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Trump and Tillerson: bomb the Taliban to the negotiating table

The latest US plan for Afghanistan: increase the violence in order to end it

Following the lengthy discussions in Camp David which I discussed in my previous article, US President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson published on Monday separate statements about the war in Afghanistan.

The focus of attention, understandably enough, has been on President Trump’s statement, though it is Secretary of State Tillerson’s statement and his subsequent answers to the media which is actually more interesting.

Firstly, there is a clear difference between Trump and Tillerson.  Though after lengthy discussions a consensus has clearly been reached, there is no disguising the difference in their views both about the course of the war and about the role of the Taliban in a future Afghanistan.

Trump’s emphasis is heavily on military measures, and though contrary to expectations he did not announce a specific increase in troop numbers, he spoke clearly in terms of achieving victory

First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.  The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory.  They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win……

Our troops will fight to win.  We will fight to win.  From now on, victory will have a clear definition:  attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge……

Many of those who have fought and died in Afghanistan enlisted in the months after September 11th, 2001.  They volunteered for a simple reason:  They loved America, and they were determined to protect her.

Now we must secure the cause for which they gave their lives.  We must unite to defend America from its enemies abroad.  We must restore the bonds of loyalty among our citizens at home, and we must achieve an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid.

Our actions, and in the months to come, all of them will honor the sacrifice of every fallen hero, every family who lost a loved one, and every wounded warrior who shed their blood in defense of our great nation.  With our resolve, we will ensure that your service and that your families will bring about the defeat of our enemies and the arrival of peace.

We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts, courage in our souls, and everlasting pride in each and every one of you.

(bold italics added)

In contrast to all this fighting talk from Trump, Tillerson frankly admits that military victory is unachievable

I think the President was clear this entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.

(bold italics added)

Both Trump and Tillerson say they favour a political solution to the Afghan war, but there is a clear difference in how they expect to achieve it.

Tillerson’s idea is that peace will come through a peace settlement negotiated with the Taliban after the Taliban have been convinced that they cannot win

I think the President was clear this entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you. And so at some point we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end……

When we say no preconditions on the talks, I think what we are saying is, look, the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban representatives need to sit down and sort this out. It’s not for the U.S. to tell them it must be this particular model, it must be under these conditions, and I think that’s what the President means when he says we’re no longer nation building. We’re – look, we’ve tried taking certain principles and forms around the world and sometimes it works; in a lot of places, it doesn’t work.

We don’t know what’s going to emerge here. We’re going to be there, obviously, to encourage others. But it’s going to be up to the Afghan Government and the representatives of the Taliban to work through a reconciliation process of what will serve their needs and achieve the American people’s objectives, which is security – no safe haven for terrorists to operate anywhere in Afghanistan now or in the future.

(bold italics added)

Trump by contrast sees the war ending differently, with Afghanistan regenerating itself and achieving peace and stability under US protection

In this struggle, the heaviest burden will continue to be borne by the good people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces.  As the prime minister of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us.

Afghanistan is fighting to defend and secure their country against the same enemies who threaten us.  The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do.  Afghans will secure and build their own nation and define their own future.  We want them to succeed…..

Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country.  But strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.

Unlike Tillerson, whilst Trump is prepared to countenance talks with the Taliban, he does so with no expectations and little conviction

Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.  America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field.

(Bold italics added)

Note that this does no envisage a settlement with the Taliban as a whole – which is what Tillerson clearly wants and expects – but with ‘moderate’ elements which can be hived off from it.

On one point Trump and Tillerson both agree: huge extra pressure will be brought to bear on Pakistan to close down the Taliban’s base areas and supply lines.  Moreover in order to achieve this both Trump and Tillerson are willing to scare Pakistan by conjuring up the spectre of Indian intervention in Afghanistan in support of the US backed government there.

I think those who say that Trump and Tillerson are oblivious to Pakistani sensitivity about Indian intervention in Afghanistan are completely wrong.  This is clearly a carefully thought out strategy discussed at length at Camp David by the entire US leadership of pressuring Pakistan by using India to scare it.

However though the strategy is thought out it could not in my opinion be more wrong.

Anyone familiar with the present public mood in Pakistan knows that public opinion in this once staunchly pro-American country has been completely alienated over the last 40 years as a result of the way Pakistan’s interests have been repeatedly sacrificed as the US pursues its own constantly fluctuating objectives in Afghanistan at Pakistan’s expense.

US pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban in Pakistan is certain to encounter strong resistance, and if it leads to a crackdown it could easily spiral into violence.

That ought to be a major concern.  It is not so long ago that a US inspired crackdown in Pakistan during the period of the George W. Bush administration provoked so much resistance that Pakistan’s stability appeared to be threatened.  Given that Pakistan is a nuclear power avoiding that happening again ought to be a priority.  Trump and Tillerson and presumably the rest of the US leadership however seem either indifferent or oblivious to the danger.

As for using Pakistan’s fear of India to try to gain leverage over Pakistan, given the level of regional tension in the Indian subcontinent it is difficult to imagine anything more reckless.

Not only will Pakistan be made to feel that the US and India are ganging up against it – with the feeling of betrayal being especially acute given that Pakistan consistently sided with the US against the USSR and India often at considerable cost to itself during the Cold War – but the almost inevitable reaction within Pakistan will be to intensify opposition to a US policy in Afghanistan which favours India over Pakistan.

As for India, whilst no doubt for a while it will play along, Indian opinion – which is both well-informed and highly sophisticated – will have no difficulty seeing that India is being used, and will in time come to resent the fact.

The end result will be to increase regional tensions in the Indian subcontinent over and above their already dangerously high levels, something which given how India and Pakistan feel about each other and given that they are both nuclear powers, is extraordinarily unwise and absolutely not in the US’s best interests.

