As U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office on January 20, he leaves behind an unfinished conflict, the longest lasting and least successful U.S. war in history: Afghanistan.
For Afghanistan and the Afghans, Mr. Obama was a President of contradiction whose Afghan policy proved markedly disastrous. He wrongly believed that he would win the War on Terror militarily and by appeasing the military establishment in Pakistan.
His successor, Donald Trump, should change course in Afghanistan. For Mr. Trump’s administration, it is imperative to limit the impact of the conflict in Afghanistan on the Afghan people, and compel Pakistan to squeeze those who harm Afghanistan and nurture, shelter and finance forces of terror. The new U.S. President must address Pakistan’s treacherous role in Afghanistan at full tilt.
Double-dealing on Pakistan
On February 22, 2012, in a three-page letter, President Obama wrote to then Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he remains “concerned about the safe havens in Pakistan and the threat they pose to Americans and Afghans”. He added: “We will continue to use the various means at our disposal to degrade the safe havens [in Pakistan] and to disrupt attacks into Afghanistan.” But no serious efforts were actually undertaken by the Obama administration “to degrade the safe havens”. In the eight years of his presidency, Mr. Obama’s administration remained largely passive in taking firm action against Pakistani state support for terrorism. The reluctance vis-à-vis Pakistan was to the extent that even after exits of Osama bin Laden, and top Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, all three of whom lived and were killed or died in hiding in Pakistan, Washington showed no desire to change the status quo.
Contradicting his earlier statements, in 2014, Mr. Obama told Mr. Karzai that Pakistan is a strategic “ally” in the War on Terror, and while already fighting a war in Afghanistan, his administration “cannot open another front against Pakistan”. He repeatedly urged his Afghan counterpart to address Pakistan’s “concerns” about the Indian influence in Afghanistan. Encouraged by Pakistan, the U.S. President even suggested that Mr. Karzai find a “resolution of differences” on the Durand Line with Pakistan. He proposed that “any issues concerning the border must come through mutual agreement between the parties concerned”. Mr. Karzai’s stance on both key issues was clear: Afghanistan cannot and will never accommodate Pakistan’s desire to control Kabul’s foreign policy, nor can it be expected to recognise the imposed Durand Line.
The focus of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy was on Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. In his address to the nation on Afghanistan and Pakistan, in December 2009, he said: “We will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan… In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over.” Mr. Obama’s Afghan and Indian audience were taken aback by his remarks that “there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy”. Under Mr. Obama, the U.S. administration “made heavy use” of its “warm relationship with Pakistan’s army chief” and even “extended” Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s term in office.
Appeasing Pak., failing Afghanistan
Seymour Hersh, an eminent American journalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote in his 2016 book The Killing of Osama bin Laden that under President Obama, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence secured “a commitment from the U.S. to give Pakistan ‘a freer hand’ in Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there”. The outcome was that more Pakistani and regional terrorists were intentionally pushed to make their way across the Durand Line into Afghanistan. And this time, they terrorised and slaughtered Afghans (mainly Hazaras) under a new brand: the Islamic State.
The “$33 billion” of U.S. assistance to Pakistan, of which “$21 billion” were given under President Obama, badly failed to change Islamabad’s policy of supporting terrorism and radicalism. And the Afghans, as well as the American women and men in uniform, paid a high price in blood.
In Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s policy, as seen by Afghans, was about putting more boots on the ground, blind bombardments, more drone attacks, heavy reliance on Special Forces, fruitless military operations in Afghan homes and villages. It was certainly not what the Afghans were expecting of him as a black American President with a Muslim family background. As the President of “hope” and “change”, Mr. Obama came to office with the message of ending “the mindset that causes war”. He spoke of returning America to the “moral high ground”. His rhetoric was that the war in Afghanistan is “a war of necessity” and a “war that we (the U.S.) have to win”.
In his farewell speech, the outgoing President said: “For the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing.” But an intensified U.S. drone campaign, assassinations, covert operations, ineffective night raids, illegal detention of more than 5,000 Afghans in the Bagram prison were not only a clear violation of Afghan sovereignty but of international law. The Obama administration severely undermined human rights by downplaying the threat of its overall military operations to civilian lives in Afghanistan. The mindless killing of the Afghan civilians — elders, women and children — was the symptom of his weak and failed policy. The substantial militarisation of the U.S. Afghan policy and the expansion of war killed any chance of peace in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan was expanded and gradually Afghanised.
Though I do not expect that key objectives of the U.S. foreign policy will necessarily change under the new administration, President Trump can avoid the errors of the past in Afghanistan. He should boost the security and defence capabilities of the Afghan national armed forces. On Afghanistan, Mr. Trump should embrace a vibrant diplomacy and regional cooperation towards Russia, China, India and Iran.
Last but not least, under the new American administration, the world must witness clarity and a clear shift in U.S. strategic thinking vis-à-vis Pakistan.