By Susan Crabtree for RealClearPolitics
At a time of tectonic shifts in foreign policy alliances, with Russia and China forming a new pact and aggressively asserting themselves on the international stage, Washington’s national security community is splintered across the ideological spectrum on how best to counter the dual threats.
Yet, even before Russia invaded Ukraine, a group of national security practitioners, military veterans, and scholars began trying to move beyond their policy differences to help repair the damage inflicted by the last U.S. foreign policy failure – the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan nearly seven months ago.
When the Vandenberg Coalition, a group of primarily Republican experts representing diverse foreign policy views and approaches, began their Afghanistan assessment, its members couldn’t have known that international alarm over Russia’s bloody land grab would soon eclipse the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan.
Some national security experts believe that the two U.S. foreign policy nightmares are inextricably linked – that America’s ignominious retreat in Afghanistan emboldened Vladimir Putin to move on Ukraine.
While the world shifts its focus to Europe and weighs Putin’s intentions, Afghanistan remains a smoldering catastrophe with 22 million people, more than half of Afghanistan’s population, in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and with new terrorist threats emerging. China and Russia are also eying new economic opportunities in the war-torn, landlocked country where feuding tribal elements have defied foreign occupiers throughout history
With this in mind, the Vandenberg Coalition’s Afghanistan Working Group moved forward with releasing its planned report this week, a set of prescriptions its members believe will help restore American goals in the region and assist stalled international humanitarian relief efforts. One of the coalition’s overarching U.S. goals in Afghanistan focuses on China’s growing global influence on international display as Russia turns to Beijing for economic assistance.
First reviewed by RealClearPolitics, the report argues that countering Sino inroads in Afghanistan is a critical U.S. national security interest, but that the U.S. should avoid trying to check Beijing’s every move, because doing so could become a costly distraction to more crucial competition in the region.
“China is unlikely to cooperate in a process that erodes Taliban control in Afghanistan and will instead attempt to increase its influence and access in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan,” the report states. “The U.S. is best served by focusing on competing with China primarily in the Indo-Pacific while otherwise raising costs for Chinese cooperation with the Taliban.”
In “limited instances,” the report asserts, U.S. and Chinese goals actually may align, especially when it comes to cracking down on terrorism safe havens in Afghanistan.
If China follows through with its interest in the country’s natural resources, it will have an incentive to keep militant activity to a minimum while balancing its efforts to strengthen Pakistan. Beijing has so far refrained from recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government, but Chinese media have highlighted the economic opportunities the new Islamic leadership presents for Beijing, particularly for lithium mining.
Terrorist attacks, however, could disrupt mining activity. The Taliban has pledged not to allow foreign militants to regroup. Still, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISK, and many others continue to reside in the country, according to the first United Nations report on terrorism levels in Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal, released in January. The report found that ISK is regrouping, carrying out attacks more frequently, with its membership in Afghanistan doubling since August.
When it comes to relations with the Taliban itself, the report urges the Biden administration to continue to diplomatically isolate the group that seized power as U.S.-backed forces collapsed and not to recognize it as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The coalition also stressed the importance of preventing the Taliban from gaining “any access to or benefits from” bilateral and multilateral assistance.
However, the Vandenberg Afghanistan working group could not come to a consensus on whether the U.S. should maintain all of its current sanctions on the Taliban. Some group members advocate keeping U.S. and international sanctions in place and maintaining strict limits on the Taliban’s use of funds held by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Others argued that aggressive sanctions would exacerbate the suffering of the Afghan people without destabilizing the Taliban.
After Afghanistan fell to Taliban control, the Biden administration insisted that the U.S. would maintain “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism capabilities – the ability to assess from afar the state of the terrorist threat emanating from the country. But the coalition believes more concrete steps are needed to enhance U.S. intelligence gathering.
The report urges the Biden administration to expand cooperation with countries in the region, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan bilaterally and in conjunction with Turkey and Azerbaijan, to secure access for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance collection, as well as aerial strikes. The opposite is true for Pakistan, the report asserts, recommending that the U.S. avoid working with Islamabad as much as possible while bolstering relations with India.
The U.S. should only engage with Pakistan’s leaders to the “minimal extent necessary to retain access to its airspace to conduct drone strikes in Afghanistan,” the report stated. “With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States has an opportunity to exert more diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan than in the past and raise the costs of its ongoing support for the Taliban.”
The Coalition also recommends that the U.S. restart non-lethal aid to the National Resistance Front, a military alliance of anti-Taliban Afghans who remain the only holdout group refusing to surrender to Taliban control. In trying to channel U.S. humanitarian assistance to the areas of greatest need, the coalition offers several recommendations, including a pointed policy difference with the Biden administration.
The report urges Congress to pass legislation reversing a U.S. decision that would allow humanitarian non-governmental organizations to pay taxes or fees to the Haqqani network, long one of the most lethal and vicious factions of the Taliban.
“Congress should consider enacting legislation to reverse this action and free the status quo sanctions regime to ensure that the Biden administration cannot pursue similar policies moving forward,” the report states.
Other important top-line recommendations:
“Beyond the immediate issues of addressing the humanitarian crisis, the United States should ensure the United Nations, especially [that] the Security Council and other key international partners are working towards the restoration of a legitimate and Constitutional governmental order where the rights of all are respected, and political issues are settled at the ballot box and in parliamentary sessions rather than at the barrel of a gun,” the report concluded.
Because it’s unlikely that the Taliban would willingly agree to elections, humanitarian access, and other threats to their hold on power, “the United States and others must be willing to deploy multilateral and bilateral coercive measures,” the report said.
Syndicated with permission from Real Clear Wire.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
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