Objectives and consequences of US new strategy in Afghanistan
The new US strategy targets the whole region rather than Afghanistan alone. The designers of this strategy seek to create a new arrangement of the regional actors in a bid to maintain the US hegemony over the emerging powers, something that may divide the region into the eastern and western blocs.
By: Javid Hosseini
US President Donald Trump has announced his strategy for the war in Afghanistan which is one of the most important issues he has inherited. Despite Trump's campaign rhetoric which focused on inward-look policy and his opposition to US military presence in Afghanistan, he surrendered to a system that outlines US strategy based on current competitions and realities in the international scene. National Security Adviser McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Commander of the US Army in Afghanistan John Nicholson -- three US army generals who have served in the war in Afghanistan-- imposed their views on White House strategists and caused the continued presence of US forces in Afghanistan. So Trump reaffirmed a continued US military presence in Afghanistan, arguing that a hasty withdrawal from the South Asian country would have negative consequences and that Decision making must be condition- based not set to a timetable. In this strategy, Afghanistan was no longer designated in the context of AfPak region and its case was examined along with other South Asian nations, Pakistan received harsh warnings for allegedly supporting terrorist groups, and despite fierce regional competition, India has been declared as US regional partner in Afghanistan. This article seeks to find what will be the possible objectives and consequences of this strategy for Afghanistan – a country which Pakistan has defined as its strategic depth, and China, Iran and Russia's backyard have common borders with it. The hypothesis is that the United States intends to confront the powers which seek to challenge it –namely Russia and China-- in order to maintain its hegemony. According to this hypothesis, the United States is seeking to implement its new strategy with a new array of actors in Afghanistan and the region.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the bipolar world order collapsed as well and was replaced by a unipolar and hegemonic order. The United States has managed to keep this world order by using soft and hard power in order to expand and maintain its hegemony. However in recent years, state and non-state actors who oppose some US policies have posed a serious challenge to the world’s superpower.
During the Obama’s administration, The United States responded to these rivalries and threats in a soft way (Multilateralism and coalition building). This approach caused the great powers to establish their views in a different manner, and entered China and Russia more powerfully in international interactions. Obama considered the use of military force only for specific, short-term, and targeted operations. Critics started to call this approach a “strategic patience” which led to the display of Russia and China’s strength in the South China Sea, Ukraine’s Crimea as well as Syria vis-à-vis the United States. With the Republicans’ rise to power, who opposed Obama's policies especially his strategy for the war in Afghanistan, it seems that the country's new strategy for the region has been revised.
The theoretical framework of this research study is Offensive Realism. With the theoretical evolution of the school of Realism, security studies researchers have presented two analysis of Neorealism which has resulted in two theories of Defensive and Offensive Realism. With these changes, this school has become more security-oriented. Offensive Realism is based on the following principles:
- Offensive Realists, alike traditional Realists, believe that due to the anarchic nature of the international system, controversy is inevitable in the international system. In other words, they believe anarchy has a significant importance, in which security is insufficient and governments seek to achieve it by maximizing their relative advantages.
- Offensive Realists regard governments as key actors in the international system whose main goal is to gain power in order to achieve security to ensure their survival; In other words, they believe that governments have the inherent power to invade others because their survival depends on adopting aggressive measures. Since the governments’ intentions are not clear, failing to adopt offensive measures will jeopardize the state’s survival. The followers of this school of thought believe that governments live in a world which is full of threats, and that they are modules which tend to maximize their power in order to survive. This relative increase of power which is tantamount to gaining power, is detrimental to others. In other words, governments are in a state of permanent insecurity and they always distrust other countries because any moment one of them may take an action which undermines their security.
-From the standpoint of Offensive Realists, relative power is more important to governments because anarchy forces governments to maximize their relative power or influence. In the eyes of Offensive Realists, the impact of the international system on governments is based on the views of Neoclassical Realists. That is, they believe that the system affects the actors indirectly and in a complex manner.
-From the perspective of Offensive Realists, a steady increase in power is one of the main objectives of political units. For those who believe in Offensive Realism, the constant increase in power is a priority which countries can achieve maximum security in the light of it. John [Joseph] Mearsheimer believes that the leaders of countries should pursue those security policies which weaken their potential enemies and increase their power in comparison to other countries. In his opinion, if a country wants to survive, it must be a good Offensive Realist because from the Offensive Realists’ point of view, the competitive nature of international relations keeps intensifying, and therefore it is necessary for countries to constantly increase their power to such an extent that no country can attack them.
Overall, according to the theory of Offensive Realism, whenever the world powers, especially a global hegemonic power, think that their power has gradually weakened due to various reasons, they will try to revive their strength by any means possible.
