President Donald Trump rang in the new year with a Twitter salvo directed at Pakistan, claiming that Washington has given Islamabad more than $33 billion in aid after 9/11, but has only received “lies and deceit” in return. The administration has since announced the suspension of military assistance to Pakistan. An unnamed State Department official has described the suspension as reversible should the Pakistani military take desired action against the Haqqani Network.
The Trump administration appears to be moving toward a strategy of compellence toward Pakistan. It may be nonviolent right now, but could include lethal covert action, both visible (e.g. drone attacks) and less visible, and yield a series of unintended consequences that push the bilateral relationship beyond the point of no return.
The asymmetries of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship may drive some in Washington to believe in the promise of compellence. But these asymmetries are counterveiled by mutual dependencies and other factors, including geography and salience.
The United States does the cause of stabilizing Afghanistan no good by externalizing blame for the failing war or attributing it to a single insurgent network. The future of Afghanistan is bleak. Regardless of what American officials say, the United States can easily walk away from Afghanistan without injuring itself. But it is regional states that will bear the fallout from the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan—a disaster that has American and Afghan fingerprints all over it.
The cycle of violence in Afghanistan is moving in an untenable direction. The Taliban now control or contest over 43 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, encompassing most of the outer perimeter of the country. Civilian deaths due to coalition bombing rise. Afghan security forces are dying in record-breaking numbers. Washington is arming more unwieldy militias with weapons. The documented Afghan economy has come to a standstill. Economic growth is surpassed by population growth. But drug production soars. Worst of all, Afghanistan’s leaders are heading toward confrontation with one another as the Trump administration looks on vainglorious and indolent.
The bitter truth about Afghanistan is this: the relative stability Afghanistan experienced in the initial years post–9/11 will likely prove to be an exception, not the rule, in the country’s post–1973 history. Afghanistan’s old wounds—no longer bandaged by U.S. dollar bills—are opening once again. They, along with a resilient insurgency, will consume the country. American introspection combined with cooperation with regional states may stave off an ugly civil war in Afghanistan.
The Region Speaks
Recent actions by regional states amount to a vote of no confidence in the U.S.-led strategy for Afghanistan. Virtually all of Afghanistan’s neighbors are taking active measures to prevent instability and violence from the country spilling into their own.
Last month, Tajikistan closed its border with northern Afghanistan after two of its border police officers were killed by Afghan drug traffickers. During this period, Russia delivered military hardware to the Tajik border with Afghanistan, to help Dushanbe control the border region.
In December, China—Afghanistan’s neighbor to the northeast—said that it would provide $85 million to support a mountainous Afghan army brigade to secure the border province of Badakhshan, the former anti-Taliban bastion where the militant group has made significant inroads since 2013. Chinese security forces have reportedly been conducting patrols inside Badakhshan since at least 2016.
There is also trouble in western Afghanistan. In late December, a commander with Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps claimed that Tehran conducted a unilateral operation in Afghan territory to free an Iranian captive. The Taliban have a strong presence along Afghanistan’s western frontier with Iran—due in part to support from Iranian intelligence.
And then there is Pakistan—the locus of Trump’s ire—which will spend over $100 million to fence its border with Afghanistan and line it with additional security posts. Pakistan presently has roughly one thousand posts along its border with Afghanistan and will add hundreds more. It will sustain a troop presence of around two hundred thousand along the Afghan border, complemented by the paramilitary Frontier Corps.
Afghanistan, in comparison, has around two hundred posts along the border with Pakistan. There is a four hundred mile stretch in southern Afghanistan where the Afghan government has no border posts—astonishing for a country that complains of cross-border insurgent inflows and has received $70 billion in assistance to build its security forces.
Make Afghanistan Great Again
As Afghanistan’s neighbors work to insulate themselves from the country’s possible implosion, the U.S.-backed Afghan government continues to do itself no favors in the fight against the Taliban. Afghanistan’s western-educated President Ashraf Ghani was thought to have transcended the authoritarianism, irredentist revisionism, and myopic tribalism of his country’s elite. But he has instead quickly internalized those characteristics.
Ghani began his tenure with a courageous attempt at striking a new chapter in relations with Pakistan, which eventually brought the Taliban to the negotiation table—but the process was sabotaged by members of his government.