US Strategy in Afghanistan Requires Diplomacy and Military Power

US Strategy in Afghanistan Requires Diplomacy and Military Power

Published by Yale Global – 23 January 2018
To ensure a stable Afghanistan, convincing the Taliban to negotiate, the United States must cooperate with China and Pakistan
Ehsan M. Ahrari
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Waiting game: Taliban forces in Afghanistan want to wait for the departure of foreign forces, and the newly arrived US forces cannot stay on indefinitely.


ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINA: President Donald Trump desperately needs to win the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But the Central Asian state of 35 million people continues to offer hard choices and harsh realities written in the blood of hundreds of thousands of warriors from many nations. Trump, much like his predecessor Barack Obama, struggles to understand that the United States and an entity like the Taliban measure victory and losses in different ways. For the Taliban, victory means outwaiting the foreign invader. So the Taliban may be winning, at least for now. But that may not last long as the United States does its utmost not to lose by crushing its opponents in that country and ensuring stable governance that is friendly to the West.

The Taliban know that their capacity to absorb losses in their home territory is near infinite. This is not true for the United States. For a democratic country like the United States, it is imperative to defeat the Taliban, weakening it as a fighting entity so much that it accepts America’s conditions for peace. Such defeat is unlikely. Taliban forces control large parts of Afghanistan. Most Afghans, if asked about the ostensibly unending war, would suggest that the pendulum swings in favor of a Taliban victory. Many top US security personnel would agree, but never say so publicly. So, the grim possibility of losing in Afghanistan now or later remains intact.

In the United States, a huge community of defense and civilian personnel earn a living counting on the endless nature of this war without saying so. Many top politicians understand that there is no victory in sight in Afghanistan. But they have little choice but to curse the status quo, while taking few steps to change it. That might be one reason why the Afghan war never really entered the public debates of 2016 presidential election. As candidate, Trump had no clue about resolving that conflict, while his opponent, Hillary Clinton, could not address the issue without opening a Pandora’s box of criticism about Obama’s own inability to defeat the Taliban.

General John W. Nicholson, Jr., commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, declared his resolve to bomb the opium fields owned by the Taliban, hoping that destroying this financial arm weakens their will to fight. In principle, this conclusion is reasonable though it ignores the Taliban’s fervent resolve to continue the fight. Published reports suggest that the Taliban have stockpiled billions of dollars after years of opium trade and other illicit activities

Brigadier General Lance Bunch sounded optimistic about fighting the Taliban under the new national security strategy approved by Trump. “The cornerstone of the new strategy is what Bunch called a ‘dedicated air interdiction campaign’ that is designed to deny the Taliban the huge profits it has reaped for years from Afghanistan’s illicit opium trade,” reported The Washington Examiner. “The new authorities allow U.S. commanders to target Taliban networks and revenue sources, as well as back up Afghan forces on the ground in ways they couldn’t before. The other major change is that U.S. military advisers are now embedding with Afghan forces who are closest to combat….”

The plan is to use the same tactics against the Taliban as used against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But the United States must also demonstrate capacity to think critically and differently from past policies, and this requires cooperation with other countries.

The war in Afghanistan must be fought on two fronts – the military front and, most critically, the diplomatic front. From the perspectives of operational warfare, the US military maintains an upper hand in Afghanistan. However, capacity to win strategic victory over the Taliban involves at least two regional actors, Pakistan and China, and a willingness to accept that the Taliban are bound to play a role in any future government for Afghanistan. Such acceptance on the part of the Trump administration would lead to another US policy development: It should encourage Pakistan and China to take necessary steps in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

One of the most promising developments related to the Afghan conflict for the United States is that China is in near dire need to stabilize Afghanistan for the success of its Belt and Road Initiative in Pakistan and Central Asia. China’s government has attached high stakes, making huge economic and political commitments, in this mega-strategy. China recognizes that the Taliban are primarily concerned with winning a role in Afghanistan’s future government. Unlike ISIS, they are not driven by the desire to bring about global jihad. That conclusion is among the chief motivating factors underlying China’s endeavors to engage the Taliban. China, fully cognizant that jihadists from its Xinjiang province have long-established ties with the Taliban, strives to engage this political force.

