Even after weeks of waiting, the Trump administration has yet to reveal its decision on what it will be doing in Afghanistan. This delay isn’t surprising, given the many other troublesome domestic issues competing for President Trump’s attention. Defense Secretary James Mattis did, however, promise at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week that a new strategy on Afghanistan would be delivered by mid-July. But more importantly, reliable official sources suggest that President Trump will allow the Pentagon to decide the troop levels in Afghanistan. If true, this would be a welcome development from the approach followed by President Obama, who micro-managed the war and set troop levels according to a political timetable rather than according to operational needs.
As everyone in Washington circles knows, the delay is very much due to the internal debate in the White House between officials from the State and Defense departments, who have put up policy proposals, and the political advisers, notably Steve Bannon, who want to reduce America’s military commitment in Afghanistan. While Trump said virtually nothing about Afghanistan during the presidential campaign, in 2012 he stated that it was ‘time to come home!’
The importance of making a decision increased significantly following the devastating suicide-bomb attack in a highly secure area of Kabul on 31 May during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The bombing killed 150 people and wounded more than 450, making it the worst terrorist attack since 2001. No one claimed credit for it, but the Afghan government accused the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban, of carrying it out. Given the Haqqani Network’s long-time association with Pakistan’s military intelligence, Afghan President Ghani subsequently declared at a peace conference in Kabul that ‘Afghanistan is enmeshed in an undeclared war with Pakistan’.
While Trump’s instinct is to get out of Afghanistan, it’s nevertheless expected that when a decision is eventually made public the administration will announce a modest troop surge of 3,000 to 5,000 military personnel. It’s very well known that the top brass is firmly in favour of such an increase in troop numbers.
General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, would also be pleased with such a decision, given that he requested ‘a few thousand’ more troops to break the ‘stalemate’ in the war at a hearing with the Senate Armed Forces Committee in February 2017.
While Trump’s preference would be to leave Afghanistan, he’s also determined to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups. The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, said so on 9 May when he stated that the President wanted to eliminate all terrorist threats to the US and its allies. This was echoed by General Curtis Scaparotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, when he recently told a congressional hearing that ‘NATO and the US, in my view, must win in Afghanistan.’ But while winning may be Washington’s ultimate goal, according to Defense Secretary Mattis, ‘we are not winning in Afghanistan,’ as he bluntly told Senators at a Congressional hearing this week.
However, if winning means defeating the Taliban, ISIS and their ideological fellow travellers, then that simply won’t happen. If some 140,000 US and NATO combat troops were unable to defeat the Taliban over 15 years or so, an additional 3,000 US military personnel, mainly involved in training and mentoring, will certainly not achieve that goal. The best the US can hope for is to weaken the Taliban so as to force it to the negotiating table. But, at this point, given that the Taliban now controls or contests 40% of Afghanistan, it has absolutely no incentive to start talking with the Afghan Government and Kabul’s Western allies.
One of the critical reasons the Taliban still hasn’t been defeated—and isn’t about to be, either—is that Taliban fighters are able to move easily back and forth over the border into Pakistan, where they can find refuge and safety. Notwithstanding the repeated affirmations by the Pakistan military and most recently by the new Pakistani ambassador to the US that there are no longer Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas, indications are that the Taliban is still getting support from military elements. The bottom line is that no country has managed to defeat an insurgency as long as the insurgents are able to readily escape across a friendly border.
US National Security Advisor General McMaster, who had a tour of duty in Afghanistan, would be the first to acknowledge that the surge would fail to achieve its objectives and would simply amount to throwing good money after bad unless the border with Pakistan is sealed, thus preventing Taliban fighters from escaping into Pakistan.
Accordingly, President Trump will need to tell Islamabad forcefully that it must completely close down the border to Taliban egress and regress, and that all remaining ties between Pakistan and the Taliban must cease immediately. Pakistan’s failure to do so would test the patience of an increasing number of senators and Congressmen and could lead to a complete cut-off of military and economic aid. Already, many lawmakers are wondering whether Pakistan is friend or foe in the war against terrorists.
But most importantly, Washington needs to convince Islamabad that it’s not in Pakistan’s long-term interest to continue to support the Taliban and other terrorists. A return to power of those groups in Kabul would embolden the Pakistani Taliban—the TTP, as it’s called in Pakistan—which would most likely get support from and safe haven among the Afghan terrorists. That wouldn’t be good news for Pakistanis, who have already suffered immensely at the hands of home-grown terrorists. It would further threaten the stability of Pakistan—a nuclear state that has serious governance issues.
So, while the commitment of additional US personnel—possibly for many years—won’t lead to a ‘win’ in the traditional military sense, it will nevertheless send an important message to the Afghan Government that the US and NATO will not abandon it. It will also send a message to Russia, which has increasingly been meddling in Afghanistan, including by arming the Taliban, that Washington isn’t about to give Moscow free rein in Afghanistan.