The United States under the Trump Administration seems to be undertaking a review of its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. The top military commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General John Nicolson Jr. has called for a holistic policy review towards Pakistan. While President Obama had declared that the official combat mission in Afghanistan was over in 2014, roughly 13,000 international troops, of them about 8,400 US troops remain in that country. However, General Nicolson has hinted the need to deploy a few thousand more troops of the US in Afghanistan if the war against terrorism is to be won. Up till now, hardly any specific details have emerged regarding the possible change in the stance of the US strategy towards Af-Pak region. What could be the reasons of a rethink of such policy? What are the factors shaping the new policy?

Will there be a change in the policy of the United States towards Afghanistan and Pakistan?
There are three concerns which are important pillars to address this rethink of policy. The first two concerns are intertwined, while the third remains a standalone due to its significance for the Americans.

  1. Is the Taliban ready for peace with Kabul? Are they willing to adopt some accommodative approach with Kabul under the leadership of Haibatullah? There are no definite answers to it yet.
  2. Is Pakistan ready to re-evaluate its basic thrust towards Afghanistan? It is about Pakistan having a preponderant influence over Afghanistan’s external policies, especially with India.
  3. What are the plans of the Russians and Iranians in the region? General Nicolson indicates in his testimony that they are embedded with the Taliban now and Taliban is carrying alien weaponry now.

Pakistan’s role in the Taliban issue –
The contemporary policy of the United States simply caters to a combination of a hard-line approach with incentivising Pakistan in the name of curbing extremism in Afghanistan.
The United States has to rethink if it can ever win its fight against Taliban if Pakistan does not end its support to the Taliban militant groups and other externally sponsored groups in Afghanistan. These groups retreat back to the safe soil in Pakistan after launching terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. These groups target foreigners, diplomatic and consular missions in order to gain attention and legitimacy in the terror business.
Pakistan is recalibrating its policy towards Taliban by regulating the ‘Ishaqzai’ faction of Taliban, due to strong factionalism prevailing in the Taliban regime. These elements hold considerable influence in the Taliban regime today amidst the growing despondency in the otherwise disintegrated terror module.
Pakistan is also trying to bring several powerful factions together to establish a stronger force of Taliban which would present long-lasting effects on the peace aspirations of Afghanistan and the region beyond it. Moreover, it is not a big secret anymore that all the factions of the Taliban are having linkages with Pakistan as they are based in Quetta (Pakistan). Pakistan can squeeze the Taliban regime on any day of their choice even to the extent of suffering a little backlash then.

What are the interests of the United States in the region? Are they limited to counter-terrorism?
NO, the interests are not confined to counter-terrorism alone. The primary interest of the United States is to ensure the stability of Pakistan because it is a nuclear weapon state and a fragile, if not a failing state. These concerns have crippled the American policy on Afghanistan since 2001.
President Trump has cast aspersions on the Russian and Iranian rapprochement towards the Taliban, whereas he is also concerned about the growing influence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). He is concerned about the growing export of radical extremists to the Islamic State militants in Syria by the TTP grouping.

What does a holistic review of American Af-Pak policy (as per General Nicolson’s terms) could actually mean?
Before addressing this question, let us understand that there are two main groups of Taliban which are active now – Mullah Rahim group and the other is Sirajuddin Haqqani network. The latter one lies low at present with a small presence in the east Afghanistan. But Mullah Rahim group is powerful in Helmand province and North and West Afghanistan.
Most ostensibly, the ‘holistic view’ would mean a hardening of the American stance to dismantle the Haqqani network, which is directly supported by Pakistan. But Pakistan seems to be not anxious about this position and it thinks that it is a business as usual for America to seek such favours. Defence Secretary General Mattis testifies that the US needs to engage with Pakistan and incentivise those responses, which is an ‘old wine in a new bottle’. At the most, there could be some muscle flexing and rhetoric to secure Pakistan’s cooperation, but it has already been done by the previous administrations.

Is there a possibility of more US troops in Afghanistan?
The war in Afghanistan is costing $13 million to the US taxpayers. The public is also against the United States playing the role of world policeman. But, General Nicolson has advocated maintaining a balance in the region by not letting the situation to get adverse to the Kabul authorities. He suggests that combat assistance is required at this time apart from following the training procedures. Given the strategic importance of the region, the US Congress may approve a few more thousand troops without much hassle.

How can America make costly for Pakistan for supporting Afghan Taliban?
Hudson Institute has called for a reevaluation of the United States policy towards Pakistan. It said that the Trump Administration should make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to satisfy regional strategic goals.
It is of prime importance to reign in the Haqqani network which is the brainchild of the Pakistani establishment. Another significant development could be driving the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. There could be a harsher approach in the following terms –

  • Reduction of economic and military support.
  • Increasing number of drone strikes on the Af-Pak border.
  • Sanctions against Pakistan-based entities and individuals who are responsible for terrorist activities in the region.
  • Moving towards declaring Pakistan, as a state sponsor of terrorism.
  • Extending the travel ban to Pakistan or at least forbidding certain individuals of Pakistani State authorities from entering the US soil.

These measures might not be adopted in the immediate future, especially in the context of the Hudson report. But the Trump Administration possess an enormous scope for embarrassing the Pakistani State for their immoral activities around the world.

But the concerns of America regarding Pakistan revolve around the Chinese support for Pakistan and Pakistan’s ability to sabotage American interests in a wider Islamic world. Hence, the room of manoeuvring for the Americans is severely constrained by such considerations. In symbolic terms, there could be some actions oriented towards embarrassing the Pakistani State, but in substantive terms, the choices are limited to raise the actual costs for Pakistan for its support to the terror dens.

What are the interests of the Russians in supporting the Taliban regime?
Trump administration should also keenly observe the developing nexus of Russia, China and Pakistan which could present a serious challenge to American authority in the region.
Some factions of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have morphed into Islamic State or Wilayat Khurasan inside to the eastern Nangarhar (Afghanistan). These elements could displace towards some disturbed regions of Chechnya in south-west Russia. Therefore, the strategic thinkers portray that this support for these groups is more of a quid-pro-quo than a direct support for oscillating terrorism on Afghan soil. But this policy is myopic because if you want to control the TTP, then the Russians should have contacted the Pakistanis because TTP is a Pakistan-based group, operating in Pakistan itself. Hence, it is compelling to believe that it is a large design of President Putin to take on the Americans in the same Afghan quagmire that fuelled the disintegration of USSR.

How does the United States Af-Pak policy concern India?
America has been welcoming towards India’s initiatives of helping the National Unity Government of Kabul in both economic and military terms. Any such policy would stay away from the Kashmir issue because the Americans have realised it historically that the experience of meddling in the internal affairs of India has not been fruitful in strategic terms. Moreover, the content of this change in approach has not yet come out of the box, so the crystal ball gazing might not be effective in addressing this critical issue through the lens of India.

Conclusion –
After President Trump came in, there were speculations that he would wield more sticks than the carrots towards the Taliban regime in general. As discussed earlier, before jumping to any conclusion or speculation, a lot more is to be seen in the Afghan theatre and how the opera directed by multiple actors plays out in the theatre before the Americans start ‘puppeteering‘ the stage.