The Hindu – A day in Delhi for Ghani and Tillerson

The visits will provide India opportunity to hold talks on crucial regional and security-related issues

Special Correspondent

New Delhi. 20 October 2017. Continuing with close bilateral consultation, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani will visit India on October 24. The official confirmation about the visit came even as the Ministry of External Affairs reiterated India’s commitment to ‘rule-based international order’, setting the stage for the visit of USA Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the capital on the same day.

The visit by President Ghani comes within days of a visit to Kabul by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Thursday’s Taliban attack on the Afghan National Army base in Kandahar province that killed at least fifty-eight security personnel.

When asked about the details of the Afghan leader’s agenda, an MEA official source said that the visit was being “worked upon” and a statement on the agenda would be made soon.

Mr Ghani’s visit, which is likely to last for half-a-day, is significant as it comes two-months after USA President Donald Trump announced his government’s new Afghanistan policy for which he has urged India to do more.

Crucial talks

The visits of Mr Ghani and Mr Tillerson to Delhi indicate that they will provide all three, the USA, Afghanistan and India, the opportunity to hold talks on crucial regional and security-related issues.

Indicating at India’s stance to Mr Tillerson’s visit, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, “We appreciate his positive evaluation of the relationship and share his optimism about its future directions. We look forward to welcoming him in India next week for detailed discussions on further strengthening of our partnership.”

The Ministry’s statement was a response to Mr Tillerson’s October 18 comments at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington DC, where he highlighted his two decades-long personal ties with India and said:

Centre of gravity

“The world’s centre of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The USA and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific.”

Mr Tillerson had also pointed out that China’s rise as an international power had been “less peaceful”. The Asia-Pacific component of the visit will unfold soon after the latest congress of the Communist Party of China which led to the consolidation of power of President Xi Jinping and his re-election for one more term.


Dawn – Hostage family held in Pakistan for five years: CIA

Washington DC, 20 October 2017. The CIA head said on Thursday that the US-Canadian couple kidnapped by the militants in Afghanistan were held inside Pakistan for five years before being freed last week.

“We had a great outcome last week when we were able to get back four US citizens who had been held for five years inside of Pakistan,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the Foundation for Defence of Democracies think tank in Washington.

Mr Pompeo’s remarks appeared to be the first time a US official has publicly stated that the family spent their captivity in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s military and government indicated that US citizen Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their children were rescued shortly after entering Pakistan from Afghanistan.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believed the hostages were probably held by the Haqqani militant group in or near its headquarters in northwestern Pakistan the entire time.

Dawn – Ghosts from Vietnam

Irfan Husain

Op/Ed, 14 October 2017. Readers of my generation will no doubt recall the horrors of the Vietnam War in which countless lives were lost in a pointless conflict.

I was in my early 20s when the Tet Offensive of 1968 shattered American illusions that the Vietcong were on the verge of defeat. I remember all too well the anger many of us felt over the merciless American bombing of unarmed civilians in North and South Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia.

Watching the 10-part documentary about the war directed by Ken Loach and Lynn Novick, I relived those bleak times as harrowing images from old newsreels showed the unceasing American assault on Vietnam. In terms of archival research, this is a cinematographic tour de force.

Spread over 18 hours of news reports and interviews, it overwhelms the viewer with its unrelenting coverage of events on the shifting battlefields, as well as in Washington, Hanoi and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

By weaving together factual coverage and a vast range of personal interviews, the documentary underlines the horrors and sacrifices on both sides.

In particular, the implacable determination of the North Vietnamese communist leadership, and its willingness to commit hundreds of thousands of men and women to the cause, comes through as an immovable force.

Facing them were the mounting numbers of Americans in uniform: at one point there were nearly half a million US troops in South Vietnam. Almost 60,000 were killed. More bombs were dropped by the US on Indochina than on Germany and Korea combined.

