As the United States enters its seventeenth annual fighting season in Afghanistan, the endgame seems no closer. America continues to try to club the Taliban into talking; they endeavor to expel us. America ratchets up financial coercion against Pakistan seeking fuller cooperation; Pakistan hedges its bets in facing existential threats. Since continuing violence in Afghanistan is inextricably intertwined with Pakistan, a “package deal” is necessary to close America’s military campaign in South Asia. Yet, agreement has proven elusive through multiple administrations, with recycled proposals failing.
America’s continuing commitment to force signals there will be no “walk away” this time, unlike Iraq. The Trump administration currently weighs harsher penalties on Pakistan to protect U.S. personnel and interests in the region. However, coercion alone will not end the fighting or bring security. The issue is how the alignment of force and circumstance facilitates pursuit of peace. The answer should yield our principles of action to achieve security.
Where Are We Now?
The starting point is acknowledgement that as long as our troops are there, which is indeterminate , violence will continue. After these many years of war, America must recognize that its military deployment continues to act as a force multiplier for the opposition. Likewise, while others think that America seeks to impose its governance and values on them, opposition will persist. U.S. efforts sustain the quagmire ; they do not end it.
Complicating the exit strategy is a failure to communicate effectively what will permit the United States to leave Afghanistan. Pakistan still professes bewilderment at U.S. ultimate goals and strategy alike. There remains suspicion that America seeks a permanent base in Afghanistan. There also is concern the United States seeks to destabilize Pakistan to block China and the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor, including by its failure to restrain India from fermenting unrest in Baluchistan . In Pakistan, mistrust runs so deep some think we want to neutralize their nuclear deterrent through cyber manipulation.
Unifying clarity of purpose with deeds is needed to engage Pakistan as a necessary party to ending regional warfare. As surely as peace in Afghanistan has been impaired by Pakistan, it is equally assured that none will be made or endure without it. Yet, punitive measures alone, even with multilateral diplomatic pressure , will not promote peace without sufficient upside. “Feeding at the trough,” however, is another significant impediment to peace—facilitated by the U.S. mission based tasking of the Pakistani military. There was always more money for them, which incentivized prolonging the conflict.
Still, opportunity arises from several developments. First, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) will merge into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province. The Pakistani army’s control over fertilizer distribution to curb fueling IED attacks on allied troops across the border gave it the power of food over FATA’s populace. Piling that on top of Soviet style occupation, while imposing collective responsibility, had draconian effect. Public opinion over FATA’s future now tilts in favor of assimilation , providing political cover for consolidation once the population is deemed “ready.” Ethnic based civic unrest percolates though as grievance visibly grows . Meanwhile, the militant “pressure cooker” releases steam westward to fight us in Afghanistan and eastward in Kashmir , while quieting FATA and K-P to help preserve peace in between in Punjab. That army “success” erodes the ISI’s “Islamic incubator” in FATA because of the blowback threat it engendered.
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.