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Pentagon weighs regional players in Afghanistan

The Pentagon’s latest 6-monthly report on the Afghan situation to the US Congress conveys the picture of ‘works in progress. It exudes an air of optimism. The 100-page report reiterates that the US is determined to bludgeon the Taliban into submission. The Pentagon’s assessment of the role of various regional powers provides food for thought.

For a start, the report refrains from making any overt criticism of Pakistan’s role. There are references to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan where the report takes note that “certain extremist groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Networkretain freedom of movement in Pakistan.” On the other hand, the report acknowledges that Pakistani military operations have “disrupted some militant sanctuaries.”

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, “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.”

The latter part regarding “unilateral steps” has been left unexplained. The report also acknowledges that there are terrorist sanctuaries on Afghan soil that threaten Pakistan. It walks a fine line as regards the “mutual security interests” of Afghanistan and Pakistan and refrains from apportioning blame. This is difficult to understand, to say the least. Is the US genuinely helpless  or, is it that it chooses to be passive?

Among regional actors, Pentagon comes down heavily on Russia’s role. Moscow’s intentions are seen as hostile, aimed at undermining the US’ influence in the region. Russia does this by “engaging with the Taliban and putting pressure on Central Asian neighbors to deny support to US and NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.”

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 well trained to handle, simply to eliminate Russia as a partner in any significant way.) The Pentagon report suggests that Afghan-Russian relations are under strain and, presumably, the US intends to keep things that way.

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 counter narcotics, economic development and counter terrorism.” 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 at the UN. Trump’s rhetoric is probably meant to appease Israel and Saudi Arabia, while the Pentagon, which is steering the actual policies on the ground, will encourage Iran to be a factor of stability in Afghanistan. (The US does not oppose India’s Chabahar Port project.)

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”. So, what’s the game plan? It is like this: Keep the Russians out of the Hindu Kush, since they keep the global strategic balance in view and cannot countenance permanent western presence in a hugely strategic part of Eurasia overlooking Russia’s southern borders. Russia is the only power  not China, not Iran and certainly not Pakistan  which may take a confrontational path. And it has the capability to leverage influence inside Afghanistan, although US counts on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to keep the enemy at the gates.

Therefore, the US cannot allow any axis to form between Russia on one side and Iran and / or China on the other. The Iranians are always a pragmatic lot, and if their specific interests in Afghanistan can be accommodated (which is not clashing with the US’, after all), they will learn to live with western military presence in Afghanistan, just as they are doing in the Gulf region.

China, on the other hand, must be constructively engaged, which is done by taking care that: a) security threat to Xinjiang does not escalate (which also fits in with the US’ counter terrorist campaign); b) China’s economic interests  Belt and Road projects  in Central Asia and Pakistan are not impeded (which also fits in with the US interest in regional stability), and, c) China continues to be involved in the peace process (which also helps to moderate Pakistani policies.)

Quite obviously, the US strategy will continue to attribute centrality to Pakistan’s cooperation and the key lies in optimally restoring the Pentagon’s ties with Rawalpindi. The Obama administration was naïve in estimating that Pakistan could be pressurized either directly by rolling back military cooperation and cutting off military assistance and through drone attacks, etc. or by playing the ‘India card’, encouraging Delhi to mount pressure on Islamabad. Pressure tactic will not work with the Pakistani generals.

Pakistan’s non-negotiable demand that India’s ‘influence’ in Kabul must be kept under check is understandable and, therefore, any role for India as a provider of security in Afghanistan or as the West’s partner in the war effort is inconceivable. India’s potential is best utilized in Afghan reconstruction. India is amenable to US persuasion to loosen its purse strings at a juncture when there is growing donor fatigue among allies.

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