The US is still bogged down in Afghanistan

Seen on paper, these statistics do not move us as does the testimony of a 15-year-old North Vietnamese girl who volunteers to join a unit that hauls supplies to the south through the jungle. Known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, this network of paths was constantly bombed by US planes. Napalm was commonly used, and casualties were heavy.

Through the documentary (I have watched the first six episodes) runs one constant refrain: as casualties mount and success remains elusive, general after American general asks for more troops. The Pentagon keeps assuring president Lyndon Johnson that if field commanders were given extra troops, the enemy’s defeat would be assured.

Inside the US, the daily TV coverage of the war made it increasingly unpopular, fuelling a significant anti-war movement. When four demonstrating students at Kent State University were shot dead by the National Guard, protests erupted across the US. Large demonstrations broke out in London, Paris and other capitals.

Finally, following the 1973 Paris peace talks, the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, leaving behind the abiding image of a helicopter taking off from the US embassy in Saigon, with people clinging to its landing gear. Thus ended a needless war that consumed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Sadly, no lessons appear to have been learned. The Americans are still bogged down in Afghanistan after 16 years of war. And the generals are still calling for more troops and promising victory. But additional forces have done nothing to cow the Afghan Taliban into submission.

As in South Vietnam, the US enjoys control of the air, and has artillery and armour. And yet an outgunned, dirt-poor foe has fought the mighty war machine to a halt.

With their focus on ‘body count’ and PowerPoint presentations, US generals have not factored in ideology and nationalism as force multipliers. Given the fact that American politicians are ultimately answerable to voters, they cannot afford an unending number of body bags.

One reason there is so little interest in America about the Afghan conflict is that the class composition of US forces has changed since the Vietnam War. In the latter period, soldiers were conscripted into the armed forces, forcing many young, educated middle-class men to fight.

Now, the Americans have an all-volunteer military, and most foot soldiers are from the working class. They have a lower social profile, and get little sympathy or attention. There is thus far less media coverage of the Afghan war than Vietnam received.

But the larger question to be asked is why Americans have not applied the lessons of Vietnam to Afghanistan? After all, in both conflicts they faced poorly armed but highly motivated foes, and both the Vietcong and the Taliban had contiguous territory they could shelter in.

A retired Russian general, interviewed during the height of the fighting in Afghanistan, said he was amazed to see the Americans repeating the Red Army’s mistakes. Why, he wondered, had they not spoken to him and his ex-colleagues to benefit from their experience?

Why indeed? Obviously, hubris prevents US generals from learning from history, or the knowledge of others. They think their superior arms can win easy victories, but as the Vietcong and Taliban have shown, asymmetrical warfare depends more on resolve and a willingness to sacrifice.

The Hindustan Times – Trump sends lieutenants to ‘agents of chaos’ Pakistan with tough message from USA

Washington has long been frustrated by Pakistan’s willingness to offer cross-border safe havens to Taliban factions and armed jihadist groups fighting US troops and their Afghan allies.

7 October 2017. President Donald Trump will dispatch his top diplomatic and military advisors to Pakistan in the coming weeks, turning up the heat on a nuclear-armed ally accused of harbouring terror groups.

Weeks after Trump angrily accused Islamabad of providing safe haven to “agents of chaos,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to depart for Pakistan late this month.

He will be followed by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, according to US and Pakistani sources.

The one-two punch is designed to drill home Trump’s message that Pakistani state support for jihadist groups has to end, according to officials briefed on the visits.

Washington has long been frustrated by Pakistan’s willingness to offer cross-border safe havens to Taliban factions and armed jihadist groups fighting US troops and their Afghan allies.

The relationship reached the breaking point in 2011, when president Barack Obama sent commandos into Pakistan in 2011 to kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was living in a military garrison town.

With little change since then, Trump came to office indicating that Washington’s frustration had reached the point where something had to give.

“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” he said in an August address.

But in the six weeks since Trump signalled that tougher tone, there have been precious few signs that the calculus in South Asia has changed.

