The longest war in American history is taking a rising toll every day
The most notable development on the world stage is the near breakdown of talks between North Korea and the United States. From an exceptionally high point that saw the first ever summit between the two nations, who, just a few months ago, were threatening each other of annihilation, things have now fallen so low that in the recent encounter between the US Secretary of State and North Korean leaders, the latter accused the US of resorting to ‘gangster-like’ pressure in demanding unilateral denuclearisation of North Korea. The secretary of state, to put a brave face, said that he had productive exchange with the leaders. Two more rebuffs have added to souring relations. North Korean leader, Kim Un Jung, did not give an audience to Mr. Pompeo. Also, a scheduled meeting between the North Korean and the US military officials on the Demilitarised Military Zone (DMZ) the North Korean delegates did not show up.
As we would argue, this development has implications both for the evolving strategy against Iran and the war on Afghanistan.
While announcing the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on 12 May 2018, President Trump had paraded the first contact with North Korea was established as he was speaking and that a period of prosperity in Korean peninsula was about to unfold: “Today’s action sends a critical message, the United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them. In fact, at this very moment, secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea, in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un. Plans are being made, relationships are strengthening and what will happen between South Korea, North Korea, and Japan, a future of great prosperity for all”. The unmistakable message was that Iran has to follow the same course. The setback with North Korea means victory was claimed prematurely.
On the other hand, the other signatories of JCPOA – Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia – together with high representative of EU met in Vienna on the request of Iran, who wanted to seek reassurances against the adverse consequences flowing from impending sanctions imposed by the US. In a statement issued after the meeting, the participants “reconfirmed their commitment to the full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal. They recalled that the JCPOA is a key element of the global non-proliferation architecture and a significant achievement of multilateral diplomacy endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council through Resolution 2231. The participants welcomed the 11th report by the International Atomic Energy Agency of 24 May confirming that Iran is abiding by its nuclear-related commitments.”
The report of the Special Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has issued yet another damning report on the progress of war
The participants also “reiterated the need to continue the full and effective implementation of all nuclear related commitments.” They also “recognised that, in return for the implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments, the lifting of sanctions, including the economic dividends arising from it, constitutes an essential part of the JCPOA. They also noted that economic operators pursuing legitimate business with Iran have been acting in good faith based on the commitments contained in the JCPOA and endorsed at the highest level by the UN Security Council”. These assurances are reflective of the fact that EU is doing all that it can to salvage the nuclear deal. Many, however, believe that the business interests would soon test this determination as European corporations may be unable to withstand the heat they would face from limited access to the US markets.
Some analysts are apprehending that in the backdrop of the failure of North Korean project, and continuing resolve of EU to retrieve JCPOA, Israel may be tempted to venture some action against Iran in consonance with Saudi Arabia and UAE. In the meanwhile, the limited aim is to isolate Iran in Syria. It is expected that President Trump in his forthcoming meeting with his Russian counterpart would be raising the issue of Iranian presence in Syria and soliciting his support for their eviction even at the cost of not pressing for Assad’s removal. But experts believe that Iranian militias are so deeply entrenched and strategically significant to Syrian defenses that any thought of their withdrawal would mean huge disruption in government forces. Besides, given the fact that the Russian forces also depend on these militias for their protection, Putin would be reluctant to provide such an assurance. In that case, it would not be surprising to see Trump to claim a victory in Syria, without effect, just as in North Korea.
On the other hand, the situation in Afghanistan is also evolving in a number of very interesting manner. Five developments are exceptionally noteworthy. First, a Reuters’ report has claimed that after a discouraging year, the US officials expect a review of the war. Trump was wary of the Afghan War and had reluctantly signed on sending additional troops. However, since then “[t]he president has asked repeatedly what progress we’ve made in Afghanistan since he made his decision, and how much we’ve invested there since 2001. He’s voiced his frustration about the lack of progress many, many times, basically asking ‘What have we got for all that money” an official confided. Clearly, he is more frustrated as after nearly one year of his policy on Afghanistan and South Asia, no dividends are visible. Second, in his surprise visit to Kabul, while returning from North Korea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured President Ashraf Ghani of American support for his peace efforts, though he claimed that the new Trump policy was working. Third, after her most recent visit to Pakistan, Ms Alice Wells, top State Department official dealing with South Asia, said that pressure was building on Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Her primary focus was Pakistan, who she continued to impress for using its influence to help convince Taliban to respond positively to Ghani’s peace initiative. Fourth, an unprecedented International Ulema Conference on Afghan Peace and Security was organized by OIC in Jeddah and Mecca on 9-10 July, where a 35-strong Ulema delegation from Afghanistan participated alongside prominent Ulema from 57 Islamic countries. Curiously, Secretary of Defense James Mattis sent a message of appreciation to the Saudi Crown Prince for organising the conference to further the peace initiative of President Ghani. Fifth, the Taliban have reportedly declined talks after the Eid holidays truce ended. However, there are unconfirmed reports that for a variety of strategic reasons (most notably to contain its over-stretched military arm) the US is willing to talk on all aspects of peace and is keen to bring the conflict to an end. Taliban, in response, have expressed willingness to agree on a phased withdrawal of the US forces.
Arguably, these developments have profound implications for the region. A new commander, Lt General Austin Miller, would soon be taking the command. He is a veteran of many wars, including Afghan, and is expected to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. He would not be a beacon of any change. Politicians alone have to turn the course of the history. The longest war in American history is taking a rising toll every day. The report of the Special Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has issued yet another damning report on the progress of war. In all aspects, the report is a scathing indictment of Afghan reconstruction project. There is laud clamouring from anti-war as well as republican circles that it is, therefore, high time to bring the Afghan conflict to a closure.