Perhaps the often spoken of fear of an Indian-Pakistani nuclear war breaking out is exaggerated, but in so tense a region the proper policy ought to be to try to calm regional tensions down, not to make them worse.  Making them worse however seems to be what the US has decided to do.

In truth the only sensible policy for the US to follow is to negotiate with the Taliban without preconditions, with the objective being to achieve an orderly transfer of power to a broad based government capable of peace to Afghanistan, which means one in which the Taliban has the predominant role.

That is the logic of Tillerson’s statement that the US is “unable to win” in Afghanistan.

Obviously the Taliban cannot defeat the US militarily.  However it does not have to.  Henry Kissinger made precisely this point about the conflict in Vietnam in the 1960s, and – following through the logic of Tillerson’s statement – it applies exactly to the war against the Taliban which is being fought in Afghanistan now

We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their armed forces the way a bull-fighter uses his cape — to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance

(bold italics added)

The military escalation President Trump has announced and which Secretary of State Tillerson endorses will not end the war in Afghanistan on US terms.  It will not ‘force’ the Taliban to accept US terms, and it will not force Pakistan to do what the US wants.

What it will do is escalate the war, just as US attempts in the 1960s to cut off North Vietnam’s supply lines through Laos and Cambodia by bombing and engineering coups in those countries ended up spreading the Vietnam war across Indochina.

Already even the “moderate” and “realist” Tillerson is hinting at exactly this, saying things which quite openly point to US ‘special operations’ to ‘take out’ Taliban fighters anywhere in Pakistan.

…..the President has been clear that we are going to protect American troops and servicemen. We are going to attack terrorists wherever they live, and we have put people on notice that if you are harboring and providing safe haven to terrorists, be warned. Be forewarned. And we’re going to engage with those who are providing safe haven and ask them to change what they’re doing and help

It would be difficult to imagine anything more likely to inflame Pakistani opinion or spread the violence further than hit-and-run attacks across the length and breadth of Pakistani territory (not just the North West Frontier region), but that it seems is what we are going to get.

The US made a catastrophic error in 2001 when it conflated the Taliban with Al-Qaeda.  In reality these are two different and wholly separate organisations – the first exclusively Afghan, the second overwhelmingly Arab – the vast majority of whose members neither like nor cooperate with each other.

In 2001 the great majority of Taliban commanders, and the overwhelming majority of Afghanistan’s Muslim clergy, were appalled at the way Al-Qaeda deceived them and abused their hospitality by using Afghanistan without their knowledge or permission as a base from which to launch terrorist attacks against the US.

Afghanistan’s Muslim clergy – the ulema – asked Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan immediately, and there is no doubt that that was what most Taliban commanders also wanted.  Several of them actually contacted the US via Pakistan and told the US as much.

The Taliban’s leader – Mullah Mohammed Omar – was reluctant to hand Osama bin Laden over to the US,  Osama being Omar’s personal friend, and Omar being influenced by Osama’s personal assurances that he had not been involved in the 9/11 attacks.

However under intense pressure from his commanders and from Afghanistan’s Muslim clergy Omar eventually relented and made it known that he would accept the ‘guidance’ of the ulema, with the caveat that Osama should leave Afghanistan ‘voluntarily’ ‘of his own accord’ for trial before an Islamic court in some other Muslim country.

Given a little patience the deal that could have been done is plain to see.

Osama and his followers would have had no option but to leave Afghanistan ‘voluntarily’ if Omar and the Taliban had withdrawn their protection and told them it was their ‘wish’ to see them go.

As soon as Osama and his followers left Afghanistan they would have been arrested by the authorities of whatever Muslim country they had gone to.  In 2001 that would undoubtedly have been Pakistan.

Since Osama and his followers would in effect have been publicly expelled from Afghanistan there would have been no question of them going to ground or entering Pakistan in secret.  On the contrary their transfer from Afghanistan to Pakistan would undoubtedly have been negotiated by the Taliban and the Pakistani authorities.

Thereafter what would have followed would have been the Pakistanis handing Osama and his followers over to the US, possibly after some pro forma judgment had been obtained from some Islamic court authorising them to be sent there.

In 2001 there was no possibility of Pakistan acting otherwise, and it is a certainty that if Osama’s transfer from Afghanistan to Pakistan had been agreed between the Taliban and the Pakistani authorities, the Pakistani authorities would in time have handed him over to the US.

At that point, with Osama handed over to the US by the actions of two Muslim states (Pakistan and Afghanistan) Al-Qaeda and its toxic Jihadi ideology would have been visibly rejected by the world’s Muslims and would have promptly collapsed, Osama and his followers would have been put on trial in the US – resolving any remaining doubts about their precise role in 9/11 – and the whole catastrophic ‘War on Terror’ would have been avoided.

In return – after a decent interval – the US and the ‘international community’ would have recognised Afghanistan’s Taliban government, in which case Afghanistan might have become a peaceful country and a friend of the US.

There is nothing farfetched about this scenario.  On the contrary it was the outcome to which the diplomatic moves underway at the time were clearly leading towards.  All it needed was a little time and a little patience and it would have happened.

Instead, though not a single one of the 9/11 hijackers was an Afghan, and though no evidence has ever come to light that any commander or official of the Taliban had anything to do with 9/11, Afghanistan was attacked, Osama escaped, Al-Qaeda survived, the ‘War on Terror’ began, and the rest is history.

Nothing done today can undo the mistakes of the past.  However there is no reason or excuse to go on repeating those mistakes.  Doing so simply prolongs the war to no purpose, which is actually a crime.  That however is what Trump and Tillerson and the the rest of the US leadership have chosen to do.

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