Voices from the Region

On the New U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan with Thomas Ruttig

U.S. President Donald Trump recently unveiled a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, promising to maintain the military contingent there, give the local forces more military autonomy, begin political negotiations with the Taliban, and force Pakistan to cooperate. According to Trump, the US will fight  terrorists, but will not engage in nation-building.

We asked Thomas Ruttig, co-director and co-founder of the Afghan Analytical Network (Analytical Network of Afghanistan) what he thinks of the new American policy in Afghanistan. He has a degree in Asian Studies from Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany); spent 12 years working as a foreign news editor and freelance journalist specializing on Afghan and Central Asian development affairs (1989-2000); and has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade.

What was your general impression of Trump’s speech on U.S. policy in Afghanistan yesterday? Does this suggest engagement or disengagement to you?

It is clearly not disengagement. This was a big relief for many Afghans who feared that President Trump might pull out his troops, as he said he would have liked to do. That could have led to collapse. The Afghans know that the stability of their country still, and for the foreseeable future, depends on outside financial and military help. Afghanistan is by far the most aid-dependent country in the world, and it is clear that, for example, the takeover of Kunduz by the Taliban in 2015 could only be reversed because of Allied support. The same was true during Taliban attempts to take over other provincial centres in 2016, for example in Farah and Helmand.

The issue is, however: engagement with what purpose? It is not enough to keep the Taliban from taking over (Trump’s definition of winning a war). You also need to have a functioning state to hand over [to the Afghans]. Apart from that problem, most analysts seem to agree that this war cannot be won—so you need a strategy for a negotiated end to the war.

Was anything in his speech new to you or was it pretty much as you expected?

Someone in the US wrote before the speech: Do not expect any new, fancy tricks to end the war. Correct: Everything has been tried, only often much too late. So the not-so-new strategy is a mix of some (earlier) G.W. Bush—fight terrorists, don’t do state building (although Trump contradicts himself on the latter in the speech) —with some Obama—more troops and drones and attempts to (belatedly) open a door for dialogue with the Taliban. Surprisingly, Trump is tougher on Pakistan than on the Taliban. By not throwing them into the same terrorist pot as IS and al-Qaeda, he leaves a door open for talks, although he expressed skepticism that this would work, which he probably should have left out.

In practical terms, is it possible to both engage the Taliban and change Pakistan?

That’s what you have diplomats for. It is their job to find out how to do it. It will be extremely difficult, though. Pakistan has its own interests, and it will not drop them. And since it has nuclear weapons—which the Americans fear might fall into the hands of terrorists if the government collapses—the US has limited leverage. Pakistan also has some leverage as it controls the U.S. military’s only transit route to Afghanistan—and can block it again. I don’t think the Taliban are absolutely against talks. They are not strong enough to take over, control and—above all!—govern the country effectively. (They might still hope for military victory through collapse.) But under the current circumstances, it is about accepting them as an actor in their own right, not as a marionette of Pakistan. Cutting their dependency on Pakistan would actually be positive for Afghanistan. It is therefore difficult to understand why the US has previously given Pakistan such a big role: to “make the Taliban talk.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the United States is ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without the preconditions on which the previous administration insisted. What do you make of that?

In my view, the talk of preconditions is overrated. No one can prevent the parties from stating their objectives, which might often be maximal positions. In talks, you try to lower their expectations and find common ground between the parties. Accusing the other side of imposing preconditions often reflects a willingness to not talk at all. In this sense, the U.S. idea could open the way to meaningful talks. And even if the Taliban officially insists that they would never talk to the Afghan government, they have already met representatives. So all this also does not preclude making contacts to create a better mutual understanding. But the main understanding that needs to be developed is that Afghanistan’s problems cannot be solved by war, that war only increases them. This is something the elites on all sides need to come to agreement on, as it is the common people who usually suffer because of it.

Why can the Afghan government and the Taliban not agree?

I think they could, and they should, if both sides really do what they currently claim without sufficient legitimacy: speak for the Afghan population. But this can only happen under the condition I just mentioned: the elites on all sides need to overcome their narrow aims of the power and wealth that are generated by war.

Do you see any risks with giving military autonomy to local forces?

Apart from the conflict with the Taliban and local pro-IS groups, the problem is pro-government militias, and also, in large part, auxiliary forces such as the Afghan Local Police, who are only loyal to their commanders, not to the government. As they are often left unpaid, they go and rob the local population. And they often do not go away, even if they are officially disbanded, because they then have this option to become bandits and survive. This is a big threat to Afghanistan becoming “peaceful” in the future, and the strategy of boosting such forces is absolutely short-sighted.

What is “nation-building,” in Trump’s view? Did the US achieve it in Afghanistan?

Trump says he is not doing “nation-building,” and a few lines further on he talks about “military, economic, and political” means. This is unclear. What is clear is that the current political system is not functioning, so institution-building—as I prefer to call it—has not worked so far. Many institutions are just a façade. Take parliament, for example: its elections are more than two years overdue, and no one is really pushing for them. The new date, July 2018, is completely unrealistic, and everyone knows it. The lack of a legitimate parliament—as destructively as its members sometimes behave (but they have often been ignored in key decisions, so that is somewhat understandable)—results in a lopsided political system dominated by the executive, which is dangerous in the current situation where ethnic tensions are flaring up again. Afghanistan is an extremely diverse country, and needs strong and trustworthy institutions to balance all the different groups and interests.

How will Trump’s policy be perceived in Afghanistan? How about in Russia and in China?

From the official side, the Afghan government has welcomed the strategy, because it guarantees their survival, at least in the medium term. This is shared by large parts of the public, at least those who have the means to make themselves heard (on social media and so on). But there are also more muted voices who are afraid of the escalation of war, the costs to be paid by additional innocent victims, the issue of continued U.S. domination, etc. They also agree that the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters are only one part of the problem, and the dysfunctional and often unwilling government is the other part of it. They do not speak out very loudly, as they fear that they would be labeled unpatriotic.

They are afraid that the U.S. guarantee will result in reform being stalled by officials who are not interested in change. This danger is particularly strong with the upcoming elections in 2018/19, and the alliance building related to it, which necessitates alliance building with those who should actually removed from power. The fact that China has supported Pakistan, saying that it does its job in fighting terrorism, will disappoint Afghans, as they hoped Beijing would help bring Pakistan to a more constructive position and the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Photo: Flickr