Pakistan values China as a great power, and the two regard each other “all weather friends.” Pakistan may have decided that, in the absence of traditional US-Pak strategic ties, it should remain focused on Chinese strategic priorities that complement Pakistan’s own desire to play a role in Afghanistan’s peace process. Pakistan is also in desperate need to stabilize Afghanistan without escalating India’s presence there. Pakistan already accuses India of using its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan to destabilize Baluchistan. India categorically denies that charge.

The United States understands that Pakistan regards any increased presence of Indian security and diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan as a red flag. Neither Obama nor Trump took measures to address Pakistani apprehensions related to India’s presence. So, any attempt to reengage Pakistan in the peace negotiations must take these apprehensions into consideration. One option worth considering is to encourage both South Asian neighbors to work on a framework of cooperation.

Trump’s quintessential transactional approach to foreign policy showed its face in the State Department’s January 4 announcement on suspending security aid to Pakistan. Forewarning came with Trump tweeting a few days earlier that his country “foolishly” gave Pakistan more than $33 billion and got “nothing.” If the United States expected Pakistan to buckle under the pressure, the exact opposite happened.

It must be pointed out that even using Trump’s transactional approach to dealing with America’s friends, allies and even rivals requires cooperation from Pakistan and China. The real basis for these two countries’ cooperation is already there: Both want Afghanistan to stabilize and become a peaceful state. The specifics of achieving that outcome necessitate the imminent use of quiet diplomacy instead of public scolding as if Pakistan were a vassal state. Also, any engagement of China and Pakistan to stabilize Afghanistan requires major involvement of the US departments of State and Defense. Trump’s decision to reduce the significance of the State Department at the expense of his reliance on the military for resolving regional conflicts is among the most serious challenges facing the United States. Thus far, the Trump administration has provided little recognition of the need for a nuanced approach in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Reports once suggested Trump could replace US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Chief Michael Pompeo or Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. Neither potential successor has the same diplomatic experience or exposure to Pakistan, South Asia or China as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who would become the logical choice to play a lead role. To be assured of America’s long-term commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China need assured political commitment, which the State Department can provide through patient and intricate negotiations. Tillerson’s removal would signal that the Trump administration is only interested in finding quick resolution to the conflict before leaving the area.

The United States must pursue a multifaceted diplomatic option for resolving the Afghan conflict, or the chances of ultimate defeat remain very much alive.

Continue reading “US Strategy in Afghanistan Requires Diplomacy and Military Power”

The Futile Search for a Silver Bullet for Deradicalization

A friend of mine sent me this blog (see the URL below) from one of India’s most respected newspapers, The Hindu.  I read all essays and books that deal with radicalization and that of deradicalization.  Thus far, I haven’t read anything that persuaded me to say that, indeed, we have found a silver bullet against those phenomena.  But my search continues.

If an economist is writing about these subjects, he/she would lean toward explanations underscoring economic deprivation and the resultant anger as part of the reason for radicalization, as the essay below quotes Princeton University Professor Alan B. Krueger’s work on the subject.  If a political scientist or a sociologist is the author, he/she opts for politico-social variables as reasons for radicalization.  But psychologists remain a source of hope to me, even though all psychological studies that I have seen on the subject are far from being labelled as impressive; even though most of them who have studied these issues seem think that they really understand them and have found ways to cure, if not counter, radicalization.

Blaming Islam is another convenient way out by depicting the radicals as “crazy ones,” brainwashed by half-educated mullahs.  I know, the law enforcement groups and intelligence agencies of Western and Muslim countries have their own respective versions of explanations and silver bullets.

Perhaps the ultimate way to comprehend these phenomena is that there is no one single cause that is generating radicalization of young Muslims worldwide.  What we need to do is to reexamine all major works on radicalization, especially the deradicalization programs, in all major Islamic countries to see where the real success has been and then find ways to further polish those tactics to deradicalize other jihadists.

No one approach may have all the answers to explain radicalization.  Thus, no one discipline should be relied upon to prepare deradicalization programs.  Thus, perhaps we need mega-theories explaining the causes of radicalization and then use multiple disciplines to develop effective countermeasures (deradicalization).

“The ABC of radicalisation”

Will Obama’s Principled Pragmatism Be Emulated by His Successor?

