US secretary of state Rex Tillerson made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday, hoping to cement Donald Trump’s new strategy and ramp up the political and military pressure in the 16-year-old war, especially on Pakistan where he will head next.
Mr Tillerson's visit comes almost exactly two months after Mr Trump announced plans to increase the US troop presence and put more pressure on Pakistan to rein in the Taliban. He met for about an hour with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdulah Abdullah at the Bagram air base outside Kabul.
“The secretary stated that the new US strategy for South Asia makes clear the United States’ commitment to working with the government of Afghanistan and with partners across the region to achieve peace in Afghanistan and deny safe havens to terrorists who threaten that goal,” the US embassy said.
US officials have long used the term “safe havens” when accusing Pakistan of harbouring extremist groups responsible for plotting and carrying out attacks in Afghanistan. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting,” Mr Trump said in August. "But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”
A key aspect of Mr Tillerson’s trip will be applying pressure on Pakistan, whose political and security leaders he will meet during a visit on Tuesday before heading to India, another major power that the US is seeking to woo for development aid to Afghanistan.
"Mr Tillerson's trip is probably aimed at reinforcing the US commitment to the mission and to the Afghan government," said Stephen Tankel, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
In Pakistan, "we can expect Secretary Tillerson to pressure Pakistan to play a more productive role in reconciliation efforts", Mr Tankel told The National.
The visit follows one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest weeks this year in which more than 200 people including security forces and civilians were killed in suicide attacks on mosques and police and military compounds.
The attacks by both the Taliban and ISIL came as the US turned up military pressure in the conflict. “It’s safe to say that the wheels are turning when it comes to increased emphasis on [US] military action," Mr Tankel said.
“The military has more authority to attack the Taliban, air strikes have already increased considerably, another 4,000 US troops are heading to Afghanistan, and more CIA paramilitaries are going to join the fight,” he said.
The US is estimated to have 8,400 troops already in the country.
What remains missing at this stage, Mr Tankel said, is “indication of how the administration intends to deal with Pakistan or what its plan is for achieving a viable political settlement that ends the conflict and protects US interests”.
Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, voiced increased pessimism over the course of the war. "Anything that feels like success looks more distant than ever," Mr McChrystal wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine this month.
“No US military campaign in Afghanistan can succeed if the enemy enjoys a safe haven in Pakistan,” the former US general warned.
Mr Tankel said the United States faced the dilemma of trying “to convince the Taliban it is committed to an open-ended military campaign, while simultaneously trying to reassure regional countries like Russia and Iran that it does not seek a permanent military presence”.
The US defence secretary James Mattis criticised Russia and Iran for their support for the Taliban during a visit to Afghanistan last month. “Those two countries have suffered losses to terrorism, so I think it would be extremely unwise if they think they can somehow support terrorism in another country and not have it come back to haunt them,” Mr Mattis said.
Mr Tankel said there was also “a risk that Russia or Iran uses Afghanistan as a place to impose costs on the United States for actions taken in other parts of the world”.
However, the immediate challenge for the US administration remains "putting so much emphasis on military action without an equivalent diplomatic push", according to Mr Tankel.
In comments to reporters on his flight back to Doha from Afghanistan, Mr Tillerson suggested that the door to a political settlement was still open to the Taliban.
“There’s a place for them in the government if they are ready to come, renouncing terrorism, renouncing violence and being committed to a stable prosperous Afghanistan,” he said.
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