For Afghanistan, Trump should dust off Obama’s Syria plan

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Donald Trump recently had a long and doubtlessly taxing meeting with Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog“ Mattis. The meeting resulted in an announcement on Monday in which Trump predictably called for more troops in Afghanistan and furthermore uttered the infamous word “win” in the same sentence as mentioning war with Afghanistan.

These words carry a curse that long predates the infamy of the phrase “Assad must go!”

Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, is certainly living up to its name in respect of the US. The nearly 16-year-long quagmire continues to slip from the grip of the US as other powers, including those historically viewed with suspicion in Kabul are slowly but surely coming in to sweep up the dust of a conflict which has now run longer than both of the world wars combined.

‘I have a cunning plan’

Many have long lamented and continue to lament the fact that the US hasn’t really had a plan for Afghanistan since the time in 2001 when George W Bush formally ousted the Taliban who had controlled virtually all of the country since 1996. Since 2001, the official US plan has looked like a strategy best defined as “now what?”

The truth, however, is that the Americans do more or less have an Afghan strategy. The problem is that they don’t know it. All one needs to do in order to find it is dust off Barack Obama’s Syria strategy.

In Syria there was and there remains an experienced, broadly popular, secular central government whose Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party has governed the country effectively since 1963 and governed it stably since 1970, the year Hafez al-Assad (the current president’s father) came to power.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration insisted that it should fully back and arm the “rebels” it had largely created along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Israel providing the hallelujah chorus of “intelligence” to back the operation all the while.

In spite of reams of evidence to the contrary, Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry insisted that the future of Syria lay in the hands of the so-called “moderate rebels” and that no peace could be brought to the country without such “moderate rebels” playing a leading role.

Then two things happened. First of all, it became apparent that the only effective forces opposed to the Syrian government were those moderate enough to behead civilians with a sharp rather than a rusty blade. No matter how much the mainstream media tried to suppress this grim truth, it gradually came out.

Second, when Russia began helping Syria militarily after 2015, it became increasingly clear that the previously strong central government of Bashar al-Assad was not going anywhere.

Today, the myth of moderate rebels has been abandoned quietly by its former champions in Washington and Ankara. The Saudis and Qataris have descended into a moderate cold war in the desert and Israel is kicking and screaming about the fact that it didn’t get its way and likely never will in respect of seeing through regime change in Damascus.

You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!

This same plan of Obama’s that has abjectly failed in Syria is ironically one that, with slight modifications, could succeed in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, there exists a very weak, divided government with an extremely dubious historical pedigree. The opposition Taliban factions have perversely become forces that, in spite of an ideology that would be as foreign in Los Angeles as in Pyongyang, are increasingly seen by many Afghans – and crucially many former opponents both in Afghanistan and in the wider world – as a force that must be dealt with diplomatically if there is to be any lasting compromise settlement for the turbulent country.

After years of war between feuding warlords, militant factions and former governing factions, the Taliban are all of a sudden those “moderate rebels” that the US tried so hard to create and then locate in Syria.

Despite the Soviet Union fighting a nine-year-long war against the US-backed Mujahideen, who were for all intents and purposes the predecessors of the Taliban, Russia now accepts that the Taliban must be at the peace table and must be spoken to like moderate rebels rather than dangerous extremists.

Iran, which was violently opposed to the ultra-Sunni Mujahideen and the 1990s Taliban regime, now feels much the same. China and Pakistan feel arguably even more strongly about this, as they are both keen to bring a quick settlement to Afghanistan in order to make sure the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will form an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is not operating next to a permanently failed state.

In this sense, while some might simplistically argue that Pakistan’s “pro-Taliban” position is the only one in the region or even the world that has remained consistent, the fact is that Pakistan’s reasons for supporting Taliban reconciliation today are different from those of the recent past. From the 1980s up until recent years, Islamabad had sympathies with the Taliban in order to expand Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan at the expense of other foreign players, primarily the USSR and India, and, to a degree, Iran.

With India’s shift closer to the US and with Pakistan-Russia relations at historic highs, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is now one of pragmatism. Fighting between the government in Kabul and the Taliban has led to instability on Pakistan’s border. Pakistan wants as stable an Afghanistan as possible on its border and, like Beijing and Moscow, Islamabad realizes that this means taking the Taliban into the proverbial peace tent rather than having them wage war on the outside.

Reality bites

In this sense, China, Pakistan and to a degree Russia and also Iran are doing in Afghanistan what the US tried to do in Syria. They are willing to work with moderate rebels, in spite of their ideology, in order to bring stability to the country.

The big difference is that the Chinese, Pakistani, Russian and Iranian perspectives on Afghanistan’s “moderate rebels” is based on realism, whereas the US/Turkish/Gulf states/Israeli perspective on Syria’s was based on a combination of wishful thinking and fantasy.

In Syria, even those who moderately disagreed with the Assad government did not want to support Salafist, ultra-Sunni militants/terrorists. For those who wanted more economic transparency and roads paved more frequently in Syria, Al-Nusra Front and carbon-copy groups were never the answer. As the conflict raged on, Syrians became, if anything, more committed to preserving the secular, classically Levantine status quo of secular rule.

In Afghanistan by contrast, Taliban factions do enjoy a large degree of popular support, which cannot be denied. They of course have opposition that is equally legitimate, but while Syria without Al-Nusra is not only possible but preferable, Afghanistan without the Taliban is now realistically impossible.

Don Quixote and the art of a bad deal

Donald Trump likes to win, but history has shown that he also knows when to throw in the towel. In New Jersey, the Trump Taj Mahal was a monument to all the excesses earthly gold could buy, but now it sits empty, waiting to be transformed into a more mundane Hard Rock hotel and casino.

America took the same gamble that many world powers since Alexander the Great’s Empire took, and the gamble failed.

Afghanistan is a bad deal for the US, and what exists of current US strategy in Afghanistan is a bad deal for the region.

During his announcement on Monday, President Trump stated: “My original instinct was to pull out – and, historically, I like following my instincts.” It seems his instincts also like to follow history itself. Both have clearly been cheated.

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