Lose Now or Later: America’s Uneasy Choices in Afghanistan

Starting wars is easy, but bringing them to a successful close, ensuring a sustained peace, is not. The war in in Afghanistan is in its 16th year with no end in sight. “The growing presence of the so-called Afghan-Pakistani Daesh franchise – also known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP – is a source of worry, using territory as a base to terrorize Afghanistan and conduct terrorist operations inside Pakistan,” explains author Ehsan M. Ahrari. He is with the Strategic Studies Institute with the Army War College. “Another source of apprehension are reports of ‘direct talks’ between Russia and the Taliban.” Russia assumes that the Taliban, unlike the Islamic State, won’t spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The United States could send more troops to the country or rely on Pakistan and even China. Foreign policy around Afghanistan is complex, posing repercussions for the region and beyond, and all countries would benefit from stabilization of Afghanistan. – YaleGlobal

Lose Now or Later: America’s Uneasy Choices in Afghanistan

Diplomacy and cooperation are missing ingredients – and why the Afghan war drags on into its 16th year
Ehsan M. Ahrari
Tuesday, May 2, 2017

No way out: American soldiers went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, and in 2017, chief of US and European forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, left, and US Defense Secretary James Mattis still prepare strategy

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINA: Donald Trump wants to focus on his “America First” slogan, with budgetary priorities that center on job creation and quick wins in foreign wars. But the lingering war in Afghanistan – both the struggles to defeat extremists or organize peace – will detract from other military endeavors.

The trouble with foreign wars is that, while easy to start, they are hard to finish.  The United States learned the bitter lesson after invading Iraq in 2003: Operational victory was easy, but strategic victory defied even the world’s most powerful military. And after sweeping the Taliban from Kabul with a dramatic campaign, the mighty United States remains stuck in Afghanistan

The United States did not learn from George W. Bush’s experience.  Barack Obama recalled American troops from Iraq in 2011, but gradually returned, periodically inserting Special Forces, as if that tactic was not part of America’s involvement in the ongoing Iraqi ground war. In the case of Afghanistan, for Obama and now Trump, there is no likely victory for the American military in Afghanistan. The country offers a grim and uneasy choice – lose now or later.

Some forbidding facts:

  • The Afghan war is in its 16th year, and no victory is in sight.
  • General John Nicholson, the current and 12th US Commander since the beginning of the Afghan war, gave his best assessment during a recent congressional hearing by using an Orwellian phrase, “The war in Afghanistan is at a ‘stalemate.’”
  • General Nicholson, reviving memories of General Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 request to then newly elected President Obama,  asked newly elected President Trump for more troops to conduct “hold-fight-disrupt operations.”
  • The growing presence of the so-called Afghan-Pakistani Daesh franchise – also known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province or ISKP – is a source of worry, using territory as a base to terrorize Afghanistan and conduct terrorist operations inside Pakistan.
  • Another source of apprehension are reports of “direct talks” between Russia and the Taliban. Russia is reported to regard the Taliban as a “strictly national movement that did not intend to spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders.” An assessment from the American side is that Russia, by directly negotiating with the Taliban of Afghanistan and also reportedly providing weapons, wants the United States to fail in Afghanistan.

After US forces dropped the country’s largest non-nuclear bomb – colloquially known as MOAB, or the “Mother of all bombs” – on an ISIS tunnel network in the Achin district of Nangarhar, Trump called the mission “very successful.” But he has offered little strategy on the Afghan war. A logical assumption is that he will either fulfill General Nicholson’s request for more troops or ignore it. 

While the stated US reason for dropping the MOAB was to destroy the tunnel network, the expectation in Washington was to increase the fear factor and encourage the Taliban to return to the negotiating table. Those expectations were dashed when the Taliban carried out their own massive attack against the army base in Northern Afghanistan, killing more than 100 Afghan security personnel.

The United States must watch such developments closely – since Russia is taking steps to widen its influence in areas traditionally or recently part of America’s sphere of influence. Afghanistan could easily become a part of that gamesmanship. 


Russia, in its growing presence in Afghanistan, is following the classic zero-sum game of the Cold War era: envisaging its potential gains as a potential loss of America’s influence. Putin could enable the Taliban to escalate attacks on the Ghani government with the expectation that the already-besieged Afghan government would be forced to invite Russia and its preferred partners – India and Iran – to the negotiating table.

There are three problems related to the Russian-preferred negotiations.  First, Pakistan would oppose India’s inclusion. Second, the United States would be equally resolute against inviting Iran. Third, even though the Trump administration has not yet announced its own strategy for resolving the Afghan conflict, it’s hard to imagine that it would welcome Russia to negotiations for determining future modalities of stability in Afghanistan.  The United States has learned the hard way about how adroit Putin is at transforming a minor strategic opening for his country into a major strategic advantage, as he did in Syria after Obama agreed not to take military actions against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against its civilian population in 2013.

These developments underscore the fact that Afghanistan’s security situation is not likely to improve.

One option available to the Trump administration is to ask Pakistan to become America’s gendarme for Afghanistan. Its purpose would be to minimize, if not to eradicate, the presence of the Islamic State in the region. Since ISIS is also targeting Pakistan by using Afghan territory, Pakistan might be talked into playing such a role. 

