President Donald J. Trump visits troops at Bagram Airfield on Thursday, November 28, 2019, in Afghanistan, during a surprise visit to spend Thanksgiving with troops. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
The United States must abandon the failed “AfPak” approach to South Asia

For two decades, the United States has applied a failed “AfPak” strategy to South Asia which prioritizes the conflict in Afghanistan at the expense of all other U.S. interests in the region. U.S.-Pakistan relations offer the clearest example of the shortcomings of the “AfPak” strategy and an opportunity to adopt a diplomacy-centred approach that better prioritizes U.S. interests. This approach will require Washington to simultaneously part with its short-sighted obsession with terrorism in Afghanistan, refocus attention on U.S. relations with Pakistan as independent from Afghanistan, while avoiding the pitfalls of zero-sum competition with China for influence in the region. Even a shift in the way the US refers to the region could help reframe our thinking along more productive lines.

The term “AfPak” was allegedly coined by President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. It is sometimes criticized for its failure to acknowledge Pakistan as the true spoiler of peace in Afghanistan and its oversimplification of power dynamics in South Asia. In 2011, the late Stephen Cohen who was a prominent U.S. expert on Pakistan called on Washington to develop a more holistic approach to Afghanistan and South Asia more broadly by acknowledging that, “India is a friend, but not an ally. Pakistan is an ally, but not a friend. Afghanistan is everyone’s problem.” These are valid criticisms of an “AfPak” approach to Pakistan and greater South Asia but they stop short of acknowledging that the United States is held hostage by conflicts of choice to the detriment of U.S. interests, as well as the region’s security, development, and stability.

Afghanistan became the most obvious casualty of an “AfPak” approach that assumed the Taliban could be defeated and stability restored to Afghanistan but for Pakistan’s lack of cooperation which itself was empowered due to Washington’s refusal to improve relations with Iran. This ignored the way a haphazard U.S. strategy during the early years of the conflict in Afghanistan encouraged ethnic and tribal competition while U.S.-backed strongmen and U.S. operatives themselves fueled a coalescence of Afghan grievances to the benefit of the newly regrouped Taliban. COIN warfare led isolated victories against Taliban targets to be mistaken for wider gains and it became increasingly unclear what terrorist threat the United States was pursuing in the “AfPak” region. As Stephen Tankel recently pointed out, “almost 20 years after 9/11 the Pentagon still lacks a single list that includes all the terrorist groups it is combating.”

Read the full article in RealClear Public Affairs.

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