The American predicament in Afghanistan is at once ridiculous and tragic. More than 8,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, prosecuting the longest war in our nation's history. Overlapping networks of insurgent groups—most prominently the Taliban—had a good year in 2016, seizing terrain and conducting terror strikes to destabilize the U.S.-backed Kabul government. The American commander in the country wants a "few thousand" more troops. Despite the supporting role that the U.S. contingent is meant to play, casualties are still being sustained, sometimes in places with depressingly familiar names—as in Sangin, seized from the Taliban a few years ago at the expense of gallons of British and U.S. Marine blood. Two Americans were wounded there last week.
The Taliban's efforts in Sangin appear to be part of a larger campaign to seize the entirety of opium-rich Helmand Province, including its capital Lashkar Gah, a small city that was untouchable during the period of peak U.S. operations but which now is battling the insurgency on its very streets. According to a U.S. government watchdog, eight out of 14 districts in Helmand are under insurgent "control or influence." One of these is Marjah district, where seven years ago today I was fighting alongside a few thousand other U.S. Marines on behalf of the Afghan government. We were told we were bringing a "government-in-a-box," and by 2011 there were manifest gains in the district's security, about which the Marines who fought there can be proud.
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And yet when Stars and Stripes ran a story about the area last year, the headline was "A look at how the US-led coalition lost Afghanistan's Marjah district to the Taliban." How powerfully depressing, and what a failure of American strategy and leadership.
Many books have been or will be written about how things went so wrong. But what should America should do next? Speaking in basic terms, we have three options for our continuing deployment in Afghanistan: end it, extend it (which, despite the four-figure adjustment, is essentially what the current commander is requesting), or ramp it up again.
These are all poor options. We are in Afghanistan to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Taliban and thereby becoming a platform, yet again, for Islamist terror that threatens America. If we pull out and restrict ourselves to poking away with drones and special operations raids, we will see a Taliban government in Kabul and widespread regional disorder. If we extend our current force level and strategy, the current unhappy stalemate will continue. If we ramp up our military commitment, what can we possibly hope to achieve if the Kabul government is unable to sustain what our troops gain? Anyway, there is little political will for a significant escalation, and zero support for a long-term, violent occupation at 2011 surge-levels.
We seem to have rolled the geopolitical version of snake eyes. History does not offer the possibility of mulligans, and fresh starts are hard to come by, but the new administration can try to rethink the problem. What will be critical in any such effort is to keep in mind something too often forgotten in our debates about Afghanistan: that it is a relatively minor player in a regional drama, the main actors in which are Pakistan and India. If we zoom out to consider the broader regional issues, the exercise may clarify our interests and strategy in Afghanistan.
It is well documented (and common knowledge on the ground) that the Pakistani state's varying degrees of passive and active support make the Afghan insurgency possible. In an acknowledgement of this fact, it became trendy during the Obama administration to refer to "AfPak" issues—but this manifestly had little positive effect for the results of our policies. In any event, the phrase doesn't go far enough, because Pakistan conducts no foreign policy without thinking of India, with which it has fought a series of wars, and which it understands (accurately) to be an existential threat.
This consideration very much affects Pakistan's Afghan policy. The Taliban was for a long time a tool of Pakistan designed to maintain influence and "strategic depth" to its west. India has friends in Afghanistan, hearkening back to the days of the Cold War when Pakistan, the United States, and Pashtun Islamist insurgents formed one axis, facing off against a Soviet-backed Afghan government formed by northern ethnic elites and more "establishment" Pashtuns. India, as a leader of the non-aligned movement, was far more sympathetic to Russia's interests than to America's, and had an obvious interest in being friendly to an anti-Pakistan government in Kabul—so as to prevent Pakistani "strategic depth."
To the extent that Afghanistan has been able to exert much of an independent foreign policy, it spent much of the 20th century balancing between Pakistan and India. Following the American intervention in 2001, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a creature of traditionally pro-government Pashtun tribes, took a consistently dim view of Pakistan.
After briefly appearing to seek a sort of reset, Karzai's successor—Ashraf Ghani—has followed suit. Not that anyone in the West much noticed, but this past December relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan reached their lowest point in the 15 years since 9/11. In a dramatic moment at a conference devoted to Afghan reconstruction in Amritsar, India, Ghani flatly rejected a Pakistani offer of $500 million in assistance. For a country as hard-up as Afghanistan, which is enormously dependent on foreign aid and which struggles with such basic state functions as tax collection, such a rejection is no light matter.
In the long competition for influence in Kabul, India currently has the upper hand. But Pakistan cannot simply retire from the field, because a stable, pro-India Afghanistan is a major threat to its security. An unstable, pro-India Afghanistan is manageable—but better yet is an unstable Afghanistan whose major state functions have been captured by a Pakistani proxy like the Taliban. This is why elements of the Pakistani state have supported Afghan insurgents in the past, and why they will support them in the future: not because they are religious crazies, or because they perversely prefer regional disorder to order—but because they believe they must follow such a policy in order to survive.
Discussing the American troop levels needed in order to help the Kabul government to battle the Afghan insurgency is, in other words, a hopelessly blinkered conversation. There are no solutions in Afghanistan. Its problems, however, are a function of powerful regional forces—and it is at that level which we must seek to identify policy goals and develop strategies to achieve them. In the years to come, America and India—both massive and wealthy democracies—will have many common interests, not least the management of a rising China that appears to be aiming at regional, if not global, hegemony. Perhaps it is time to be more serious about the fact that our interests in Afghanistan are similar, too, even if that means dropping any lingering pretense of cooperation with Pakistan.