It’s time for Trump to revisit Afghan strategy

(Russia, Central Asia and Afghanistan)

Surely, the recent Moscow conference on Afghanistan (November 9) brought to light that the peace talks will get a big fillip if the US and Russia work in tandem. (See my column in SCF titled US Can Avoid Afghan Quagmire with Russia’s Help, Nov 15, 2018.)

Everything depends on the Trump administration reversing course and accepting a Russian role. But this will have to be a political decision at the highest level in the White House. So far, President Trump has left it to the Pentagon commanders to pursue his Afghan strategy. But the strategy to weaken the Taliban to the point they would sue for peace is simply unworkable and is counterproductive.

The decision to appoint Zalmay Khalilzad as special representative can be seen in this light.  The ambassadorial stints of Khalilzad and the present Russian presidential envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov had overlapped in Kabul. And Kabulov is not only Moscow’s point person on Afghan affairs but a seasoned Afghan hand with multiple stints in Kabul in various capacities. Interestingly, Kabulov also enjoys much trust in Pakistan and, arguably, played a role in the warming up of Russian-Pakistani relations in the recent years.

Now, Kabulov is on record that he is willing to discuss an action plan on Afghanistan during Khalilzad’s forthcoming visit to Moscow in December – provided of course the latter is ready for it. However, the bottom line is that Trump must take the call to seek Russia’s help to bring this pointless war to an end. Is Trump up to it? Significantly, a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Kahalilzad is due to take place in Argentina on the sidelines of the G20 summit (November 30.)

The fact of the matter is that the glass is half full for Trump in US politics. The midterm results show that Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives but Republicans could not only retain majority in the Senate but even increase it marginally. Trump fared better than many of his predecessors (including Bill Clinton and Obama) in the midterm elections. Trump winning a second term has become a serious possibility.

Equally, the “Russia collusion” plank hardly figured in the midterm, signaling that domestic issues are what matter to voters. As for Robert Mueller’s inquiry, it failed to produce any evidence of “Russia collusion”. Trump may well order the closure of Mueller inquiry.

Suffice to say, Trump is in a better position to work on improvement of relations with Russia than ever before, should he choose to press ahead. Between the White House and the Kremlin, a line of communication has been quietly established at the level of the national security advisors. Indeed, it also helps Trump to project that a famous hawk on Russia like John Bolton is in command of policy at the American end.

Meanwhile, Europe is in transition and a transatlantic common agenda towards Russia ties is becoming unsustainable. The halcyon days of Obama-era transatlantic partnership are, perhaps, gone forever. Today, discordant notes are gaining ascendance – Trump’s recent tweets humiliating France and its president, nascent idea of European army for self-defence, Angela Merkel’s impending retirement, uncertainties in German politics and  Franco-German axis (which has been the anchor sheet of European unity), inroads by Russian diplomacy in European camp, hopeless drift in Britain and so on. All these show that Obama’s project to erect a new Berlin Wall against Putin’s Russia has become a relic of the past.

Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan become test cases for US-Russia ties. Of course, the differences and clash of interests between the two big powers cannot be reconciled easily. A sea change in US-Russia relations will have to wait for a settlement over Ukraine, which is intractable. What is possible is that the two countries can work together wherever interests overlap and concerns are similar.

Stabilization of Afghanistan is, perhaps, where US-Russia cooperation is “doable”. There is no real backlog of bitterness or contradictions. The US cannot say Russia is responsible for its defeat in Afghanistan. In the interests of regional security and stability in Central Asia, Moscow helped out wherever, whenever the US wanted help. Simply put, what is needed is a reset of the American mindset.

With the US having painted itself into a corner and other NATO allies looking away, Russia’s extensive networking regionally – especially with the Taliban, Pakistan and Iran – can prove very useful at the present juncture for Khalilzad to accomplish his mission. After all, the Geneva Accords of 1988 on the settlement of the Afghan situation and paving the way for withdrawal of Soviet troops, had the US and USSR serving as guarantors.

Read a fascinating essay on the prospects of US-Russia relations under Trump, authored by the well-known ‘Russia hand’ Paul J Sanders, director of the Center for the National Interest (originally founded by Richard Nixon) – After US Midterms, Dialogue with Russia May Become Easier, Not Harder.