Mattis told Congress this week that he will try “one more time” to “see if we can make this work.”

Not acceptable

“To this point, we have not seen any impact on military-to-military relations,” said one Pentagon official, suggesting any change would not happen after Mattis’s visit.

Visiting Washington, Pakistan’s foreign minister Khawaja Asif appeared unwavering.

He lashed out at “hollow allegations” about Pakistan harboring terrorists as “not acceptable.”

“That is not the way you talk to 70-year-old friends,” Asif said bitterly.

“Instead of accusations and threats we should cooperate with each other for peace in the region,” he added in confirming Tillerson’s visit.

While professing anger in public, Pakistani officials in private complain about receiving no concrete requests to target the Haqqani network or other groups.

US officials have been reticent to share some intelligence for fear of tipping off targets with links inside Pakistan’s government.

Earlier this month, a US drone killed three suspected militants in an attack on a compound in Pakistan’s tribal region.

Pakistani officials also complain of receiving mixed messages from the Trump administration, which is still struggling to find its feet under a mercurial commander-in-chief.

A September meeting in New York between Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was said to be cordial, despite Trump’s fire and brimstone rhetoric.

“It was a very good meeting with the vice president,” said Asif.

After that, Pakistan officials said, they were surprised at a tougher tone outlined in public by Mattis and in private by Trump’s National Security Advisor H R McMaster.

Call Pakistan’s bluff

Some optimists point to a visit by Pakistan’s army chief to Kabul as evidence that Islamabad is moderating, after years of support propping up the Taliban.

But many, having watched this debate for decades, are less convinced.

The Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, they argue, remain a potent tool in the hands of Pakistani intelligence.

“Of course they don’t get the message” said Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University.

“Pakistan is not going to do anything different than its already doing unless the administration can figure out a way to do what no administration has previously done.”

“That is basically to call Pakistan’s bluff and impose some meaningful punishment.”

Trump has warned that military aid, which was halved between 2012 and 2016, could be cut further, a move that Fair dismisses as insufficient.

“It’s basically saying that we’re going to cut back the money the US taxpayer is giving to Pakistan,” she said.

“That’s not punishment. Pakistan is not entitled to our money. What they are really talking about is giving Pakistan less of an allowance.”

Policymakers have considered revoking Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status, with deep symbolic but limited practical impact.

Punitive economic sanctions, that could force Pakistan closer to China, Russia or Turkey, seem a long way off.

And Pakistan remains vital for the United States as a route to resupply its forces in Afghanistan and for supplying the Afghan army.

The Hindu – Taliban assault kills 12 police personnel

Kandahar, 28 September 2017. At least 12 Afghan police were killed and four wounded when a Humvee packed with explosives drove into their checkpoint in the southern province of Kandahar late on Wednesday, a government official said.

Abdul Bari Baryalai, a spokesman for the provincial government, said the attack took place in Maruf district, bordering Pakistan.

The attack, in one of the Taliban’s heartlands, underlines the threats faced by Afghan security forces, notably police units on the front lines of the battle against insurgents who control or contest about 40 per cent of Afghanistan.

The incident came on the same day that militants attacked Kabul airport while USA Defence Secretary Jim Mattis was visiting the Afghan capital.

Dawn – What is Ashraf Ghani’s plan to end Afghanistan’s 40-year conflict?

Given the similarities between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s situations, what lessons can Islamabad learn from Kabul?

Hufsa Chaudhry

New York-UN-USA, 24 September 2017. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in an on-the-record session at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York moderated by the President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Rescue Committee, David Milliband, offered interesting insights into Kabul’s strategy for tackling its 40-year-long conflict and struggle against terrorism.

The Afghan government, Ghani said, is working on a four-year ‘multi-dimensional’ security reform programme, the fundamental aim of which is to provide grounds for a political settlement to the Afghan conflict.

