The Road to Peace in Kabul Runs Through Kashmir
Part of the narrative of President Trump’s recently unveiled Afghanistan policy goes like this: Pakistan is a bad actor, if not prime mover, in actively fomenting America’s longest war. But for Pakistan’s cooperation, the war in Afghanistan would have successfully concluded by now and American troops would be home. It is certainly true that successive presidents and policy reviews have failed to alter Pakistan’s strategic calculus and that a fresh approach to the Afghan quagmire is necessary. The problem with a strategy that punishes and alienates Pakistan, however, such as that announced by President Trump, is that it is not only likely to be counterproductive from the stated purpose of ameliorating the war in Afghanistan, but it exposes us to the much greater problem of destabilizing a nuclear armed country of more than 200 million people which, according to Goldman Sachs, has the potential to become a leading emerging market economy in the current century. Sober analysts would agree that this would constitute a worse outcome than the status quo. The question then remains – what effective measures can in fact be adopted to promote a Pakistani rethink of their strategy in Afghanistan?
US policymakers must finally and honestly acknowledge that the only clear answer is to directly engage in addressing the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. This Gordian knot, the elephant in the room of Afghanistan policy, presents the only plausible path to addressing Pakistan’s core interest drivers in Afghanistan and therefore is the key to shifting Pakistani behavior. The problem with the current Afghanistan policy, as articulated by President Trump, is that there is a Clausewitzian disconnect between American political goals and the strategy that is being rolled out to achieve them. If the United States is unwilling to engage in a meaningful way in normalizing India-Pakistan relations, then the only path available to American policymakers is a far more modest approach to what can be achieved in Afghanistan.
As is often the case with long drawn out military commitments abroad, such as in Vietnam and Iraq, it appears that we have passed an inflection point in Afghanistan where the losses of men and materiel themselves justify the continued escalation of the conflict in a manner that no longer reflects US core interests. This is the circular logic of America’s presence in Afghanistan: the original mission to eradicate Al Qaeda and deny safe spaces to transnational terrorists has morphed into something, and it is unclear what exactly, that is more profound due to the losses that have already been suffered. Surely, this is a recipe for never ending war and is a disservice to America’s fighting men and women who deserve a strategy that is clear about what is at stake in Afghanistan. And the fact is, little is at stake in Afghanistan that cannot be achieved with a much more limited US presence and a regionalization of responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan. The current approach obscures America’s original strategic counterterrorism goals in Afghanistan and risks opening up a Pandora’s Box with Pakistan that would be far more consequential for US interests. The starting point for the administration’s review of Afghanistan policy, therefore, should have been recognition of the United States’ limited interests in Afghanistan, its greater interests in Pakistan and to proceed from there to craft a solution that engages regional powers by addressing their core interests, rather than relying on a dangerous and unclear formula of scapegoating Pakistan.
Pakistan’s policy of supporting the Taliban has, of course, been driven by its fear of encirclement by India. A friendly government in Kabul secures Pakistan’s western border from encroachment by India or Indian proxies and serves the dual function of forcing a de facto recognition of the Durand Line (the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan) by the central Afghan government, something which successive Afghan governments have refused to do and which have aroused irredentist fears in Pakistan tracing back to the country’s birth. Kashmir is the tectonic driver of India-Pakistan enmity. Flaring up into violent spasms from time to time, but always serving as the justification for the Pakistan army’s outsized role in domestic politics, budgets and security policymaking. Relieving Pakistan from its Kashmir obsession could radically transform its regional relationships, removing the raison d’être for its policy of supporting asymmetric warfare against India through the promotion of certain militant groups – and Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is only a derivative of this wider security policy. We would do well to recognize, without condoning Pakistan’s behavior and policy choices which have caused it great self-harm, that there is a clear strategic rationale behind these policies. Changing Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan will require addressing these fundamental security interests. Even a cursory examination of the Pakistani reaction to President Trump’s new policy reveals that it has somehow managed to unite a disparate group of Pakistani policymakers, political parties and liberal intelligentsia in righteous indignation at the US refusal to recognize Pakistan’s legitimate interests in securing a friendly Kabul – no mean feat in a country riven with internal fissures between the security elite and its political class and given a broad consensus amongst mainstream Pakistani political parties, including the PML-N, PPP and PTI, in favor of reconciliation with India, anti-militancy efforts and a desire for peace in Afghanistan.
Productive American engagement on the Kashmir question will be difficult to say the least, rivaling the thorniest diplomatic problems in scope and complexity. Nevertheless, levers of influence can be identified. India has global aspirations and a global market economy susceptible to various US inducements, from increased trade access and the sharing of energy technologies, to support for UN Security Council reform, potentially paving the way for a permanent seat for India that satisfies its greatest ambitions. The tradeoff should be made clear - progress towards resolving Kashmir paves the way for India to emerge as a true global player and frees it up from the resource-trap of a regional rivalry with Pakistan. For Pakistan, the benefits are more obvious, creating an opportunity for a strategic refocusing on domestic economic and political development and setting its own house, finally, in order. Importantly, simply initiating a meaningful American engagement on Kashmir should be enough to promote a change of course in Afghanistan by Pakistan - a complete and successful resolution is not a prerequisite. Chinese interests in Pakistan and the region are also compatible with such an approach, as they demand a Pakistani focus on the successful implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of its wider one-belt one-road strategy. A pacific Afghanistan is also a fulcrum of this agenda and will help to stabilize a restive Xinjiang province and deny Islamist militants there with external succor. In short, the existing ambitions and stated agendas of key regional powers can in fact be harnessed in support of a US effort to stabilize Afghanistan. What is missing is American strategic thinking and diplomatic leadership.
Solving Kashmir would not only yield peace in Kabul, but would be a worthy end in itself serving a range of intersecting US interests, including crafting the Asian balance of power for the next century, nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism issues and energy policy. If the Trump administration is unwilling to take up this challenge and expend capital attempting a rewrite of the larger South Asian security architecture, then policymakers must be clear minded about what can in fact be achieved in Afghanistan. And that is a limited US counterterrorism agenda that fits on top of the existing agendas of regional players, including Pakistan. What the Trump administration has designed instead is a naïve policy that risks destabilizing Pakistan, pushing it further into the arms of China and Russia and that comes no closer to achieving any kind of stable Afghanistan. Tinkering at the margins of a failed Afghanistan policy is unlikely to yield a different result than what we have witnessed over the last sixteen years. US policymakers must be prepared for either a radical rethink, including a push on Kashmir, or should base their strategies on an acceptance of the fact that they will be unable to alter the core interests that drive Pakistan and other regional powers’ behavior in Afghanistan without deploying significantly greater punitive measures, which themselves would not be in America’s self-interest.