Geopolitical game in Afghanistan
History shows that Afghanistan's geopolitics has the potential for great powers’ competition. The Great game of the 19th century between Great Britain and Russia, as well as the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States took place over Afghanistan. Today, the competition between three superpowers—namely the United States, Russia and China --has affected a range of economic and security issues across the globe. US new strategy in South Asia, unlike Obama’s multilateral approach, is moving toward unilateralism. The main goal of this strategy is to slow China and Russia’s growing influence in the region, as well as Iran and probably Pakistan’s.
Indian regional hegemony
One of Pakistan's main concerns in the region is the spread of Indian regional hegemony in Afghanistan and South Asia. This issue is more worrying than the Durand Line. In fact, Pakistan understands that it is not possible to disrupt the controversial border in the current international system, and therefore its main focus is to prevent the spread of Indian influence in South Asia, particularly in Afghanistan. Pushing India to play a more active role in Afghanistan is the most notable change in US new strategy in South Asia. Trump, who had condemned and threatened Pakistan for supporting militant groups, praised India's constructive role in Afghanistan. Trump called on India to help boost Afghanistan’s development, and stressed that Washington would be committed to advancing the common interests with India in South Asia.
Afghanistan and India signed a strategic agreement in 2016, and are now enjoying warm relations. India, one of the largest donors to Afghanistan with more than $ 2 billion in aid, has laid the groundwork for such a relationship over the past 16 years. India has smoothly established itself as a powerful player in Afghanistan and now it has the necessary elements for participation in US strategy. New Delhi and Washington’s long-lasting strategic relations, which were balanced Because of Pakistan's considerations, are no longer the same due to Indian lobbying in the United States, particularly in the Trump era, and therefore the United States has chosen this emerging power as its regional partner in order to implement its new strategy.
Russia is regarded as one of the most important geopolitical challenges the United States is facing in its foreign policy in terms of shaping a Western-oriented world order. In recent years, Russia has been able to challenge the hegemony of the United States while demonstrating its power in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
According to Halford [John] Mackinder’s geopolitical theory, Central Asia (which is considered Russia’s backyard) is part of the Heartland that dominating it will mean dominate the whole world. Therefore, American theorists, including Brzezinski, have always suggested that American leaders should infiltrate the region in order to maintain the country’s hegemony as a superpower.
Unlike the first years of the war in Afghanistan, Russia considers the United States and NATO’s presence in Central Asia in recent years a serious threat. The Russia’s National Security Strategy 2016 emphasized on the fact that Russian Federation's implementation of independent domestic and foreign policy has led to the opposition of the United States and its allies who seek to maintain their dominant role in world affairs, and that their policy of deterrence against Russia has exerted political, economic, military, and intelligence pressure on the country.
As a result, unlike first years, Russians have reacted negatively to US presence and its policies in Afghanistan in recent years. The emergence of a group called ISKP (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) in Afghanistan has added to Russia's concerns, as well as causing Russia to deeply distrusts the United States. Russia’s high-level security and political officials have pointed to ISKP threats over the past two years. While Russian officials rhetorically consider US policy in Afghanistan a failure and have questioned its presence in the South Asian country, practically they has entered a new phase of confrontation with the United States in Afghanistan by declaring its support for Taliban and allegedly providing arms and financial support to the militant group.
The result is that Russia and the United States are now confronting each other on the Afghan scene. It should also be taken into account that Russians are seeking to take harsh revenge against the United States in Afghanistan in their historical memory.
China is seen as a serious threat to economic dimensions of the Western-oriented world order. The Obama administration's rebalancing strategy with the aim of encircling China geopolitically in its eastern security environment, was a major bottleneck for Beijing. In response, Beijing in its National Defense White Paper 2015, listed the United States' presence in china’s surrounding security and defense environment as one of the biggest threats.
In recent years, Beijing and Washington have sought political alliances in order to balance against each other. In South Asia, Pakistan as a strategic ally of China, and India as a strategic ally of the United States, seek to neutralize each other’s power in the region.
China’s interest in strategic development toward its western security environment increased, especially by base Pakistan as the axis, and in fact Pakistan became the most important successful project of testing China’s new strategy. As a result, China managed to siege the United States’ most important strategic ally in the region: India.
Disrupting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)- which part of it worth over $ 50 billion passes through Pakistan and another part of it stretches across Afghanistan's northern border- could challenge the Chinese ambitious project by making this geography insecure. Some Pakistani officials have now claimed that some countries are threatening China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project by using militant groups. China's western Xinjiang region, close to Afghanistan's northeastern border, is also prone to unrest. In addition to the East Turkestan Movement militants, extremist forces returning from the Levant are also capable of spreading unrest in Xinjiang.