Although United States (US) President Donald Trump’s announcement of a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia was met with backlash in Pakistan, the strategy is something Ghani welcomed.

“It’s what we’ve been waiting for, and the implications are quite significant,” he said at the CFR talk.

He went onto explain that US troops are set to play a role in the overhaul of Afghan security forces in terms of leadership, management, systems and processes under the programme.

However, the programme has two other major components: Pakistan-Afghan peace and political dialogue with the Taliban.

In addition to these components, tackling poverty, judicial reform and infrastructural development are all believed to be factors that set the stage for sustainable peace in Afghanistan, according to Ghani.

The News – Asif says USA pursuing failed strategy in Afghanistan

New York, 17 September 2017. Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif has said that the Trump administration’s “militaristic approach” in Afghanistan represented a failed policy, and he called for talks with the Taliban to bring peace to the war-torn country.

Asif, who is heading to New York to participate in the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, told The Wall Street Journal newspaper in Islamabad that he could not understand how the American military could succeed now in Afghanistan when it had not during the “surge” under the Obama administration with a force eight times as large as the one now planned.

The foreign minister instead called for peace talks with the Taliban, which, he said, could be arranged if Washington worked with countries in the region that have influence over the Taliban militant group.

“They are pursuing a folly, a strategy that has already failed,” the foreign minister said in an interview with the Journal.

“Force will not solve any problem; it has not solved problems in the past.”

Asif said he would tell UN members that “peace should return to this area and force is not the solution”.

On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also said that there could be no military solution to the Afghan conflict and called for efforts towards creating a political solution.

“I believe it is important in Afghanistan to invest in the conditions to create a political solution. I believe that is possible,” Guterres told reporters at the UN at a press conference at UN Headquarters in New York.

In his dispatch the newspaper’s correspondent, Saeed Shah, underscored that Pakistan’s cooperation was vital to the effort to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan and extricating America from its longest war.

“The US and Pakistan are ostensible allies, but have long suffered strained ties.

Relations turned more confrontational after President Donald Trump accused Pakistan in August of providing a haven for terrorists and then threatening to withhold aid if there wasn’t better cooperation,” the dispatch said.

Trump had said that a political settlement with elements of the Taliban was “perhaps” possible, but only after an effective US military campaign.

The foreign minister subsequently cancelled a trip to the US for talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Islamabad also rejected a planned visit to Pakistan by the senior US official dealing with the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, Alice Wells.

Instead, the foreign minister toured the region, visiting US adversaries in China, Iran and Turkey, saying afterward that they agreed that a political solution was needed.

“I think Americans should be more realistic and more pragmatic about their approach in Afghanistan,” Asif was quoted as saying.

“They have already lost more than 40% of the territory to the Taliban. How do you keep on fighting with them?”

The Trump administration plan would add up to 3,900 USA soldiers to the 8,400 that the Pentagon says are already there, and allow them to fight the Taliban with freer rules of engagement.

At its peak, under President Barack Obama, the USA had over 100,000 soldiers there.

Tillerson said last month that the US strategy was to convince the Taliban to understand that they cannot win on the battlefield and “at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.”

Asif said now was the time for talks and that neighbours were willing to help.

A four-country group intended to promote such talks, Pakistan, China, the US and Afghanistan, which has not met for over a year, could be expanded to include other countries with influence over the Taliban, he said.

Khawaja Asif also questioned the US assertion that Pakistan allowed sanctuaries for Afghan militants.

“They don’t need sanctuaries on our territory. They have plenty of territories which Americans have lost to them in Afghanistan during the last 15 years,” Asif said.

“This is scapegoating you know, nothing else.”

The foreign minister said it was America’s militaristic policy across the Muslim world that had inflamed much of the violence.

“There is chaos from Afghanistan to Libya, you tell what is the common denominator in this whole chaos,” Asif said.”Has American policy in this whole region, the Middle East and our region, brought peace dividends to anywhere?”

