Categorized | USA, Afghanistan

Pentagon weighs regional players in Afghanistan

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By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline 

The Pentagon’s latest 6-monthly report on the Afghan situation to the US Congress conveys the picture of ‘work in progress’ in regard of President Trump’s new strategy. It exudes an air of optimism. The 100-page report reiterates that the US is determined to bludgeon the Taliban into submission and make them crawl to the negotiating table.

The Pentagon’s assessment of the role of various regional powers, although the unclassified portions, provides food for thought. For a start, the report refrains from any overt criticism of Pakistan’s role. There are references to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan but no allegation that the insurgents are getting Pakistani support. An indirect reference appears where the report takes note that “certain extremist groups—such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network—retain freedom of movement in Pakistan.” On the other hand, the report also acknowledges that Pakistani military operations have “disrupted some militant sanctuaries.”

Secondly, the Pentagon underscores that the military-to-military leadership with Pakistan “remains critical to the success of our mutual interests in the region.” But to move forward in regional cooperation, “we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens.” The US intends to deploy “a range of tools to expand cooperation with Pakistan in areas where our interests converge and to take unilateral steps in areas of divergence.” Curiously, the latter part regarding “unilateral steps” has been left unexplained.

Interestingly, the report acknowledges that there are sanctuaries on Afghan soil for terrorist groups that create violence in Pakistan and walks a fine line as regards the “mutual security interests” of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It scrupulously refrains from apportioning blame. This is difficult to understand. Does the Pentagon mean that the Afghan government pursues certain policies over which the US has no control? Or, is it that there are rogue elements within the Afghan state structure?

Among regional actors, Pentagon comes down heavily on Russia’s role. Moscow’s intentions have been shown to be hostile, aimed at undermining the US’ influence in the region by “engaging with the Taliban and putting pressure on Central Asian neighbors to deny support to US and NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.” But there is no allegation in the report that Russia is helping the Taliban with arms supplies.

Indeed, the chances are very remote that US and Russia would cooperate in the war effort in Afghanistan. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disclosed last week that the US is forcing Afghan army to get rid of Kalashnikov rifles, which the military is trained to handle, with a view to eliminate Russia as a partner in any significant way. The Pentagon report claims that Afghan-Russian relations are under strain due to Moscow’s “acknowledgment of communication with the Taliban and support of the Taliban’s call” for US and NATO’s withdrawal.

In comparison, when it comes to China, the Pentagon wears kid gloves. Amazingly, the report says, “China’s low, but increasing levels of military, economic and political engagement in Afghanistan are driven by domestic security concerns… and China’s increasing desire to protect its regional economic investments.” China is seen as a benign presence. China’s involvement with the Quadrilateral Consultative Group is singled out and there is a hint at China’s potential to influence Pakistani policies.

Evidently, the US keeps in view that a need might arise for the Northern Distribution Network to be activated via the Central Asian region if push comes to shove in the relations with Pakistan.

The portion on Iran is highly nuanced. The report says in as many words that “Iran and the United States share certain interests” in Afghanistan and although Tehran on the whole seeks to “limit US influence and presence” in Afghanistan, particularly in western Afghanistan, it “could explore ways to leverage Iran’s interests in support of US and Afghan objectives in the areas of counternarcotics, economic development and counterterrorism.” The report shows understanding that “Iran’s ultimate goal is a stable Afghanistan where Shi’a communities are safe, economic interests are protected and the US military presence is reduced.”

This is a surprisingly positive assessment at a juncture when Trump is ratcheting up anti-Iran rhetoric and Nikki Haley is firing away. Clearly, the rhetoric is meant to appease Israel and Saudi Arabia, while the Pentagon, which is steering the actual policies on the ground, just stops short of acknowledging that Iran could be a factor of stability in Afghanistan.

The most interesting thing about India, of course, is that the US appeals to Delhi to provide more assistance to Afghanistan, but limited to “economic, medical and civic support”. No surprises here.

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