Pakistan and Afghanistan were mysteriously absent from any Washington DC discussions in the entire campaign season and hardly mentioned during the presidential debates of 2016 US elections. However, they need special attention from the Trump administration.
The Washington Post recently broke a major story: In 2010, a U.S. military investigation concluded that Michael Flynn — then a top intelligence official in Afghanistan, now President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for national security advisor — “improperly shared” intelligence with foreign military officers in Afghanistan.
The Post’s revelation raises questions about a soon-to-be top security official’s ability to protect classified information (not to mention, one who has railed publicly against this very thing). Ultimately, however, the alleged transgression caused little damage: According to the Army’s investigation, Flynn didn’t act knowingly and caused no harm to U.S. national security. Additionally, he reportedly disclosed the classified information, which related to CIA activities in Afghanistan, to Australians and Britons — not to Pakistanis, Iranians, or any other regional player with policies in Afghanistan that often work against U.S. interests.
Yet the Post may have buried the lede.
Sixteen paragraphs down, last week’s story noted another case in which the general may have mishandled classified material: “Former U.S. officials said that Flynn had disclosed sensitive information to Pakistan in late 2009 or early 2010 about secret U.S. intelligence capabilities being used to monitor the Haqqani network, an insurgent group accused of repeated attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.”
This allegation, if true, is far more concerning than the more recent one, given the links known to exist between the Haqqani network and Pakistani intelligence. In 2011, Mike Mullin, then the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s main intelligence agency.
Several months after Flynn’s alleged disclosures to Pakistan about the Haqqani network, U.S. military officials blamed the group for an attack in Kabul that killed two American soldiers and a colonel.
Herein lies a great and dangerous irony of U.S. foreign policy: One of Washington’s key security partners in Asia harbors ties to terrorists that target Americans. Islamabad has cooperated closely with Washington on security — from helping apprehend al Qaeda figures to allowing U.S. forces to use Pakistani roads to ship NATO supplies to and from Afghanistan. Yet Pakistan, which views certain terror groups as useful assets to keep its rival India at bay, also provides sanctuary to the Haqqani network. The United States and Pakistan violently disagree on many things, but several perceived shared interests — from Islamabad’s need for U.S. security assistance to Washington’s desire to stay on the good side of a restive, nuclear-armed, strategically located nation of some 200 million people — keep the partnership in place. There is trust (enough of it, apparently, to compel Flynn to allegedly share sensitive information with his Pakistani interlocutors) but plenty of mistrust as well. Little wonder, then, that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is so often described as a bad marriage.
The dysfunctional U.S.-Pakistan relationship is just one of several policy conundrums that will confront the Trump administration in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Take U.S. troop levels: Keeping American soldiers in Afghanistan helps beleaguered Afghan forces, but also gives the Taliban, which vows to fight until every foreign soldier leaves Afghanistan, an excuse not to join peace talks — the outcome that U.S. government has sought fervently. Or consider counterterrorism: In June, President Barack Obama announced measures that give U.S. troops in Afghanistan more flexibility to go after the Taliban, a move that could bring counterinsurgency successes — yet also strengthen the Islamic State, which is slowly developing a foothold in the region. By weakening the Taliban, the United States weakens an unlikely anti-Islamic State ally.
Since his election triumph, Trump has generally maintained radio silence about “AfPak” — even though it’s the backdrop for the longest foreign war in U.S. history and familiar terrain for Flynn and presumptive Defense Secretary James Mattis, both of whom spent long periods of time there while in the military.
One might reasonably conclude that Trump won’t pay much mind to this part of the world. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra suggests a lighter U.S. footprint abroad, and he’s indicated a preference to focus on building America, not Afghanistan. He’s also tweeted that “Pakistan is not our friend.”
This isn’t to say the Trump administration will disengage altogether. We can expect a U.S.-Pakistan relationship that is scaled back, yet collegial. “I want to get along, fellows. I love you,” Trump said of Pakistan back in 2011. “Let’s go have a drink. But you’re not getting any money.” Trump’s invitation to imbibe is curious given that neither Trump nor many in Pakistan, a country with many pious Muslims, consume alcohol.
