A silver lining for Afghan counter-insurgency?

A silver lining for Afghan counter-insurgency?
Comment: The United States is looking more to regional allies to help bring about stability in Afghanistan, as can be seen by the Boyle family's extraction, writes Naveed Ahmad.
7 min read
23 Oct, 2017
Some experts estimate the Afghanistan war will ultimately cost $2 trillion [AFP]
After putting to rest rumours of jumping the Trump ship, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is embarking on an exhaustive Asia tour, which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. 

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week, he reiterated the commitment to strengthening relations with India, while bluntly bashing China for its growing global role.

In the 20-minute speech, he emphasised Delhi's greater role in stability and prosperity of Kabul but insisted that Islamabad must pave the way for Afghan peace.

"We expect Pakistan to take decisive action against terrorist groups based within their own borders that threaten their own people and the broader region," he said.

Less than a week ago, US President Donald J Trump had only praise for Pakistan. Not only did he repeatedly tweet, but he also told a press conference: "The Pakistani government's cooperation is a sign that it is honouring America's wish that it do more to provide security in the region. I want to thank the Pakistani government. I want to thank Pakistan. They were very hard on this."

The US president was referring to the release of Canadian citizen Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, along with their three children, from the Taliban's Haqqani network. Islamabad acted on a tip-off from US officials as the kidnappers' vehicles entered Pakistan's semi-autonomous Kurram Agency area.

Later, US Vice President Mike Pence called Pakistani premier Shahid Khaqan to express the gratitude of the United States government.

Joshua Boyle had travelled to Afghanistan with Caitlan Coleman, his pregnant wife, in October 2012. The man had converted to Islam before leaving Canada, and travelled to the war-torn country as a "pilgrim".

After being kidnapped, the Haqqani branch of the militia wanted to ransom him for money - but with little success.

He claimed that Taliban fighters, meanwhile, raped his wife and killed their infant child, a claim the Taliban has denied. The 35-year-old Canadian also noted that there was not a single attempt by the Afghan military to free them.

In their eventual rescue, three-dozen Pakistan soldiers exchanged fire with the militants as the couple and their infant remained locked in the car's boot, while the two sons hid in the vehicle's cabin. Except for a non-life-threatening shrapnel injury to Joshua, everyone in his family was eventually safe.

"The ISI (Pakistani intelligence officials) and the army got between the criminals and the car to ensure that the prisoners were safe and my family was safe. They put them to flight and they ran like cowards," Boyle later said in an interview.

Read more: Pakistan army describes freeing US-Canadian couple from Taliban

The fact that neither US troops nor the Afghan National Army could recover the captives while they were in custody on Afghanistan's soil sheds light on the limited scope of the Ghani-Abdullah government, as well as the restricted operational space of foreign troops.

Three days after the rescue, four Pakistani soldiers, including a officer with the rank of captain, were killed when an explosive device went off in the same Kurram Agency.

Condemning the killing, US Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale confirmed: "These personnel were searching for the kidnappers." The soldiers had also taken part in the rescue operation, on the borders with the Nangarhar and Paktia provinces of Afghanistan.

"We remain extremely grateful for the Pakistani military's quick response and successful humanitarian operation allowing Caitlan Coleman and her family to return home safely," David Hale said.
US drone strategy has serious tactical and diplomatic limitations

The saga goes to prove that US drone strategy has serious tactical and diplomatic limitations.

Sending in the Marines could have had a high human as well political cost for the US and Kabul. Intelligence-sharing not only helped saved innocent lives but also repaired a working relationship.

Since then, coordinated full fledged military operations have been continuing on either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Two US drone strikes killed more than 25 militants on Monday, including some high-profile, highly wanted militants.

"Chief of our Jamaat-ul-Ahrar Umar Khalid Khorasani, who sustained serious injuries in a recent US drone strike in Afghanistan's Paktia province, succumbed to his injuries on Wednesday evening," Jamaat-ul-Ahrar spokesman Asad Mansoor told AFP via telephone from an undisclosed location.

