The Trump Administration has recently announced that it will send 4,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan as part of an advisory and training operation, enhancing a counterterrorism model and joining an estimated 8,800 U.S. troops already in-country. Contemporaneously, the Administration has indicated that it will consider cutting U.S. aid to Pakistan, which has been declining for years and is now at approximately $1 billion, mostly military aid. Whether he likes it or not, President Trump indeed has ownership, as Jed Babbin wrote in these pages on Monday.
Stability in Afghanistan cannot occur without the support of Pakistan, which has the ethnolinguistic affinity for the Pashtun. It also has the geography, networks, money, and military resources. Some estimates are dated, but of the roughly 50 million Pashtun in the region, almost 70% live in Pakistan. Those in Afghanistan are the dominant ethnic group. The border is irrelevant, dating to the establishment of the Durand Line in 1896. Much of the Pashtun population resides in tribal areas adjacent to the border, well beyond the writ of any government. In national security terms, both countries should effectively be seen as one, hence the frequently used term “Af-Pak.” Pashtun nationalism knows no borders and has been a force to be reckoned with for a long time. In the days of the Raj, for example, Britain fought three unsuccessful wars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to suppress tribal unrest on the frontier areas of what was then India.
And so these two questions must be asked: do the latest U.S. approaches to Afghanistan and Pakistan support U.S. objectives in the region, and are they complementary?
America’s objectives in Af-Pak have not been clearly stated by an administration for some time. One may surmise that they are the following, referring to remarks of Robert Blackwill, U.S. Ambassador to India (2001-2003) of some years ago: 1) achieve an endgame in Afghanistan so that Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS cannot harm western interests: 2) avoid further proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology; 3) prevent a takeover of Islamabad by the Taliban; 4) encourage the development and strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan; and 5) prevent, if possible, an event such as a war between Pakistan and India, or between India and China, or a Kashmir secessionist movement that alters the status quo of South Asia.
Committing 4,000 more troops in the judgment of the Pentagon is intended to strengthen and accelerate the training and competency of the Afghan National Security Forces. In more than fifteen years, the U.S. has already expended $714 billion on mainly counterinsurgency warfare and reconstruction, according to the July 30 “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress” submitted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
While sunk cost is no basis for economic evaluations, a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a catastrophe beyond imagination that would discredit three U.S. administrations and embolden enemies everywhere. A resurgent Taliban means that doing nothing is not an option, and the logical approach is therefore to commit more resources to support counterterrorism.
Cutting aid to Pakistan seems well-deserved and appeals to enraged elements in Congress and the U.S. For years Pakistan, a nuclear power, which has the sixth largest army in the world, has played the double game of doing just enough to maintain U.S. military aid, but not enough to deal the jihadists a knockout blow. The memory of Osama bin Laden hiding out in Abbottabad, a hill station and location of the elite Pakistan Military Academy, is still quite fresh. Fully aware that the U.S. and NATO cannot remain in perpetuity, the Pakistan Army and ISI (intelligence service) do not wish to jeopardize their ties and networks across the frontier — and we should not expect this to change.
U.S. aid to Pakistan is minute compared to that of China. In 2015, China committed to spend $46 billion on infrastructure and energy development in Pakistan. Further, over the years China has developed the Karakoram Highway; it has constructed the port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province about 375 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic oil lane, as part of its “Belt and Road” soft power approach; and it has equipped the Pakistan Air Force and developed the Al-Khalid main battle tank for the Pakistan Army. In short, China’s commitment to Pakistan can just about be rounded to the nearest U.S. budget — and unlike the U.S., China does not care about whether Islamabad has a civilian or military government. While Pakistan has a western commercial structure with a foundation of English common law, and while its middle and upper middle classes speak considerable English, the country has embraced China out of necessity to offset the robust partnership of the U.S. with India, its archenemy.
Reducing aid to Pakistan may sell well politically in the U.S. but it is a bad idea: relations with Pakistan are already delicate enough, and money does provide some minimal access to the country’s decision makers. Pakistan is also needed for the overland supply of materiel to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and these supply routes have met with populist resistance in Pakistan. The recent removal from office of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif on charges of corruption by the nation’s supreme court has discredited civilian leadership. With a national election coming next year, the U.S. needs all the access it can get to this struggling, young democracy. Moreover, there has been war fatigue in Pakistan with the view that the U.S. does not recognize the amount of suffering caused by its engagement in Af-Pak. By one estimate of two groups of international physicians, over 80,000 people have been killed in total.
President Trump’s request that India assist in Afghanistan will only cause the Pakistani authorities to dig in further — fear of Indian “strategic depth” in Afghanistan causes paranoia in Pakistan and necessitates that Pakistan has enhanced asymmetric capabilities for use against India.
The actions of the Trump Administration seem disconnected: the U.S. is investing more in Afghanistan, yet through reduction of aid it could undermine its access to Pakistan whose support for the endgame is essential. Not only that, the development of democracy in Pakistan benefits from the projection of U.S. influence in the country. Bullying Pakistan will achieve nothing — except more intransigence and the advancement of Chinese interests in the region.