Dawn – Top US general in Afghanistan claims Taliban cannot win war

Kabul, 25 August 2017. The top US military commander in Afghanistan said on Thursday President Donald Trump’s new strategy is a sign of a long-term commitment to what is already America’s longest war and called on Taliban militants to agree to peace talks.

“The Taliban cannot win on the battlefield; it’s time for them to join the peace process,” General John Nicholson told reporters in Kabul. “We will not fail in Afghanistan; our national security depends on that as well.”

Critics, including Trump himself, have argued in the past that Afghanistan is no closer to peace despite billions of dollars spent on aid and nearly 16 years of US and allied military operations.

In February, General Nicholson told the US Congress he needed “a few thousand” more troops in Afghanistan, mostly to help advise Afghan security forces that are battling Taliban and fighters from other militant groups.

Trump has now approved an extended American presence in Afghanistan, although neither he nor his military leaders have provided any specifics about troop numbers or timelines.

The current US force for the predominantly advise-and-assist mission in Afghanistan stands at around 8,400, well down from around 100,000 during the “surge” decided on by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Several thousand more troops are often in the country on “temporary” or other uncounted missions.

Nicholson said new advisers from the United States and Nato coalition allies would increase the training missions, including at specialised military schools, and expand the Afghan air force and special forces.

He also praised Trump’s decision not to impose “arbitrary” deadlines on the American mission in Afghanistan. “This policy announcement… is proof of our continued commitment,” he said.

The Taliban government was overthrown by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001 but US forces have been bogged down there ever since. About 2,400 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan.

The US military and intelligence officials are concerned that a new Taliban victory would allow Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State group to establish bases in Afghanistan.

That could allow them to plot attacks against the United States and its allies, they fear, just as Osama bin Laden had done with the Sept 11, 2001, strikes that triggered the war in Afghanistan.

Dawn – America’s flawed plan for Afghanistan

Zahid Hussain

Op/Ed, 23 August 2017. There is nothing in the new US policy laid out by President Donald Trump that can bring the 16-year-long Afghan war to an end. The much-awaited strategy that links Afghanistan with the US South Asia policy is likely to only deepen regional tensions.

The toughening stance on Pakistan may have serious repercussions for an already troubled relationship between Islamabad and Washington.

Although Trump has said that US troops would not stay in Afghanistan for long, there is certainly no clear exit plan. As in the past, the emphasis is on the military solution that may keep the US involved in the Afghan war forever.

Trump has not specified the number of additional US forces being deployed there, but he has already given the Pentagon approval for 3,900 soldiers thus bringing the total American troop presence in the country close to 10,000.

This marks a complete turnaround in Trump’s election promise to pull out US troops from Afghanistan. He seems to be getting the US more deeply engaged in what he had earlier described as a futile war.

It is apparent that he has given in to the pressure from the American military establishment, though one tends to agree with him that complete military withdrawal would have disastrous consequences for regional security.

Most US defence analysts agree that a surge in troops can only help in maintaining the existing stalemate. The new American strategy has come at a time when the Afghan Taliban insurgents have expanded their influence to over 40 per cent of the country that is plagued by rising internal political discord.

There still seems to be no realisation in the Trump administration about the seriousness of the Afghan situation. It will not be easy for the US forces to contain the Taliban advance and to maintain the status quo for a longer period.

What is most alarming is the spread of the insurgency even to regions in north Afghanistan that were previously considered secure.

Diplomacy and political options are clearly not a priority for the Trump administration.

It has been the bloodiest year in Afghanistan in terms of civil and military casualties since the US invasion in 2001. The rising spectre of the militant Islamic State group and daring terrorist attacks, claimed by the network, have worsened the security situation.

The surge in US troops is not likely to shift the balance in the war significantly. The surge is more of a patchwork effort than a serious attempt at exploring the possibility of a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Diplomacy and political options are clearly not a priority for the Trump administration, though there has been a fleeting mention of the administration’s willingness to begin talks with the Afghan Taliban insurgents.