Principled Pragmatism Implemented

One of the greatest features of President Barack Obama’s legacy is his exercise of “principled pragmatism.” Fredrik Logevall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor of International Relations at Harvard, uses this term to describe Obama’s reluctance to seek military solutions to the conflicts during his two terms. This is an umbrella phrase that also describes Obama’s unique frame of reference, or even his grand strategy, to deal with America’s allies and foes. He has made it clear to our allies that America will not fight a war that they initiate in their own neighborhoods. The United States will examine all evolving crises and determine how each of those crises is affecting America’s vital interests and then determine the course of action regarding them. Continue reading “Will Obama’s Principled Pragmatism Be Emulated by His Successor?”

Ibn Taymiyya Under Public Scrutiny

In Saudi Arabia, teenaged twins are under government custody for killing their mother.  Her “crime” was that she was stopping them from joining ISIS.  A Saudi writer, Mohammad Ali al-Mahmoud, told Reuters, “Had this [murder of a mother] come from drug addicts or ignorant youth, it would not have been unusual.  The shock is that it came from a pair of religious children acting in the name of Islam.” An additional shocking aspect is that its goes directly against one of the basic doctrines of Islam that requires the respect and honor of parents, especially the mother, by the offspring.

Saudi Arabia is currently having “an impassioned debate” of whether the killing of a mother was justified on the basis of the Takfiri doctrine, which was the brainchild of Imam Ibn Taymiyya, “one of Islam’s most forceful theologians, who, as a member of the Pietist school founded by Ibn Ḥanbal.”  The Saudi government is not having any part of blaming Ibn Taymiyya, because Wahhabism, in reality, is inspired by the writings of Ibn Taymiyya.  The government’s position is typified in a statement issued by the Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister, Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh.  He was quoted as saying that, “Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa allowing a son to kill his father had been taken out of context.”  Any informed reader of Imam Taymiyya’s writings would dismiss that statement as a flimsy one.

In the ongoing public debate inside Saudi Arabia, “several writers and scholars said it was time to remove the sanctity from traditional theology that permits such actions, saying ancient teachings are not always appropriate in the modern age.”  That is precisely the point.

The entire writings of Ibn Taymiyya need to be publicly discussed in order to conclude that his doctrinal positions justifying violence and killing—which are wholeheartedly incorporated by ISIS to spread bloody mayhem in several Western and Muslim countries—need to be abandoned.  In the aftermath of the recent terrorist action inside its borders, the government of Saudi Arabia must consider playing a leading role in that discussion.




The Sustained Saudi-US Strategic Rift

Poor Saudis!  They have become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Persian Gulf, at least for the United States.  They have not been getting any respect from the Obama administration lately.  President Barack Obama, in a highly publicized interview, described the Middle East as a region that cannot be fixed, “not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.”  The Persian Gulf is a case in point.  That is a region where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is getting hotter.  Since King Salman came to power, he appointed his 30-year-old son, Mohammad, as Defense Minister and the chief manager of his court.  In this latter capacity, he is generally regarded as the power behind the thrown.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Bin Naif, though he holds numerous posts, is not number two in terms of his exercise of power.  Brash Mohammad, it seems, is the second most visible, and ostensibly, the second most influential man in that country.  Personalities are important in authoritarian states.  Thus, it is safe to say that defense and foreign policy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is being formulated and conducted through the most visible participation of Salam and his favorite son, Mohammad.  Mohammad is regarded as the architect of that country’s invasion of Yemen.

Under Salman, four issues seem to be driving the KSA’s foreign policy.  First, is the hatred, fear, and envy of Iran.  Second, is the Saudi military aggression in Yemen. Third, is the Saudi’s obsession with ousting Bashara Assad’s regime from Syria.  Fourth, is the defeat of ISIS, which is a very important goal for the KSA in Yemen, but only a secondary goal in Syria.

These issues clearly clash with President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East.  Obama is the first US president to envisage Syria as a place where the United States should not do “stupid stuff” by waging another war, since it is beyond repair.

The Saudis are still in a state of shock that Obama concluded a nuclear deal with Iran, whereby the latter was allowed to continue its nuclear research program.  Now, the Saudis have no choice but to work on a realignment of their foreign policy toward Israel, which hates Iran with equal intensity.  However, the chief problem with that alignment is that it may never be made public, given the intensely anti-Israeli environment among the Saudi powerful religious community.  Still, Saudi Arabia may be able to become a little overt about its policy realignment with Israel, in the sense that the same Saudi religious scholars also hate Iran on the basis of their long-standing views of the Shias stemming from Wahhabism.

