While President Trump ratchets up a verbal war with North Korea, he can't seem to decide what to do about the real war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. effort to stabilize that country has dragged on for 16 years, since the 2001 defeat of the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaeda. Yet the Taliban are making a comeback and now control about 40 percent of the country.
Seven months into his term, Trump has yet to approve a new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. He has refused, so far, to approve his generals' request for a small increase to the 8,400 troops in country – to train and assist Afghan forces.
Some of the president's advisers have urged him to pull U.S. troops out altogether and he once said he'd like to wash his hands of the Afghan conflict. That may be tempting but would likely lead to a Taliban takeover and a return of al-Qaeda — as well as a new base for ISIS – a huge defeat on Trump's score sheet.
Yet there's no sign whether Trump will do the one thing that hasn't been tried, which Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both failed to do, and which might open a path to resolving the conflict: Put a real squeeze on the country that keeps the Taliban war boiling, even as it pretends to be a U.S. ally. I'm referring to Afghanistan's duplicitous neighbor, Pakistan.
"The problem of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to Pakistan," says Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. "The Taliban would not be where they are if they did not have a safe haven in Pakistan.
"The two problems have to be solved together."
Here's what Haqqani means: For decades, U.S. leaders have chafed at the double game played by Pakistani generals and the ISI intelligence agency. The Pakistanis have trained and sheltered the Taliban Islamists in order to exert control over the future of Afghanistan, which they view through the lens of their endless struggle with India. Elected Afghan leaders, they believe, will be friendlier with Delhi.
In my many trips to Afghanistan, national and provincial leaders complained bitterly that, without Pakistani weapons, training, and shelter for the Taliban, Afghan tribes and local leaders could have resolved their problems, through mediation and bargains.
Instead, the Pakistani ISI and military kept the Afghan pot boiling. They played a frustrating game of "good Taliban, bad Taliban" — helping Afghan Talibs who were killing Americans but fighting murderous Pakistani Taliban at home.
The Pakistani military continually denied the Afghan Taliban's top leaders and their families were based in Pakistan — a blatant falsehood. Pakistan sheltered Osama bin Laden for years, right beside a military cantonment. Just this month, the Lashkar-e-Taiba organization — headed by Hafiz Saeed, a U.N.-named terrorist suspected of masterminding the 2008 attacks in Mumbai — registered as a political party under a new name.
Why has the United States put up with such duplicity? In past decades, State Department and Pentagon officials insisted they needed Pakistan as an ally to fight terrorists on both sides of the Pakistani border – and to force the Taliban to negotiate. But, Haqqani says, "every time Taliban leaders [in Pakistan] reached out to U.S. officials, they were arrested" or prevented from showing up.
However, times have changed. With only a small troop presence in Afghanistan, Washington is no longer as dependent on using Pakistan as backup. And Washington officials have recognized, as Haqqani puts it, "Pakistani behavior won't change."
So it is time to consider a new U.S. approach to Pakistan, which is the title of a Hudson Institute monograph by Haqqani and Lisa Curtis (now senior director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council).
Among its key recommendations: Stop portraying Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally (while keeping the door open if the country stopped supporting terrorist groups). Also, curb U.S. military aid and reimbursements unless Pakistan meets counterterrorism conditions – a step the Pentagon is now taking. And keep open the option of targeting Taliban leaders in Pakistan with drones.
Two more key points: Make clear to Pakistan if it doesn't show substantial progress toward ending support to the Haqqani terrorist network and the Afghan Taliban – including an end to weapons shipments and deportation of its leaders – Pakistan may be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. This would have negative repercussions on a problematic Pakistani economy.
The point is not to break relations with Pakistan but to demonstrate that its duplicity will no longer be rewarded.
The goal of any new strategy would be encouraging reconciliation talks between Taliban factions and Kabul, without expecting help from the Pakistanis. But Pakistan should pay a price if it continues to obstruct such talks.
With a saner policy toward Pakistan, it makes sense to increase the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by 4,000 U.S. trainers and enablers. The Pentagon has learned valuable lessons while fighting ISIS in Iraq as to how to best use such troops on the ground.
But any new U.S. forces should be added without a deadline. As Haqqani warns, "You have to show Pakistan, everyone, you are not doing an Obama." He means Trump should not set a deadline at the same time he sends troops, so the Taliban know they just have to wait the Americans out.
And for god's sake, ignore the advice of Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater, the private security firm that ran wild and unfettered in Iraq, killing civilians and embittering Iraqis. No surprise, Prince is urging the president to send private contractors to replace U.S. troops as trainers. Down that road lie shame and disaster.