It should be understood, however, that from the perspectives of Afghanistan and India, America’s potential reliance on Pakistan would be a highly provocative option, and groundwork would be required in preparation for the following reasons:

  • Diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are currently strained.  Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of not only supporting terrorist activities of the Taliban of Afghanistan, but also using the Haqqani group to launch terror attacks on Indian personnel stationed in Afghanistan. And lately, Pakistan has accused Afghanistan of allowing ISIS to launch terrorist attacks on its territory, which Afghanistan denies.  
  • Afghanistan remains an unwitting player in Pakistan’s maneuvers to use the country to make up for the lack of strategic depth against future Indian attack. 
  • Afghanistan remains a place where both India and Pakistan play their own versions of a great game, with Pakistan trying to undermine any Indian maneuvers to use the Afghan territory to strengthen the longstanding insurgent movement in Baluchistan, a charge India denies. If India is indeed in Afghanistan to destabilize Baluchistan, then that underscores the possibility that Afghanistan is no longer an unwitting player in the Indo-Pak great game.

Given the complicated nature of Afghanistan’s role in the Indo-Pak great game, the Trump administration has its work cut out – if it wishes Pakistan to play any role in stabilizing Afghanistan. This role could range from serving as an intermediary in any peace negotiations between the Taliban of Afghanistan and the Ghani government, or by taking direct military action to eradicate ISIS in Afghanistan.

Depending upon how important it is not to lose the Afghan war without initiating a ground war, leaders like US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser General H. R. McMaster are likely to push for at least trying the  Pakistan option to stabilize Afghanistan. Given the experience of these two individuals and, in the case of Mattis, knowledge of South Asia, this option holds considerable promise.

Realistic incorporation of any aspect of this option also requires substantial cooperative interaction between India and Pakistan. The United States would have to use a substantial amount of its diplomatic capital in persuading India to at least not stridently oppose it. At the same time, even before agreeing to become a player, Pakistan would insist on concessions from the United States in its longstanding desire to continue the so-called strategic dialogue with the Trump administration.

There is a tremendous potential of US-China cooperation in Afghanistan. China has already been involved in pushing for a negotiated peace in that country, and a peaceful Afghanistan would be helpful to China’s “One-Belt-One-Road” strategy. More to the point, the United States would have no objection to China’s role in pushing for a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict.

The many All the foregoing intricacies involving the drawn-out and complicated process of stabilizing Afghanistan through the peace process must be weighed against the dreadful alternative of using military force in Afghanistan. And that most likely would not guarantee victory and only postpone America’s certain defeat.

Ehsan Ahrari is adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, VA-based foreign and defense policy consultancy. He specializes in Great Power relations, strategic affairs of the world of Islam and anti-terrorism. His latest book, The Islamic Challenge and the United States: Global Security in an Age of Uncertainty, is published by the McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017. His website is: www.ehsanahrari.com. Views contained in this essay are strictly private.

Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center


India’s diplomacy toward China and Pakistan testifies to it. Dialogue with Pakistan is inevitable, especially in Kashmir where the Indian state has all but lost control. But we revel in muscular diplomacy and slam the door shut on dialogue. Nothing is lost by exploring the potentials of the Belt and Road conference in Beijing. But, again, our “nyet” men have the final word.
A Restrictive foreign policy: Is India inviting trouble?

Wars go wrong more often than not when the aim is not clear and consistent. We exercised the military option in Afghanistan to get rid of Osama bin Laden and his outfit without first exhausting all the other available options. This necessitated removal of the Taliban regime, which was achieved within a few weeks but then instead of handing over the country to the UN to administer and hold elections, NATO troops continued to occupy Afghanistan.

To justify it the aim was changed variously to nation building, fighting terrorism, emancipation of women, even exploitation of resources was offered as an excuse for continuing the occupation. The military is not trained or equipped for any of these missions. From all appearances it was clear that the real aim was always to maintain military presence in Afghanistan. It might have been possible for a short period but not in the long run as we discovered to our dismay and considerable pain.

Installing and propping up puppet regimes in Afghanistan is not going to solve anything. We have to accept the realities on the ground just as Pakistan, China and Russia have done and deal with Taliban directly. They hold sway over most of the country and no meaningful solution is possible without them. We have used force for sixteen years and it hasn't worked. Doing more of the same will not bring about a different result. Expecting Pakistan or any other country to pull a rabbit out of the hat too is unrealistic. There is no way she can be expected or persuaded to get involved militarily inside Afghanistan at the behest of the US.

Indecision and allowing the issue to fester for whatever reasons is not helpful. The longer we wait the more complicated the situation is going to become. Continuing foreign occupation is the prime reason for the rise of terrorism and outfits like ISIS. It is a fallacy that foreign military intervention can eradicate these. The only way to deal with terrorism is through better policing and dealing with the political grievances of the people. You need a strong and effective local government for this not foreign military presence.

This is a clearly biased article favoring Pakistan's role in the conflict. The option of negotiations between Afghan Government and Taliban has already been carried out and we have seen the dirty role played by Pakistan. So the author's suggestion didn't work and I don't see that option working anytime soon as long as Pakistan is a sponsor of Afghan Taliban. We should always remember the fact that Pakistan will never want to play a stabilizing role in this conflict and has no intention of doing so.

Both Pakistan and India has admitted the continuation of the Kargil conflict in Afghanistan that puts both the Pakistani ISI and The Indian RAW (intelligence) at odds using proxies. The influx of Us and NATO allies into Afghanistan was allegedly due to the attacks on 9/11 when in fact the adjudication of the Iranian government in the New York court system in planning the actual attacks just happen to coincide with the US/UK/Iran operation in Herat. The planning for joint international military operations in Herat had to have begun before the attacks on 9/11. Is the world supposed to believe the governments involved direct narrative? What about the Taliban fatwa banning opium after realizing the use of Uzbekistan for the main base to use "Agent Green" (a fungicide with no long range research or longitudinal studies on human effects). It is time for the real truth to finally come to pass and realize justice for all stakeholders involved.