New Delhi: The United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan by itself. The accretion of NATO cannot be of big advantage. A coalition of other powers led by Russia and China and including countries bordering Afghanistan such as Iran and Pakistan could add value to the US effort. Still, victory against the insurgent forces represented by the Taliban and to a lesser extent by the ISIS is elusive if not impossible. On its own, the United States cannot accomplish a great deal.

The United States faces a stalemate in Afghanistan. The conflict there has exceeded the Vietnam War in duration without providing the exit of Indo-China. The previous Barack Obama administration had reached the conclusion that remaining in Afghanistan made no strategic sense but the fear of another Islamist takeover with 9/11-like consequences limited the options.

If Obama could be faulted for setting a withdrawal deadline which emboldened the insurgents and had therefore to be extended and modified, his successor, President Donald Trump, believes that a declaration of open-ended war in Afghanistan should bring victory within grasp. No so. Wars need a combination of tactics and knitting strategies to succeed. The United States has exhibited strengths in neither area.

Maps often don’t tell the entire story. But they reveal a lot all the same. And wars cannot be prosecuted without the smallest deference to maps. The United States under Trump is embarked on an Afghan campaign enlargement without paying due respect to what the maps proclaim. Maps often give pointers to the limits of possibilities and success and they provide direction where political objectives of war might be gained. Wars without definite sets of political objectives are as good as lost.

What does the map of Afghanistan tell? It is landlocked and shares long and short borders with six neighbours. Borders with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are long; the Pakistan-Afghanistan border which occupies an entire south-eastern arc is the longest. Uzbekistan shares a shorter border with Afghanistan, and its frontier with China is tiny in comparison to the rest and lies at the end of a longish corridor. India does not have a border with Afghanistan but Pakistan-occupied Kashmir does.

After the 9/11 attacks, Russia and Iran aided the US intervention in which the Taliban government was deposed and its leadership and that of the Al-Qaeda driven out to escape to Pakistan. Since Iran-US relations soon fell into the old nasty pattern, Iran saw no interest in assisting the United States to stabilize Afghanistan. US-Russia ties eventually also collapsed on the questions of conflicting NATO and Russian expansions into Central Europe, and this prevented deeper collaboration in Afghanistan. Since Russia controls the geopolitics of the Central Asian republics, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan could not sustain independent engagements with the United States on Afghanistan.

Then there was Pakistan’s disinclination for democratic stability in Afghanistan for fear of its drift into the Indian camp, which is very nearly a reality today. Pakistan has vainly sought strategic depth in Afghanistan to counter India over the unresolved dispute over Kashmir. If the Kashmir conundrum magically were to be removed from the India-Pakistan equation, their historical disputes, nuclear rivalry and strategic competition would reduce to nothing, and its benefits directly would be observed in Afghanistan. That being denied, Pakistan abhors any role for India in Afghanistan, which it further apprehends of creating congenial conditions for a second front for its bitter adversary. All this prevents the forces of good of Indian democracy to leave a lasting impact on Afghanistan.

China, lastly, and as always, excels in under-the-radar geopolitics in Afghanistan. Although it is conceivably the world’s largest resource extractor in the country, it has produced no ripples by its activities. How it manages its interests so brilliantly in one of the planet’s most hostile territories is something that should provide object lessons to the rest of the world. But there is no evidence that any other world power is investigating the reasons for China’s extraordinary accomplishments in Afghanistan, least of all by the United States.

If the United States has to succeed in Afghanistan, Donald Trump must cease being Donald Trump. Which means he must authorize the creation of a coalition of entities comprising at the top of the three Great Powers, namely the United States, Russia and China, and occupied in the second and third tiers by such immediate and distant neighbours of Afghanistan as Iran, Pakistan, the Central Asian Republics, India and so forth. The coalition of powers must keep an open mind on the sustainable political possibilities in Afghanistan. If the three Great Powers and subsidiary ones can forge a platform of unity by putting aside their conflicting interests, the Taliban and other insurgent elements of Afghanistan will have less scope to play divide and conquer.

But for that primarily, Donald Trump has to change. He has, for example, to mend relations with Iran. There is no military solution to Afghanistan.