Quagmire
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani and US President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2017 in New York City. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski

Rupert Stone 

It has now been several months since President Donald Trump promulgated his new strategy for the US war in Afghanistan. So far, his approach has failed to roll back the Taliban and bring the 16-year conflict closer to a resolution.

After the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan and quickly dislodged the Taliban regime. However, the Taliban regrouped and launched an insurgency against Hamid Karzai’s new government in Kabul.

The US gradually increased its military presence in the country to combat the growing Taliban threat. In 2009 President Obama authorized a surge of tens of thousands of troops, bringing total US force strength to around 100,000. But Obama’s surge was followed soon after by a scheduled troop withdrawal, with the aim of departing completely by 2014. That goal was not met, and by the end of his presidency a force of several thousand still remained.

President Trump, Obama’s successor, had criticized military interventionism on the campaign trail and came to office very sceptical of the Afghan war. But, as security deteriorated, he was persuaded by his advisors to stay the course.

In August 2017, Trump unveiled a “new strategy” for the war that would finally achieve “victory”. This involved deploying a few thousand more troops, continuing to train local forces, and pressuring Pakistan to stop its alleged support for the Taliban. Trump said that a political settlement with the Taliban might eventually be possible. But his plan appears to be military-focused: the insurgency must be weakened on the battlefield before successful peace talks can occur.

This policy – using force to enable negotiation – is not ‘new’, but similar to the Obama administration’s approach. Trump might have abandoned his predecessor’s imposition of artificial deadlines for troop withdrawal but the basic strategy is largely unchanged.

Obama’s plan failed. And many analysts, including this author, expressed scepticism that Trump’s much smaller surge would achieve what Obama’s had not. There are now about 14,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, compared with around 100,000 in 2010.

The coalition’s aim is to secure control over 80% of the Afghan population. It is nowhere near meeting that objective, with government control actually declining from 69% in August 2016 to 65% in January 2018. Meanwhile, Taliban control rose from 9% to 12%.

The US has intensified airstrikes in Afghanistan significantly – the first few months of 2018 saw the most intensive bombardment for that period on record. These have stopped the Taliban from capturing major towns or cities, while also killing Islamic State fighters.

But the insurgents have readjusted their tactics to focus on terrorist activity in urban centres. Kabul has been hit with a string of appalling attacks this year, including a double Islamic State suicide bombing in April that killed 10 journalists.

The US insists that it needs fewer troops now, compared with 2009, because the Afghan security forces are more able to shoulder the burden. And, indeed, the past decade has seen notable improvements in Afghanistan’s capabilities, especially its special forces.

But there is still a long way to go. The size of the army and police fell sharply last year, according to SIGAR, while insider attacks went up. The Pentagon insists on keeping Afghan casualty and desertion rates secret: hardly an encouraging sign.

Recent clashes in Farah province saw Afghan forces almost lose the capital to Taliban insurgents, and there has been heavy fighting in Ghazni, too. Press reports indicate that hundreds of Afghan soldiers died in May. Civilian casualties are also high.

Although the situation is bad, Washington appears to be in denial, issuing grotesquely rose-tinted assessments of the war. A Pentagon spokesman recently described the Taliban as “desperate” and “losing ground”, even though the group has expanded its control.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government is still one of the most corrupt in the world and continues to suffer from internal division. Vice-President Dostum remains in exile in Turkey, while relations between President Ghani and his chief executive, Dr Abdullah, are tense.

Parliamentary elections have been delayed repeatedly since 2015. A date is now set for October, with the presidential poll following soon after in 2019. But there are already suspicions of government interference in the election process.

Expectations of fraud are widespread, risking a repeat of the disputed election in 2014. Back then the Obama administration managed to broker a deal between the candidates. But, with ethnic tensions on the rise, things could easily spiral out of control.

To make matters worse, Afghanistan’s economy is struggling. Growth has seen a marked slowdown since 2012, while poverty rates have escalated dramatically from 38% in 2011-12 to 55% in 2016-17 according to a recent Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey.

While the country’s licit economy stalls, the heroin trade is booming. Opium production expanded by an eyewatering 87% in 2017, good news for the Taliban which derives funding from drugs. The coalition started bombing drug labs last year, but with questionable results.

Afghanistan is so poor that foreign aid makes up 66% of its budget. To boost trade, President Ghani has pursued a number of bold regional connectivity initiatives. One such project linked Afghanistan with India via the Iranian port of Chabahar.

But President Trump has violated the nuclear deal with Iran, reimposing sanctions previously removed under the agreement. This could undermine the Chabahar project and attenuate Afghanistan’s trade, while also inviting retaliation from Iran.

Tehran may increase the support it has reportedly been giving to the Taliban in response to Trump’s provocation. Indeed, Iran helped the Taliban’s May offensive in Farah with arms, funding, and training, according to Afghan officials.

Another core pillar of Trump’s strategy, cracking down on Pakistan, has also failed. In January he suspended all security assistance to Islamabad and threatened further measures if it continued to provide support and safe-haven to the Taliban.

US officials claim they have not yet seen enough cooperation from Pakistan. But Washington has limited leverage over Islamabad: aid levels have declined since 2011 and Pakistan has found alternative sources of support in China, Russia and others.

Moreover, Pakistan controls US supply routes into landlocked Afghanistan. If Trump turns up the heat and applies further penalties – designating Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, for example, or launching drone strikes – Islamabad could shut off those routes.

Washington wants Islamabad to help bring the insurgents to the negotiating table. But the Taliban are “no pushovers”, noted veteran journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai in a 2017 lecture, especially given that Pakistan has arrested dozens of its fighters over the years.

The group has also cultivated ties with Iran and Russia, expanding to become a “huge organisation” of more than 200,000 people, according to expert Antonio Giustozzi in a recent paper. It is not a pawn in Islamabad’s hands.

Indeed, according to Yousafzai, a number of Taliban fighters have left Pakistan and dispersed, some moving to Afghanistan, others to Iran and the Gulf. The US focus on Pakistan is therefore simplistic.

Diplomatic efforts to end the war have had little success. President Ghani convened the Kabul Process last year to pursue peace. And this February he reached out to the Taliban with a bold offer, promising various concessions including its recognition as a political party.

The Taliban has not yet responded, and announced the start of its spring fighting season in April. The group has long refused to negotiate with Kabul, which it views an American puppet regime.

Instead, the Taliban wants to talk directly to the US, reiterating this aim in a February letter to the American people. Washington, however, will not acknowledge it is even a party to the conflict and insists the peace process be ‘Afghan-led’.

To break the deadlock, as Borhan Osman of the International Crisis Group has written, both sides need to be flexible. The US should acknowledge its role in the war and talk to the Taliban. The Taliban, for its part, must be prepared to engage with Kabul.

Any peace settlement would need to be a broad, multilateral process involving other regional players with interests in Afghanistan, such as China and Iran. Ghani’s Kabul Process, to its credit, reflects this reality by including more than twenty countries.

But Washington’s relations with Beijing, Tehran and Moscow are tense. On the plus side, India has recently agreed to cooperate economically with China and Russia in Afghanistan. Islamabad and Kabul are also improving ties.

Despite these positives, the outlook remains bleak. Trump promised “victory” in Afghanistan. He has delivered nothing of the sort.

Rupert Stone is an independent journalist based in Germany.

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