Winning the War in Afghanistan is Possible with One Tool
On Thursday, Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with the Taliban for the second time in Qatar to broker peace. Mr. Khalilzad’s trip to Qatar is part of his second regional tour from November 8–20 to garner regional support for peace in Afghanistan. His latest endeavor epitomizes Washington’s consistently inadequate policies on Afghanistan.
As Washington seeks to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, it has sought various avenues to change the course of the war. Despite exhausting a variety of resources and billions of dollars, Washington’s policies have yet to address the root cause of the war: Pakistan’s pivotal role in the Taliban’s insurgency. Instead, Washington has acknowledged Pakistan’s role in the conflict but has wishfully urged Pakistan to change its pro-Taliban policy.
As a continuation of these inadequate policies, on October 23rd, the Department of the Treasury sanctioned members of the Taliban and their Iranian sponsors. According to Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, “Iran’s provision of military training, financing, and weapons to the Taliban is yet another example of Tehran’s blatant regional meddling and support for terrorism. The United States and our partners will not tolerate the Iranian regime exploiting Afghanistan to further their destabilizing behavior. Iran’s support to the Taliban stands in stark violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions and epitomizes the regime’s utter disregard for fundamental international norms.”
Further, the Department of the Treasury noted that, “These designations support President Trump’s South Asia Strategy by exposing and disrupting actors seeking to undermine the Afghan government, and disrupting terrorist safe havens in South Asia. We will continue to actively target those providing financial support to the Taliban until there is a negotiated peace settlement.”
However, these sanctions fail to fully reflect the realities on the ground. While Iran is one of the many regional actors that support the Taliban, it isn’t the Taliban’s lifeline. More importantly, the Taliban’s war in Afghanistan predates Iran’s support.
Zachary Shirkey, an expert on international security, notes in his book, Is This a Private Fight or Can Anybody Join: The Spread of Interstate War, that “an ongoing war provides a window of opportunity for third-party states to engage in opportunistic aggression.” Iran is doing exactly that. As the war in Afghanistan crippled Kabul’s institutions, as early as 2005, Iran lent its support to the Taliban, in exchange for the Taliban’s support in advancing Iran’s interests in Afghanistan.
Should Iran halt its support, the Taliban’s war would still continue. This is because Iran isn’t the orchestrator of the Taliban’s insurgency. It’s Pakistan.
In the early years of the Taliban’s insurgency, a U.S. Intelligence Information Report from 1996, noted that “Pakistan’s ISI is heavily involved in Afghanistan” by supporting the Taliban. According to the intelligence report, the Frontier Corps, a branch of the Pakistani army, commanded and controlled the Taliban’s military operations. At times, the Frontier Corps even fought alongside the Taliban.
Despite the Taliban’s role in 9/11, Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policy did not change. Pakistan remains the backbone of the Taliban’s insurgency. According to Bruce Reidel, an expert on South Asia, by 2004, the Taliban “resumed the war inside Afghanistan. Pakistan gave it critical help and assistance. Without it, the Taliban would never have recovered. A NATO study published in 2012 based on the interrogations of 4000 captured Taliban, al-Qaeda and other fighters in Afghanistan in over 27,000 interrogations concluded that ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence agency] support was critical to the survival and revival of the Taliban after 2001 just as it was critical to its conquest of Afghanistan in the 1990s. It provides sanctuary, training camps, expertise and help with fundraising… the NATO report concluded ‘the ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel.’”
Iran’s support for the Taliban is only possible because of Pakistan’s efforts to fundamentally revive their insurgency after 2001. Given Pakistan’s over-arching role in the Taliban’s insurgency, according to Peter Tomsen, former U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, if Pakistan wants, “it could close it [the Taliban’s training center] down overnight.”
As early as the 1990s, the United States has been keen on stabilizing Afghanistan’s security. In 1996, at a hearing held by the U.S. Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the prospect for peace in Afghanistan, Abdul Rahim Ghafoorzai, in his capacity as Afghanistan’s vice-foreign minister, suggested “Putting some pressure on Pakistani army intelligence circles to end its naked and aggressive interferences.” He’s right. Applying pressure on Pakistan’s army through sanctions would induce it to cease supporting the Taliban.
Why is sanctioning the army more effective than sanctioning the entire Pakistani regime?
Foremost: the army is Pakistan’s most powerful institution that controls the ISI and determines its foreign policy, including its pro-Taliban policy.
Secondly: The Pakistani army is also an economic empire. Through its presence within the government, the army is expanding its economic assets. The United States, a major investor in Pakistan, could significantly raise the army’s cost for pursuing a pro-Taliban policy by enforcing sanctions on the Pakistani army. Such sanctions would harm the army’s economic interests and prompt it to abandon its patronage for the Taliban.
“But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win,” said President Donald Trump on Afghanistan last year. While sanctioning Iran is a positive step towards holding the regime accountable for supporting militant groups like the Taliban, it will not bring us an inch closer to victory in Afghanistan. Winning the war in Afghanistan is only possible by addressing its core: the Pakistani army.