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What it will take to end the conflict in Afghanistan

President Donald Trump outlined his strategy for ending the nearly 16-year conflict in Afghanistan in a nationally televised speech on Monday night at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Donald Trump outlined his strategy for ending the nearly 16-year conflict in Afghanistan in a nationally televised speech on Monday night, laying out a plan that relies on what The New York Times called “a mix of conventional military force and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan.”

We asked professor Valentine Moghadam, director of the Middle East Studies program at Northeastern, to weigh in on the efficacy of Trump’s plan and the challenges of pulling out of America’s longest war.

Trump’s new strategy for the war in Afghanistan—deploying more troops, putting diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, and reaching out to the Taliban—largely relies on tactics that failed under the previous two administrations. Do you think this approach will work now?

I doubt it will work as currently envisioned. Afghanistan’s problems are a part of a broad regional crisis as well as its own specific quagmire going back to the late 1970s. Since the early 20th century, Afghanistan has tried several times to modernize, but each attempt has faltered in the face of an entrenched patriarchal and tribal resistance. In April 1978, a left-wing modernizing government came to power in Afghanistan. At the time, I found this very promising.

A few years earlier, the U.S. had lost the war in Vietnam. The Cold War was still dominating world politics, and Jimmy Carter was now U.S. president. Perhaps Carter might have left Afghanistan alone, but his national security adviser was the Polish-born and fiercely anti-communist Zbigniew Brzezinski. When a tribal-Islamist uprising began in the summer of 1978, Brzezinski urged support for the rebels, and the CIA began its destabilization measures. As the situation deteriorated, the Afghan government appealed for military help from the Soviet Union, and after much internal consultation, the Soviet authorities decided to send in a limited military contingent in December 1979, confident that they would be able to leave by the spring.

Eager to undermine further Soviet influence, Brzezinski urged further military support, which was vastly increased when Ronald Reagan became president. Bogged down in what had become a very unpopular war, Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet leader in 1985, decided to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan. By the time it did, in early 1989, vast military supplies had proliferated throughout the country; numerous jihadists had come to Afghanistan to fight the “holy war”; and Pakistan was now committed to an Afghanistan run by Islamists.

In his memoirs, Brzezinski explained that he believed the spread of communism to be worse than the spread of Islam. But of course he was wrong. Over the past 40 years, Islamism has spread and produced terrorists and misogynists across the globe. The U.S., for its part, has consistently pursued terribly misguided foreign policies that have destabilized regimes and opened up a Pandora’s box with no end in sight. And the U.S. is seemingly unwilling or unable to learn from history or its own terrible mistakes.

Now President Trump talks of a new “South Asia strategy.” But sending a few thousand more U.S. troops into Afghanistan will not make a difference. It will just stoke the flames even further. The genie is long out of the bottle. Once the U.S. enters these countries, whether it’s Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya, what you get for the most part is incredibly fierce resistance.

So if this latest strategy won’t work, what will?

There might be a way out. In order to truly end this bloodshed and bring about security and stability, the U.S. needs to take the lead in helping to form a broad regional partnership including Iran, India, China, and Pakistan, as well as the neighboring countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The U.S. has never really been an honest international policy broker, which is why it has never been able to help resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. But—and this might be more wishful thinking—if the U.S. could work with these countries toward regional cooperation in a very honest way, it could be a real step forward. The U.S. cannot act unilaterally; it has to be part of a broad multilateral effort to bring about peace, stability, and security in Afghanistan. So the way out may be a strategy of cooperation with regional actors—especially Iran, China, and India, as well as Pakistan—toward peace talks and a plan for economic and social development. Much as I dislike the Taliban, it would have to be part of peace talks, but a broad united regional front could compel them not only to come to the negotiating table but also to accept conditions pertaining to women’s participation and rights, infrastructural development, and a stable political process.

The conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest-running military operation in the history of the United States. Why has it been so difficult for the U.S. to extricate itself from the country?

It’s a matter of international status, reputation, and pride. We have to recognize that the U.S. has been the only global military power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Up to that point, the two nations were the world’s superpowers. But since the collapse of the communist bloc, the U.S. has reigned as the world’s sole hegemon. It’s not doing so great economically, and it has lost the ideological legitimacy it had with a lot part of the world after World War II, but its military is still strong and it wants to retain that power. The role of what Eisenhower famously called the military-industrial complex is also salient, as many corporations depend on militarism and war for their profits.

In his speech, Trump pressured Pakistan to help the U.S. defeat the Taliban, suggesting that the U.S. could cut financial aid to the South Asian nation if it continues to allow extremist groups to maintain sanctuaries in its territory. How might Trump’s hardened approach to Pakistan affect the relationship between the two countries?

Trump’s critique of Pakistan for having harbored and sheltered terrorists, and his insistence that Pakistan cooperate toward stability in Afghanistan, was the one part of the speech I agreed with, although I think it is too little and perhaps too late. Pakistan has long been a rogue state but it should be noted that the U.S. enabled Pakistan and indeed turned a blind eye when it worked on the development of its nuclear weaponry.

Trump is now saying that we have to clamp down on Pakistan. How will this pan out? There’s a good chance that Pakistan will listen if Trump is serious about cutting off all military aid to the country, and if the U.S. manages to bring other regional actors in a collective effort to end the bloodshed and instability in Afghanistan. That is, if the U.S. treated Iran, China, and India as equal partners in its “South Asia strategy” rather than as subordinates, then the Pakistani government and military would be compelled to join the effort. Pakistan would cooperate in ending any and all support to armed rebels, urge its friends among the Taliban to come to the negotiating table, and finally help bring about peace, reconstruction, development, and stability in Afghanistan.

Having studied Afghanistan since 1978, visited the country in early 1989, written many legal affidavits to support Afghan women’s asylum claims to the U.S., and read with sympathy about the numerous Afghans seeking refugee status in Europe, I can only hope that the strategy I propose is adopted and is successful.