.

In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration ended the CIA’s covert operations to train and arm rebels in Syria — a large-scale program that had begun under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Ironically, it was Obama who in 2013 underscored the danger of perpetual war for U.S. power by recalling the warning of America’s fourth president, James Madison, that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Today, extricating the U.S. from the military quagmire in Afghanistan is seen as important to reversing America’s relative decline, including focusing on domestic renewal. A year ago, Trump acknowledged that his “original instinct was to pull out” but that he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida.” Now, with U.S. patience wearing thin, his administration has stepped up efforts to end the war.

But international geopolitics promises to play spoilsport. U.S. foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Afghan Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to America’s main battlefield foe, the Afghan Taliban, seems intent to continue running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a U.S. ally while harboring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Afghan Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after U.S. forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. According to one estimate, the daily fatality toll among Afghan security forces has jumped from 22 in 2016 to about 57 recently. Both Kabul and Washington now admit that Afghan casualties have risen to unsustainable levels.

About 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, including 4,000 added by Trump, plus some 26,000 American military contractors.

Trump, instead of the promised fundamentally different approach, is now seeking to essentially repeat Obama’s failed effort — to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which the U.S. needs the full backing of Pakistan’s powerful generals. To win their support, the U.S. has assassinated three successive chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban, a group that poses no real threat to American forces but is the nemesis of the Pakistan military.

After the latest killing in May, which came about four months after Washington cut most security assistance to Pakistan, the U.S. held face-to-face talks in July with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar.

The Obama administration first sought to make Qatar’s capital, Doha, a negotiations hub by allowing the Afghan Taliban to establish a de facto diplomatic mission there in 2013.

To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not included the militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the U.S. has assassinated a major Afghan Taliban leader inside the militia leadership’s sanctuary, Pakistan, was in 2016 when a drone strike killed the new chief after he adamantly opposed any peace talks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul recently on his way back from New Delhi, said reconciliation efforts with the militia had gained “traction.”

But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the U.S. as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. The Taliban have gained the momentum against regime forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive. Taliban battlefield victories are denting government morale and making it less likely that the insurgents will agree to a deal.

Washington, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks, has advised Afghan troops to pull back from vulnerable outposts and focus on safeguarding cities. Making force protection the priority clearly signals a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban is new support from Russia, Iran and China. With U.S. sanctions hurting the Iranian and Russian economies and Trump’s trade war against China potentially laying the foundation of a new Cold War, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to step up pressure on the U.S.

The revival of the “Great Game” — the 19th-century Anglo-Russian rivalry for Central Asian influence — makes it harder to pacify war-torn Afghanistan. Behind the changed geopolitics is a major role reversal.

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan used Islam as a tool to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with the CIA arming thousands of Afghan mujahedeen — violent jihadists that later spawned al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat and aided the 2001 U.S. overthrow of the five-year-old Taliban regime. But now Russia and Iran are seeking to assist the Taliban against the shaky, U.S.-backed Kabul government.

Meanwhile, China has long had a dubious approach toward the militia. On the day of the 2001 New York World Trade Center terrorist attack, a Chinese delegation signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement with the isolated Taliban regime in its de facto capital, Kandahar.

Seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban. It has received Taliban delegations in recent years and offered to mediate peace talks. The Taliban has promised not to attack China’s much-delayed, $3 billion project to mine huge copper deposits at Mes Aynak, near Kabul.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, has pursued a consistently anti-Taliban policy. Despite its warming ties with Washington, India is concerned that U.S. direct talks with the Taliban could lend respectability to a fanatical terrorist organization.

But the U.S. clearly appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement. But the spoiler roles of Russia, China and Iran and the Taliban’s battlefield successes make such a deal less likely. As American senator John McCain predicted before his death, the conflict in Afghanistan would continue “on a low-burning simmer for a long time to come.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”