Trump’s strikingly convivial phone call with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month may have been bizarre, but it also telegraphed Trump’s desire to be amicable. Gen. Mattis was a vocal supporter of Pakistan when he headed Central Command between 2010 and 2013: He lavished praise on the Pakistani military in several congressional hearings. Trump, meanwhile, has endorsed Obama’s Afghanistan troop plan, which presently calls for 8,500 soldiers to remain through year’s end. Furthermore, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, if confirmed as secretary of state, is likely to take a strong interest in the energy-focused connectivity projects proliferating across the region — from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. This isn’t just because of his energy background, but also because the envisioned outcomes of these projects — more energy security, better infrastructure and regional integration, increased employment, and above all, greater stability — align with Washington’s strategic interests in the region.
However, the chief reason to expect the Trump administration to engage in Afghanistan and Pakistan is terrorism. Keep in mind that Trump attempts to project a tough-as-nails stance on jihad. Attacks are down in Pakistan thanks to a major counterterrorism offensive in its North Waziristan region, but the country continues to suffer from mass-casualty assaults. In Afghanistan this year alone, Taliban forces have attacked all 34 Afghan provinces and staged an average of 68 daily attacks, according to Mark Kryzer, a former State Department official who designs development projects in Afghanistan.
More broadly, about one-fifth of the world’s 98 U.S.-designated terror groups are based in the AfPak region. And despite devastating blows to al Qaeda’s leadership, the group is alive and well there. In 2015, the U.S. military destroyed a large al Qaeda training camp in southern Afghanistan. This year, American officials increased their estimated number of Afghanistan-based al Qaeda operatives from around 50 to as many as 300.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State is quietly developing a profile in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group has claimed several major attacks in both countries in recent months, and in the eastern part of the country, Afghan officials warn, it has converted several dozen mosques into military training centers. True, the relationship between Islamic State militants in the region — most of them former Pakistani Taliban members — and the Middle East-based Islamic State central leadership is unclear. And the Islamic State will struggle to carve out a major presence in a region rife with militants aligned with its al Qaeda rival. Still, fears of the Islamic State are sufficiently strong as to have compelled Moscow and likely Tehran to intensify their outreach to the Taliban. According to one recent report, several Taliban leaders are even considering pitching a cease-fire to Kabul, to allow both sides to turn their full attention to the Islamic State.
Trump, a bottom-line guy, should be advised that his administration’s policy challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan boil down to two critical questions: How to promote stability, the chief U.S. interest in the region, with a lighter footprint? And how much diplomatic, security, and financial capital to expend in pursuit of stability that’s long been elusive, despite ample U.S. largesse?
Trump’s foreign policy is likely to be guided by a firm “what’s-in-it-for-America” mindset. Accordingly, expect him to seek stepped-up cooperation with Pakistan in efforts to combat al Qaeda and the Islamic State — groups that directly threaten the United States. Expect him to demand major crackdowns against Pakistani groups, like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, that kill Americans, and to demand dramatic aid cutbacks in the absence of results. Trump may have made a fortune through financial transactions, but he’s unlikely to embrace checkbook diplomacy — much less blank checks — as president.
Trump would be wise to keep providing security and civilian assistance to Afghanistan, even if in more modest amounts. If he gets impatient, his advisors might remind him that a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could usher in all kinds of nastiness. This includes a total breakdown in security that could allow al Qaeda to reconstitute itself in rapidly proliferating Taliban sanctuaries (the group controls more territory now than at any time since 2001), and enable it to plot new attacks on American soil. History could repeat itself in terrifying ways.
Finally, if Trump wants to showcase his deal-making skills, he should try to broker an accord to ease tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. Better ties would help reduce cross-border violence and terrorism, and would bolster stability along their porous border. It’s a hard sell, given the enmity between the two neighbors, but far more realistic than mediating a deal between India and Pakistan, which Trump has offered to do.
The Washington Post’s reporting on Flynn’s alleged misuse of classified information in Afghanistan has already faded from the headlines, but ultimately it still served an important purpose: For a short period, it brought Afghanistan and Pakistan back into the U.S. news cycle, where it is often given short shrift, and reoriented attention to an important part of the world that the Trump team has said little about. America’s next president should give the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, home to a forgotten 15-year-and-counting war that continues to claim American lives, the attention it deserves.
Partial Reporting by Foreign Policy