Khorasani had claimed responsibility for many deadly attacks; the most prominent among which was a suicide attack killing 75 people in a Lahore Park on Easter Sunday.

US and Afghan forces did not act against the militants taking refuge in Afghanistan for months. But revived intelligence-sharing and military-to-military operational coordination will take the battle ot the insurgent groups.

Pakistan's army chief early in October held meetings with the Afghan president and his aides to boost the effectiveness of coordination against militancy. Meanwhile, Islamabad has been building a fence along the treacherous border, as well as installing sensors and cameras for monitoring.

Islamabad estimates it is spending $532 million to install a chicken-wire fence, while building 750 border posts equipped with high-tech surveillance along the entire Afghan frontier.

Read more: America, not Pakistan is to blame for failings in Afghanistan

Can the newly found goodwill be long-lasting? Yes and no.

The silver lining appeared this week when the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) - comprising Afghanistan, US, China and Pakistan - met in Oman to discuss resuming direct Kabul-Taliban negotiations.

The process had previously stalled ahead of the sixth round in July 2016, when Taliban leader Mulla Akhtar was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan's border region while en route from Iran.

Despite Trump's trigger-happy approach to the Afghan situation, the administration has renewed high-level diplomacy with Pakistan, and also sent a senior delegate for the Muscat meeting.

But Washington's outreach to Islamabad has not gone down well in Delhi.

Nimrata "Nikki" Haley (nee Randhawa - her parents emigrated to the US from India) is the US Permanent Representative at the UN, and was one of the first to parrot the old mantra, using an address to the US-India Friendship Council to criticise Pakistan without referring to the recent thaw in relations.

We are really going to need India's help in Afghanistan

"We are really going to need India's help in Afghanistan. They are the good neighbours and partner that we have in the region. So, having them help not only with infrastructure and the aid that they can give towards rebuilding Afghanistan, [they can] also help us to keep an eye on Pakistan," Haley said.

Her remarks bitterly undercut Washington's ambassador in Islamabad.

Nikki Haley speaks to ABC about US strategy in Afghanistan

While military commanders on ground as well as the Pentagon itself see Pakistan's cooperation as vital in improving stability in Afghanistan, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, National Security Council Senior Director for South Asia Lisa Curtis, and UN envoy Haley are known for advocating a punitive policy.

The realities on the ground are stark. The Taliban has insider support as well as looted or purchased US vehicles and weaponry. Driving an American Humvee, the militia eliminated an Afghan army unit in Kandahar. While the Taliban claimed some 150 lives in attacks on Tuesday and Wednesday, Pompeo fantasised about "zero chance" for the militants.

Is failure an option for the Trump administration? In case of increased losses, will India be able to send troops and restore normality?

During his visit to India last month, James Mattis, US secretary of defence, said India must not undercut US interests in Afghanistan. The US is already aware of the fact that Russia and Iran remain disruptive influences in Afghanistan, aiming to increase Washington's human and financial cost of deployment - besides humiliating it militarily.

By disregarding Pakistan's counter-terror actions and speaking India's language, Washington will push Afghanistan's most vital neighbour closer to Iran and Russia. Aside from Trump's vague Afghan strategy address, the reality has sunk in well. Washington has not abandoned the diplomatic channel, while keeping open the door to a political settlement by supporting attempts to revive Taliban-Kabul talks through QCG.

The likes of ongoing synchronised military operations along both sides of the frontier are a win-win-win for the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The burden of reviving Afghanistan's social cohesion lies on Ghani-Abdullah's government - lest foreign actors and militants deepen the wedges of ethnic and sectarian division.

Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in Qatar. In over 20 years of writing and reporting, he has focused on diplomacy, security and governance. Ahmad won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC-ICFJ Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010.

Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.