For 16 years, the war in Afghanistan has raged with no end in sight. Indeed, it has become America’s longest war. Now that Donald Trump is president, the United States has a pristine opportunity to conclude this costly war. President Trump has expressed a willingness to deploy more U.S. troops in order to win in Afghanistan.
The president also believes that victory can only be achieved if neighboring Pakistan assists the United States in defeating the Taliban and other jihadist groups there. Unfortunately, these are the same failed policy pillars that have failed the previous two administrations.
But there is a better way in Afghanistan. The solution to Afghanistan lies in India.
Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama believed that the best way to exit Afghanistan was through Pakistan. Yet neither Bush nor Obama were ever able fully to realize Pakistani assistance in defeating the Taliban. While the Pakistanis did assist America in certain tactical situations, Pakistani and American interests in defeating groups like the Taliban were (and are) at cross-purposes on the strategic level.
Since the 1980s, the Pakistani government has lent considerable support to the jihadists in Afghanistan. This is because the Pakistani government wants to use Afghanistan for strategic depth in their ongoing conflict with India. After having gained independence in 1947, the mostly Muslim Pakistan has been in an endless conflict with their predominantly Hindu neighbor of India. This division between Pakistan and India dominates the politics of southwestern Asia.
Consequently, like his two predecessors, Trump believes that Pakistan is vital to America’s success. Remember Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” While the United States has all of the military advantages it could want in Afghanistan, ultimately, the war will end when there is a viable political solution there. The political solution will not be found in Afghanistan. It will, however, be found in neighboring Pakistan.
After all, the Pakistanis have considerable sway over the Islamic extremists fighting in Afghanistan. The underlying wisdom goes something like this: if only the United States could force Pakistan to fight the Taliban (and other jihadist networks in the region), then America could declare victory in Afghanistan, and bring the troops home. For 16 years, the Bush and Obama Administrations have tried the combination of carrots and sticks (read: cash and direct threats) to induce the Pakistanis’ assistance.
While two separate and, in many ways, wildly divergent American presidential administrations have come and gone, Pakistani support for the Taliban (and elements of al Qaeda) in Afghanistan remains. Of course, Pakistan is not a monolithic entity. It is, however, imperative that American policymakers stop accepting Pakistani intransigence merely as the “cost of doing business” in southwest Asia.
Truth is, the United States could do no amount of cajoling to end Pakistani support for the Taliban. For Pakistan, Afghanistan is a vital strategic lever to use against their eternal Indian foe. Whereas America is viewed as just another temporary visitor to that part of the world, the Pakistanis have to live with India. Forever.
As a result of this geopolitical fact, Pakistan’s strategic calculations about Afghanistan are wildly different from our own. The United States will have to take an unorthodox approach, therefore, if it means to resolve its differences with Pakistan or to win the War in Afghanistan. Repeating the same efforts as the preceding Bush and Obama Administration’s—even if we really “mean it” this time—will not fundamentally change the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.
Thus, I propose that the United States bypass Pakistan altogether. Right now, the Pakistanis hold all of the cards in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The Pakistani government knows that American policymakers view Pakistan as an essential partner in the Global War on Terror.
Plus, the Pakistani government grasps that America is hesitant to apply too much pressure on them for fear that such pressure could prompt a populist backlash in Pakistan. Given the high degree of Islamism among the Pakistani population, such a popular backlash would likely result in an anti-American Islamist government taking charge in Pakistan. This would place the country’s nuclear arsenal in the hands of groups sympathetic to al Qaeda.
The Pakistani government knows that America fears this. Hence, the Pakistani government does not need to do much to get what it wants from the U.S. The one thing that could change the Pakistani view, however, would be a full-blown U.S.-Indian bilateral relationship.
Right now, India is a budding democracy with a growing military. It also has one of the most vibrant economies in the world. The Indians are, therefore, natural allies for the United States. In fact, throughout the presidential campaign in 2016, President Trump appealed extensively to the Indian-American population. He has long claimed to be a friend of India and has advocated closer ties with India.
The Trump Administration should announce a series of new, special diplomatic, economic, and military agreements with India over the next year. This would shore up the U.S.-India relationship. It would also signal to the Pakistanis that America is pulling away from them. Such a move would prompt a major reassessment of the Pakistani grand strategy.
Right now, America’s endless commitment to fighting in Afghanistan forces us to make nice with neighboring Pakistan. The Pakistani government reaps great economic and military advantages from this situation. If America were to leave Afghanistan now, then Pakistan would lose their sweetheart economic and military aid deals with the United States.
If the Trump Administration indicated that it wanted to build a new “special relationship” with democratic India (much like the ones that America currently enjoys with Britain and Israel), the Pakistanis might change their tune. What’s more, in spite of calls to the contrary, if the Trump Administration committed to a surge of forces in Afghanistan along with the crafting of closer diplomatic ties with India, Pakistan would recognize that America is no longer looking for the exits.
Indeed, Pakistan would likely turn on their jihadist friends in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis would do this in order to hasten an American withdrawal from the region. The Pakistanis would want America gone since the increased diplomatic costs of America’s continued presence in Afghanistan would outweigh the military and financial benefits.
The United States needs to spend the next year signaling to the Pakistanis that if they do not fully assist us, then we will unleash India in the region. The only sure-fire way for Pakistan to prevent a U.S.-India special relationship would be to turn on the Taliban. After all, a special economic and military alliance between the United States and India would only make India stronger than it already is. This would directly threaten Pakistan and isolate them on the world stage.
Once Pakistan fully commits to defeating jihadist networks in Afghanistan (notably the Taliban, but also al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network), U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be able to declare victory in Afghanistan. Only then, after true victory is achieved, could American forces (save for small counterterrorism units) return home.
Two different American leaders have tried to end the war in Afghanistan by using the Pakistanis. Both Presidents Bush and Obama failed to accomplish their goals. The Pakistanis simply have no interest in destroying jihadist networks in Afghanistan. President Trump has indicated his desire to end the war, but he has also expressed his belief that the war will only end if Pakistan takes a more proactive role. The only way to prompt Pakistan to take such a role, in my estimation, is by complicating its grand strategy vis-à-vis India.
America must exit Afghanistan through India.