Afghanistan's conditions as a host
In the 16 years of US military presence in Afghanistan, the Obama-Karzai era has been a challenging time for Kabul-Washington relations, most of which have been rooted in US strategy and Obama's vision. Although during the National Unity Government, relations between the two countries have become warmer, there has been widespread criticism of US performance at different political and social strata of Afghanistan. The deepening security crisis as well as Pakistan's behind-the-scenes role in this crisis, has caused the political parties in Afghanistan and the Afghan Parliament to repeatedly voice their opposition to the ineffectiveness of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed with the United States, and to consider US presence in Afghanistan ineffective. Therefore, the continued presence of the United States in Afghanistan has requirements that US must take them into account. It seems there have been some changes in the US new strategy for Afghanistan, with the goal of improving the situation in line with the host’s wishes.
A. Return to the policy of fighting the militants
US strategy in Afghanistan changed during the Obama administration from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism. Consequently, the conflict with Taliban was removed from the US military agenda. The foreign forces’ role was restricted to mentoring and training, and the US and NATO troops’ mission was limited to the fight against al-Qaeda. Due to the fact that the Afghan army and police were unprepared, Taliban made significant gains after the complete assignment of security responsibilities to afghan forces. One of the changes in the new strategy is a gradual return to the strategy of fighting the militants, along with the continuation of counter-terrorism strategy. Trump's emphasis on suppressing Taliban and preventing the militant group from seizing Afghanistan, along with giving full authority to US military commanders, can be interpreted as a return to the strategy of fighting the Taliban. Raymond Tanter, a member of the US National Security Council in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, has also described Trump's decision to continue military operations along with relative increase in the number of military personnel, a gradual change in the US new strategy compared to Obama's era.
B. Confronting Pakistan
Afghan officials, including Hamid Karzai, have repeatedly said terrorism is not in Afghan villages, and in order to eradicate terrorism, attention must be paid beyond the Durand Line. Despite the fact and acknowledgement of some US military commanders that there are Taliban bases in Pakistan, as well as Pakistan's apparent missile strikes on Afghanistan, Washington has refused to put pressure on this major non-NATO ally. Indeed, the United States’ silence and inaction against Pakistan was one of the main factors in creating this challenges and critiques. But for the first time in 16 years, the United States has included one of Afghanistan's biggest requests in its strategy: threatening Pakistan for harboring militant groups. This was the most dramatic change in US position which was well-received. And perhaps because of this, Trump's new strategy has been well received in Afghanistan, and major political parties and ethnic groups in Afghanistan have expressed support for it.
C. Negotiating with Taliban after suppression
Contrary to Hamid Karzai's policies, the leaders of the National Unity Government support escalation of war against Taliban. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah do not oppose foreign forces' operations against Taliban positions. During Hamid Karzai's tenure, night operations as well as air attacks carried out by foreign forces were halted due to reasons such as civilian casualties. But with the green light given by the National Unity Government, the US and NATO forces resumed their attacks on Taliban. A wide range of people in Kabul believe that the Taliban militant group will start negotiating only when it is weakened. Trump's remarks were also in line with this viewpoint: After effective military measures, there may be conditions for the presence of Taliban elements in the Afghan political scene. Therefore under the new strategy, military superiority is pursued first, and then negotiations with Taliban.
However, various US officials are still considering Taliban's integration into the Afghan political scene. After announcing US new strategy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Taliban can garner political legitimacy if they engage in talks with the Afghan government, while urging the militant group to participate in intra-Afghan negotiations.
Overall, the new US strategy has satisfied the Afghans and it is expected that they be fully aligned with it.
Conclusion: New array of actors in the region
US new strategy is designed to curb American rivals and to maintain the country’s hegemony in the region rather than being employed in Afghanistan. Unlike the past, when Pakistan was chosen as the United States’ regional partner, now this role has been given to India. With this new pick, the Kabul-New Delhi-Washington bloc will work together toward common goals and interests. Islamabad will lean toward Russia and China if it fails to persuade Washington to change its approach toward India, and the eastern bloc of Islamabad-Beijing-Moscow will be formed against the first bloc. Although this bloc has been formed some time ago, but US new strategy will define the borders more clearly.
Although Iran participated in the Afghanistan Peace Summit, which was launched by the Eastern bloc’s countries, but its participation does not mean it seeks to join these nations, and so far there is no strong sign of such an attempt. The role of Central Asian countries, particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is also influential.
