An open-ended Afghan war can serve ‘America First’
US President Donald Trump’s reported decision to delegate the Afghan war to Defense Secretary James Mattis reflects smart thinking. The POTUS doesn’t have a military mind – unlike his predecessor Barack Obama.
The decision to delegate the war to the Pentagon generals should have been taken by Obama eight years ago when the war party comprising then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (plus the top brass) hustled him into sanctioning the famous “surge.”
Had he done that, once it transpired that the “surge” was getting nowhere, circa 2012, Obama could have taken matters into his own hands and wound up the war. Instead, he took the job as commander-in-chief seriously and over-strategized the war. Senator John McCain says Obama is responsible for the failure of the war.
Now, Trump’s decision puts the onus entirely on the Pentagon. Mattis claimed during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the “Taliban had a good year last year; they are trying to have a good one this year. Right now I believe the enemy is surging. We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. We will correct this as soon as possible.”
What he implied was that there are still ways of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. According to AFP, Mattis’s remarks prompted Trump to hand over to him the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan.
Indeed, why should Trump prevent Mattis from winning the Afghan war? It is a safe bet, too. The Pottery Barn rule expects Mattis to own the responsibility for the war.
So, the big question is: Does Mattis have a winning strategy? Mattis promised to return to the lawmakers by mid-July with one. However, he disclosed his mind just enough to trigger misgivings.
Mattis said, “We’re taking a regional approach to this. We’re looking at everything from the situation between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan; obviously Iran and that whole South Asia area.”
He essentially underscored that the Trump administration’s Afghan policy would factor in the impact of the tensions between India and Pakistan on the situation in Afghanistan. That’s a proposition that will go down well in Pakistan.
Of course, it is not a terribly original idea. It had occurred to Obama, too, initially, while appointing Richard Holbrooke as his administration’s special representative in 2009. But then, New Delhi threw tantrums, Obama retracted, and Holbrooke ended up merely as “AfPak” man – instead of “AfPakIn”.
Indeed, India and Pakistan are incapable (or unwilling) of behaving responsibly. At the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at Astana (June 8-9), the two prime ministers couldn’t even bring themselves to have a 15-minute conversation.
Meanwhile, the situation in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, which Pakistan regards as the core issue, remains explosive. The resulting India-Pakistan tensions, in turn, have spilled over to the Afghan turf. Pakistan fears that Kabul and Delhi have embarked upon a covert project across the Durand Line to destabilize it.
Pakistan’s expectation will be that the Trump administration should mediate a solution to the Kashmir dispute. It will see hope in Mattis’s words.
But then, the possibility of Delhi agreeing to US mediation to settle Kashmir is zero. The Hindu nationalists claim that the only thing to be discussed is the vacation of parts of Kashmir that are under Pakistani control.
Clearly, Mattis’s “regional approach” is a non-starter – unless Trump can persuade Prime Minister Modi otherwise when they meet in the White House on June 26. But Trump lacks the leverage to force Modi, and Russia will not allow the US to muzzle India. Doesn’t all this occur to Mattis’s erudite mind?
Meanwhile, new fault lines have appeared on the Afghan political landscape. On the one hand, Pashtun nationalism is on the ascendancy and a dramatic realignment of forces along tribal lines is under way. On the other hand, the inevitable ethnic backlash has also begun. Such undercurrents have a history of acquiring demonic fury in the Hindu Kush.
To be sure, US intelligence is clued in on the churnings in the sub-soil of Afghan tribal politics since the peace deal was concluded with the Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Earlier this week, Kabul’s garrison commander and police chief – both Pashtuns – have been suspended and a state minister – a Tajik (a “Panjshiri” to boot) – has resigned.
Mattis would realize that the old battle lines that he knew as the brigadier general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade who was given command of Task Force 58 to move into southern Afghanistan in November 2001 – or as the head of the US Central Command in 2009 – may not hold good today.
Mattis has bought time till July to watch how the fuming Afghan volcano behaves. But US lawmakers cannot be held at bay for long. They are in a hurry to know what’s in it for Academi, Northrop Grumman, CACI, Lockheed Martin, or Raytheon – and IBM, a company not generally known as a defense contractor but was the largest beneficiary of a Pentagon program to stabilize Afghanistan by facilitating private investment in its vast mineral wealth.
In last week’s Breitbart News Sunday radio program, Blackwater founder and former US Navy SEAL Erik Prince made a tantalizing proposition:
“I say go back to the model that worked, for a couple of hundred years in the region, by the East India Company, which used professional Western soldiers who were contracted and lived with and trained with and, when necessary, fought with their local counterparts… The more we’ve gone into a conventional approach in Afghanistan, the more we are losing.”
Prince’s recommendation will appeal to any shrewd business – or military – mind. That was indeed the way an open-ended British occupation of India became possible, at affordable costs, which eventually transformed as the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown.
All in all, Trump’s decision to detach himself from Mattis’s conduct of the war appears to stem from a sober assessment.