The Saudis also remain envious of Iran because of the way it has handled itself against the United States during that country’s invasion of Iraq.  They are envious of the way Iran became an influential power inside Iraq after the US withdrawal from that country.  And, in a perverse way, they admire Iran’s commitment to confront the United States in Syria through their resolute support of Bashara Assad.

The United States has long nurtured a strong antipathy toward the Islamic Republic.  However, that antagonism is secular in orientation.  As such, the United States was open to—and indeed, it sought and concluded—a nuclear agreement with Iran.  Even if a Republican president succeeds Obama, chances are that the United States is likely to keep its doors wide open for negotiations with Iran, for at least two reasons.  First, Iran remains a powerful player in the ongoing anti-ISIS war in Iraq, where the United States’ military involvement is primarily for the same purpose.  Second, as long as the United States continues to seek a political resolution of the Syrian ongoing civil war, Iran will remain an important player around the negotiating table, along with Russia.  The United States also knows that there can never be a stable peace in Iraq without active participation and approval by Iran.  In other words, in the making and sustenance of peace and stability in Iraq, Iran is likely to have a definite say.  Washington has begrudgingly accepted that reality, since it knows how destructive an alienated Iran can be in Iraq.

The Saudi leaders are watching these developments in Iraq, and all they can do is remain covetously on the sidelines.  For its own long-term advantage, Iran must ensure that the Iraqi Sunnis are not alienated.  For that purpose, it also knows that it has no choice but to ensure the emergence of a negotiated power-sharing agreement guaranteeing political participation and economic integration of the Sunnis in the governance of Iraq.  Again, despite being an Islamic Republic, Iran has demonstrated, time and time again, that it is fully adept at negotiating political agreements and deals and then ensuring their implementation, as it has been doing in the enactment of its promises within the nuclear deal.

Regarding the resolution of the Syrian civil war, Iran is likely to remain open to a power-sharing agreement, as long as such an agreement also guarantees its presence in Syria, and provided that agreement does not disturb the current status of Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the Levant.

On the contrary, the only card the Saudis and their GCC allies have in Syria is to back the so-called moderate Islamists.  However, the chief problem with those groups is that, despite recognizing that it has no other credible option but to allow them to play a meaningful role in the fight against Assad, the Obama administration has never stopped suspecting their loyalty.  Besides, the United States is also fully aware that a Saudi-backed post-Assad government in Syria is likely to be intensely Islamist.  And that type of government is likely to remain a source of abundant apprehension to both Jordan and Israel.

So, the US-Saudi strategic drift has not only become a reality under President Barack Obama, who has remained highly skeptical of any US military involvement in the Middle East, but who also steadfastly refuses to become a tool for Saudi Arabia’s continued proxy war with Iran and with the KSA’s military aggression in Yemen.  He knows how potentially destructive both of those developments are for the United States’ own undisputed priorities to see the emergence of a peaceful and stable Middle East.  A lot of Western strategic analysts believe that Obama’s aforementioned conclusions are the result of the fact that his country is no longer dependent on Saudi oil.  That is one reason, but the paramount reason is Obama’s conclusion that Iran is likely to be the future major regional power of the entire Middle East.  As such, he seemed to have concluded, it should be engaged on a variety of issues that are quite important to the United States. That is why he has openly advised the Saudis to share the Persian Gulf with Iran.

Examining President Obama’s conclusions that Saudi Arabia has long served as a “free rider,” and an actor that refuses to play a constructive role in the Middle East, it is hard to envision that Obama’s successor would draw conclusions that are radically different from his.

Thus, in order to engage Iran in a dialogue, it behooves Saudi Arabia to abandon at least the aspect of its Wahhabi ideology that has remained highly scornful of Iran as the leading Shia state.  Saudi Arabia has to conclude on its own that its mindless bombing and other military actions in Yemen is creating a powerfully adverse image of its country in the global community.  More importantly, those policies, because their pursuit is wasting so much money, appear to be pushing it toward a certain economic backwardness and political instability.  Having Yemen as the poorest country of the Arab Middle East has been bad enough; now, it is also becoming a fertile place for the nurturing of the two bloodiest terrorist entities: Al-Qaida and ISIS.  Saudi Arabia cannot afford to have either of them remain active in Yemen, from where their infiltration inside Saudi Arabia would be considerably simple.  Saudi Arabia has to conclude on its own that, only by cooperating with Iran, can both of them become sources of peace and stability from West Asia to the Levant.  Obama’s criticism of Saudi Arabia should be taken by its rulers as a clarion-call and an eye-opener, rather than a source of acrimony and anger.  Finally, Saudi Arabia also has to realize that President Obama’s thinking and conclusions about that country have become a powerful precedent, which his successor will have a hard time discounting.


