Trump Administration’s Afghanistan Strategy continues to remain subject to controversy and confusion. There are conflicting messages coming out of Washington DC. While the President says ‘we will win’, his secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s position can be summed up: ‘we may not win, but neither will you, and at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end’.
Discussions with officials at the Capitol Hill suggest that despite the obvious difference in connotation, both Trump and Tillerson are in agreement on one issue – most of the point men assigned for political reconciliation at the State Department are being shown the door. No replacements are envisaged either – at least for the moment after their contracts run out in the coming days. Most of the permanent employees at the State Department, too, are being posted out for other tasks.
This has also triggered speculation as to whether the doors have been slammed on the political option for the time being with a view to ‘beat Taliban into weakness and force them into talks’.
But will this also mean the demise of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar? Some of the officials around Tillerson, particularly those with military background, believe that Doha office has lost its relevance. To justify this position, they point to little progress in peace talks and an apparent disconnect between the political office and Taliban commanders on ground in Afghanistan.
The latest meeting between US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman further lends credence to the view that a more aggressive approach towards the Taliban is in the offing. In the meeting in New Delhi, both officials agreed to enhance the Indian role in counter-terrorism training of Afghan troops as well as capacity building of the police force in the fight against the Taliban, who according to US officials control or contest some 45 per cent of Afghan districts at the moment.
Expanded role of Indian military is also under consideration to provide expertise in supporting the US-led training and advisory mission with Afghan security forces.
The New Delhi meeting happened at around the same time when Prime Minister Shahid Khaqaan Abbasi met US vice president Mike Pence in Washington. This meeting as well as Abbasi’s other meetings during his visit to the US featured ‘hard talk’ – an assertive Pakistani perspective on issues in Afghanistan and India. This posturing has certainly accentuated the fault lines between Pakistan and the US.
The present circumstances promise no light at the end of the tunnel. Indian role in Afghanistan is undergoing a redefinition; the US focus is on the military option; it is highly likely that Taliban office in Qatar will be closed soon; the Taliban remain inflexible; and, lastly, Washington seems convinced about this questionable belief that Pakistan controls the militia.
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials seem to delude themselves with private consolations and commitment of engagement in the Afghan process. The geo-political developments suggest otherwise at least for the time being. The circumstances seem to be ripe for continued violence and bloodshed, sadly.