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Solving the Internal Problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan

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By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

President Trump met with his national security team at the Pentagon two weeks ago to discuss the current situation in Afghanistan. Right now, the United States doesn’t have a strategy for Afghanistan beyond rejecting the Obama administration’s unsuccessful approach of withdrawing U.S. forces and shifting efforts to the Afghan forces.

Trump authorized Secretary of Defense James Mattis to increase troop strength in Afghanistan. But so far, there is no detailed strategy on how an increased level of U.S. forces would be used.

US Fails to Understand Afghanistan’s Internal Divisions

The lack of clear strategic objectives has hampered U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, says military analyst Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

One of the key problems of these strategic failures is the underlying inability to come to grips with the fact that the U.S. has fought in failed states that have deep internal divisions and failed governments. These “failed state” wars have been a big problem.  Another issue is U.S. ignorance of the forces driving those countries’ conflicts.

As one of these failed states, Afghanistan faces many of the challenges outlined by Cordesman. Kabul has a corrupt government that has botched its attempts to establish influence in the provinces and it holds only a very tenuous grip on power in the capital. If that weren’t bad enough, the country faces severe internal divisions among the various ethnic and tribal groups.

What Would Additional US Forces Do?

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, told the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado, last week that “the Afghan military badly needs trainers and more help developing its air force.”

According to Real Clear Defense, Dunford pointed out that the “U.S. military presence there has plummeted from 140,000 troops in 2013 to 8,700 today.” As for a decision on future force size in Afghanistan, Dunford said, “We are not going to do that until after the president has decided on a strategic framework within which our support for the Afghan forces takes place. The purpose of more forces would be to train the Afghans…if we have a strategy that supports that.”

As the United States debates its next move, Washington will also have consider how to stabilize and strengthen the Afghan government, especially as it relates to economic issues. At present, the Afghan government’s primary source of funding is foreign assistance. If the U.S. and its allies pulled out of Afghanistan, the most likely scenario would be the Afghan government’s collapse and its replacement by the Taliban, reminiscent of the U.S. pullout after the Russians left in 1989.

U.S. Debates South Asia Strategy

Currently, Mattis is taking a holistic approach that includes not only an Afghan strategy, but a South Asia review as well. That includes the question of what to do about Pakistan. That issue has stymied Democratic and Republican administrations for decades.

For any successful Afghan strategy, the administration must deal with Pakistan, too. Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan is so porous that terror organizations can cross freely into the tribal frontier region of Pakistan, all with the acquiescence of Islamabad.

Pakistan, aided by its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), has played a duplicitous role for decades. Pakistan supports terrorist organizations such as the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and others, while partnering with the United States in its war against terror.

A nuclear-armed Pakistan has made South Asia extremely volatile, especially with its arch-rival India also having nuclear weapons.

US Afghan Commander Frustrated by Pakistan’s Actions          

In a June 20 Center for Strategic and International Studies article, Cordesman cites the assessment of U.S. Afghanistan commander General John Nicholson. Nicholson says “the exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan by terrorists and Afghan insurgents is the single greatest external factor that could cause failure of the coalition campaign. External sanctuary hampers efforts to bring Afghan Taliban senior leadership to the negotiating table and allows space for terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network to plan coordinated operations against U.S. and coalition forces, the [Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces] ANDSF and civilians. External sanctuary allows the Afghan Taliban to rest, refit and regenerate, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence.”

Although Nicholson never mentions Pakistan, his comments were specifically directed at Islamabad.

As President Trump begins deliberations on the way forward in Afghanistan, he will have to deal not only with Afghanistan’s internal situation, but also develop a U.S. strategy for Pakistan. There are no easy answers to resolve the crises in both countries.

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