Pakistan's anger after Donald Trump's remarks suggests that Pakistanis have understood that India's hegemony in South Asia poses a serious threat. Pakistan's reactions can be divided into two overt and covert categories. Overtly, Pakistan has begun its diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the United States, among them are preventing the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) from traveling to Islamabad, and Pakistan officials travel to countries in the region to to discuss the US new strategy. Another measure that could be used as one of Pakistan's important tools to put pressure on the United States is to block the main NATO supply route into Afghanistan. The tool has proved effective in the past, and has faced the United States and its allies with crisis, especially in terms of supplying fuel.
Pakistan's covert reaction can be inferred through militant groups. Numerous Militant groups aligned with the Pakistani military are in Afghanistan and the border areas, which will intensify their attacks, especially their targeted ones. Foreign forces, especially US troops, are expected to be more targeted, and Pakistan is likely to provide Taliban and other groups with new weapons- including shoulder-fired missiles- in order to overcome NATO air force (which is the factor of superiority in war).
At the same time, Taliban will intensify their attacks to defend themselves.
Therefore, the most important short-term consequence of this strategy is the further escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which, of course, provides an opportunity for Militant groups to recruit more fighters. Given the emergence of a group called ISKP in the geography of Afghanistan, it is expected that as the war intensifies, the group will have more chances to grow and the countries which support it will have more opportunities to achieve their goals.
Given the objectives that this strategy pursues in Afghanistan and the region, and given the possible reactions, two scenarios can be predicted for the consequences of this strategy in the long run.
A. Opposition scenario
The first scenario is the strong opposition of state and non-state actors in the region to the US new strategy. Among state actors, Pakistan is expected to show strong resistance to the strategy in which India will become the region's hegemon. As mentioned before, Pakistan has various overt and covert tools to challenge the US strategy. According to the theory of Aggressive Realism, as China's economic and military growth is also one of the objectives of US strategy in the region, Beijing will overtly and covertly assist Pakistan in order to challenge US strategy. Russia, which is also at odds with the United States in many parts of the world, understands that infiltrating its backyard and seeking alliance with countries under its influence is one of the objectives of this strategy. Therefore, Moscow will seek to challenge this strategy. Moscow may retaliate against US troops by repeating the same game the United States played during the Cold War which brought the Soviet armed forces to its knees in Afghanistan. Russia's relationship with the Taliban may be the result of understanding the danger and preparing for this jeopardous game.
In this scenario, it is probable that the US uses militant groups, especially ISKP, against the above mentioned countries. Despite US fight against ISKP, some elements of the group which includes fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus, has been excluded from US attacks without any justification. There are no exact figures for these fighters, but according to some estimates by local sources, the number of these fighters who are mainly stationed in the northern provinces of Jawzjan, Faryab, Sar-e Pul and Takhar is more than 1,000. In addition, with the defeat of ISIL, the Uighur and Central Asian members of this terrorist group will return to their countries, and there is a possibility that they will be recruited and used for this game.
It seems that this situation (great powers competition in Afghanistan) will be similar to the Great Game of the 19th century and would exacerbate tension in Afghanistan and across the region.
B. Transaction scenario
The second possible scenario, which some experts such as Barnett Rubin former senior adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the US Department of State, recommended years ago, is "bargaining" instead of "big game." Negotiations between all Afghan actors and reaching an agreement.
Pakistan, as one of Afghanistan's most important actors, must be convinced to set aside its extravagance in Afghanistan and satisfy to its legitimate rights. As a non-state actor, Taliban may be persuaded to negotiate after military pressure. According to some Taliban sources, Mullah Akhtar Mansour realized that he should sit down at the negotiating table and give up the war in 2012, but the Some factors changed this policy.
Without doubt, Afghanistan's case will be the main focus of this scenario, and it is likely that major powers will discuss their differences at the negotiating table and make a deal. The most likely actor to deal with the United States is Russia.
According to this scenario, if peace talks are held in Afghanistan (in the form of the Contact Group negotiations or the Bonn conference) and the actors seek to achieve their legitimate rights in the light of it, one can expect Iran's participation in Afghanistan's peace talks in order to achieve its legitimate rights in this country as well as using Afghanistan's commercial and transit opportunities.
If this scenario continues, the state and non-state actors who are not align with the US are expected to align with each other to reduce the consequences of US presence in Afghanistan, and thereby adjusting the demands of this actor.
The United States is currently reconstructing its forces in Afghanistan; it seems that US first balances the weight in its favor through increasing its forces and then, given to field conditions, think of ways to get rid of the longest war. The next couple of years will be critical for Afghanistan and determinative for actors.
Javid Hosseini is a member of the scientific council of the Institute for East Strategic Studies