Islamophobia in the West: Playing into the Hands of ISIS

Fear of Islam and Muslims has been a visible trend since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  In Europe, this trend was given fictional respectability in the name of freedom of speech.  However, the same alleged commitment to freedom of expression was not applied to those who denied the Holocaust.  The point here is not that anyone should deny the Holocaust.  Rather, the point of emphasis here is the hypocritical application of the selective use of that practice and the related double standard.  The same hypocrisy was applied in various cartoons disrespecting the Prophet of Islam.  For those who only read how capable the Europeans can be about insulting or even hating other religions need no proof other than the frequent nefarious acts of insulting the Prophet and Islam through the drawing of these offensive cartoons. Continue reading “Islamophobia in the West: Playing into the Hands of ISIS”

La Marseillaise Versus the Quranic Verse 5:32

The ISIS-sponsored terrorist attacks of Paris of November 13, 2015 popularized two phenomena.  The first one was the public singing of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, which embodies the free human spirit, even under an environment pregnant with fear, blood, tyranny and their related gore.  The French soccer fans were singing it while exiting the soccer stadium, where the Islamist terrorists had let loose a torrent of bloody attacks on innocent human beings.  They were murdered as revenge for the French government’s air campaign in the ISIS-controlled areas of Syria.  The demented soldiers of ISIS were killing them because they were Christians.  The unnoticed aspect of those murderous attacks was that all human beings in that stadium and elsewhere in Paris—Christians as well as Muslims—were their targets, since they had no clue about the religious identity of any of their victims. Continue reading “La Marseillaise Versus the Quranic Verse 5:32”

Is the ‘Dead’ Arab World Really Waiting to be Led by Iran?

Reading Boualem Sansal’s recent interview in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, was a stimulating experience. In that interview, Sansal, after depicting the Arab world “in terms of history,” as “dead,” thinks that Iran “is well armed intellectually, scientifically and economically, and could one day lead Islam globally.” He is also of the view that “…soon the Sunni Arabs will accept the domination of Shi’ite Iran, because only Iran enjoys recognition from the West, and even instills fear in it.” He regards Iran’s nuclear program as “proof” of Iranian “capabilities.” He also regards “Western Islam” as a “serious rival” of Iran. Western Islam, in Sansal’s estimation, “too could one day compete for the right to lead the Muslim world.” Continue reading “Is the ‘Dead’ Arab World Really Waiting to be Led by Iran?”

The Underpublicized Maneuvers of the GCC States

Leave it to two Israeli writers to make a point, which is mostly missed inside the United States, regarding the diplomatic adroitness and political savviness of the States of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came to the United States last March and tried to embellish the mutuality of interests between the Gulf States and Israel toward the then impending US-Iran nuclear deal, everyone thought that a political nexus between Israel and the Gulf States was in the process of sprouting. Continue reading “The Underpublicized Maneuvers of the GCC States”

Burying the Hatchet is the Precondition for US-Iran Rapprochement

A lot of ink is being spilled analyzing the pros and cons of the recently concluded US-Iran nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+ 1 countries (4 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), and there is ample show of emotions about this deal involving different actors. The Arab states are upset because they concluded that its successful implementation would lead to an era of US-Iran rapprochement in which Iran, more than the Arab states, would be the focus of America’s attention. The Israelis are mad because they see the emergence of a nuclear Iran in the distant future as a result of it. More to the point, Israel’s Prime Minister , Benyamin Netanyahu, envisions that deal as the first historical step toward bringing about an end to Israel’s own preeminence, related to its nuclear deterrence in the region. A study prepared for the RAND Corporation addresses precisely that point when it notes, “Nuclear weapons would probably reinforce Iran’s traditional national security objectives, including deterring a U.S. or Israeli military attack.” The American side—mainly the Obama officials and pro-nuclear-deal Democrats in the US Congress—is hoping that it has succeeded, at least in postponing Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons aspirations into the distant future. The American neocons and the Republican legislators, on the contrary, think that Iran has fleeced the Obama administration into lifting the economic sanctions without giving up anything of substance. Continue reading “Burying the Hatchet is the Precondition for US-Iran Rapprochement”