America's Exit Strategy for Afghanistan is Flawed

An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier keeps watch at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

It is time for America to end a militarized process that had its inception with the reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan decades ago.

Second, the Taliban are feeling more “isolated” now, albeit some factions more than others. Financing is not as strong; money flowing from the Gulf slowed. The Taliban also has little positive to show society despite a prolonged commitment to fighting. These factors, coupled with a population desiring peace, may account for the Taliban not immediately rejecting a recent Afghan plan that offered little new.

Third, America’s financial constraints on Pakistan, including orchestrating another Financial Action Task Force clampdown, impels further slippage into China’s orbit. That is undesirable to Pakistan given the way China doles out its aid; the same is true with respect to Saudi financial dependency, even when supportive. American aid remains a highly valued counterweight; constraints on it, properly calibrated, could soften adverse Pakistani positions despite mutual mistrust.

While these circumstances open the window for the ongoing peace initiative, how do we actually proceed to find common ground?

The Path Forward

An initial step will be creating a new monetary equation: instead of mission-based compensation fueling the appetite for dollars, future financial flow should be tied to achieving peace. The recalculation requires creating a near-term vision of what peace will bring, triggered by milestones for release of benefits, including the U.S. military exit. This organizing principle effectively reverses U.S. step-by-step practice by advancing to ultimate issue consideration first. It means America should ready a tangible vision of the peaceful future it will back with dollars, rather than pursue militarily until “prevailing” by some political definition.

The timing for such a proposal, through a “peace jirga”or otherwise, is to be guided by another principle of action—proper sequencing. To compromise Taliban support networks sufficiently to ripen peace’s appeal, America first needs to fix the price for ending Pakistan’s “double game.” Additional U.S. coercion may well set up that negotiation, but is unlikely to achieve it absent sufficient incentive. How would it be different this time, though, after tens of billion in aid have not secured it in the past?

The answer is that the negotiation is conducted in circumstances with greater risk. A halt in U.S. aid and the application of further sanctions are clear and present dangers; taken far enough they push Pakistan into becoming China’s de facto vassal. Pakistan’s dependency on U.S. military spare parts is another key point of vulnerability that could be threatened. Being outflanked on its western border by India is an ongoing threat. India's increasing aid to Afghanistan, including militarily, ominously compromises Pakistan’s“strategic depth.” The real existential threat is less from Indian nucs than from new boundary lines being drawn, with American accommodation, through India’s support of Baluchistan independence, and Pukhtun unrest spiraling to erase the Durand line’s separating buffer. Punjab fear of being “Bangla Desh’d” again is a recurring nightmare.