There is certainly no road map for peace. Like his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump has made it clear that the United States will not be engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan.

But there is also no plan to stabilise the political and economic situation in Afghanistan. The danger is that a confused and flawed policy may push the United States much deeper into the Afghan quagmire and fuel regional tensions.

While assigning India a greater role, there is no plan to engage other neighbouring and surrounding countries in the effort to resolve the Afghan conflict.

Not surprisingly, Trump reserved his strongest criticism for Pakistan. While acknowledging Pakistan’s sacrifices and its efforts in fighting terrorism, he declared this country a part of the problem too.

It is perhaps for the first time that a US president has, publicly, warned Pakistan of severe consequences if the country does not take effective action against the alleged terrorist sanctuaries along its borders.

It is not clear what kind of military and economic actions the US administration has been considering. But such threats would not help win Pakistan’s support unless Islamabad’s own national security concerns are addressed.

Like the previous administrations, the Trump administration too believes in unquestioned cooperation, ignoring Islamabad’s interests completely.

What has made the situation for Pakistan more complicated is Trump’s policy of getting India more deeply engaged in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s concerns about India’s economic and strategic cooperation with Kabul may be exaggerated, but the previous US administrations were careful not to encourage Delhi to expand its role in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials contend that the Trump administration has crossed the red line by making India a part of its Afghan strategy, though the Indian authorities may not be too pleased by Trump’s remarks about their country getting trade benefits from the US and not sharing the burden.

Interestingly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi a few hours before Trump’s speech to convey a more nuanced message to alleviate Pakistan’s concerns. But there are still lots of questions about the new American policy of lumping South Asia with Afghanistan.

There is the implicit US threat of expanding action against the Afghan Taliban insurgents to the Pakistani border regions. There is also a possibility of drone strikes targeting alleged terrorist hideouts in the settled areas close to the tribal areas.

That will surely make things difficult for Pakistani authorities to win public support for cooperation with the United States.

Indeed, one must not gloss over our own policy debacle and not getting our concerns heard in Washington, and not putting our own house in order. It is a huge foreign policy failure that during the past seven months we could not establish meaningful contacts with the Trump administration.

It also shows a crisis of leadership both in civil and military spheres that we could never formulate a clear Afghan policy.

Our Afghan policy has largely been reactive and based on duplicity. We lost the opportunity to improve relations with President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul.

There is still no clarity on how we intend to deal with the new challenges arising from the toughening American stance. The political instability in the country has added to our foreign policy and national security problems.

Trump has declared that the US will strive for an ‘honourable’ resolution to the Afghan war. But his strategy can neither win the war nor result in peace.

The writer is an author and journalist.

The Hindu – Open-ended USA presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan on notice, bigger role for India: Trump’s South Asia policy

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations,” Mr Trump said.

Varghese K George

Washington, 22 August 2017. Unveiling a new strategy for South Asia on Monday that has many elements of continuity from the past, President Donald Trump said the USA troops would stay in Afghanistan for an open-ended period of time and America would no longer tolerate Pakistan’s policy of harbouring terrorists.

Mr Trump said America’s strategic partnership with India will deepen in South Asia and the Indo-Pacfic and demanded that India make more financial contribution for the stabilisation of Afghanistan. The President linked this demand to India’s trade surplus with America saying, India makes “billions and billions of dollars” in trade.

In agreeing to continue with American engagement in Afghanistan, Mr. Trump deferred to the advise of conventional military planners in his administration. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” the President said, adding that once he studied the Afghanistan situation, he changed his mind.

He did not announce any increase in troops, but said the military will have more operational autonomy to pursue terrorists, and commanders have been given authority to attack whenever they chose to.

“…we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.

These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American arms,” the President said, indicating willingness for a new wave of American offensive against Islamist groups in South Asia.