THE decision by the Trump administration to bolster the presence of US troops in Afghanistan raises questions about America’s getting into the third phase of its Afghan war. The number of additional troops is likely to be 3,000 to 5,000 in addition to the 8,800 or so American soldiers already engaged in the war that is in its 16th year.
Intriguingly, there has not been any formal Afghan policy announcement by the US president. Instead, he has just authorised the Pentagon to take a decision on the surge figure, indicating the increasing US reliance on a military solution to the Afghan crisis. What is described by the White House as a stopgap measure ie ‘setting troops levels’, may push the US deeper into the Afghan quagmire in the absence of an exit plan.
This decision to send additional troops underscores a reversal of the Obama administration’s policy envisioning the complete withdrawal of US combat forces from Afghanistan; it is also a departure from Trump’s own election pledge to not get militarily involved in foreign conflicts.
Surely the troop surge was necessitated by the spreading Afghan Taliban insurgency causing an increasing number of military and civilian casualties in the war-torn country. The most recent series of terrorist attacks in Kabul are the deadliest since the US invasion in 2001. And the killing of more than 160 Afghan National Army soldiers in an attack on a military garrison in Herat, believed to be a more secure region, underlines the deteriorating security situation in the country.
The challenges confronting the US in Afghanistan are similar to those faced immediately after 9/11.
Thousands of Afghan soldiers have been killed in insurgent attacks since the drawdown of US troops in December 2014. The few thousand residual troops are largely engaged in training and providing support to the Afghan National Army in combat. The Taliban have extended their area of influence. But can the addition of a few thousand troops reverse the situation and achieve what more than 160,000 US and allied troops could not? This ‘stopgap’ arrangement is certainly not going to work.
More disconcerting is the failure to contain the insurgency that could lead to a demand from the military commanders to deploy more troops, thus getting the United States into what is described by some US security experts as potentially the “third American-Afghan war”. In the words of Robert Grenier, a former CIA counterterrorism expert, America has already fought two wars in Afghanistan. The first one that started in October 2001 ended in a quick victory for US forces with the routing of the Taliban regime.
But the triumph was short-lived. Four years later, in 2005, the US found itself involved in its second Afghan war with thousands of coalition forces engaged in a fierce battle with revitalised and regrouped insurgents. This phase has continued despite the winding up of the US combat mission — with no victory, illusory or otherwise.
With a deteriorating security situation and a weak and divided government in Kabul unable to maintain its control over territory, the challenges that confront the US in Afghanistan now are somewhat similar to those faced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In fact, the situation has worsened with the conflict extending to both sides of the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further exacerbating matters is the rise of the militant Islamic State group which has claimed many of the recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan that have taken a huge civilian toll.
While the Trump administration is still in the process of reviewing its Afghan policy, there seems to be no clear thinking in Washington on exploring the possibility of a political solution to the Afghan crisis. The use of the ‘mother of all bombs’ cannot bring an end to this bloody war. The war will be further prolonged with more disastrous consequences — for Afghanistan and the region — if the surge in troops is not accompanied by intensified political and diplomatic efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. The suggestion for reviving the Afghanistan-Pakistan-US-China quadrilateral forum sounds positive, but there is a need for a more proactive approach.
Missing in the policy matrix is the source of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan that makes prospects for Afghan peace bleaker. Cross-border insurgent sanctuaries are a symptom and not the cause of the growing divide. Relations between the two countries have never been cordial since 2001, but they have hit a new low with the escalation in terrorist attacks that Kabul blames on the Haqqani network allegedly operating from Pakistan’s border areas. There has been a further breakdown of relations between the two countries with the recent measures taken by Pakistan to tighten border management.
But the main reason for the increasing trust deficit is Pakistan’s concern at the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. That is also the reason for Pakistan using the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against this development. The heightening tension between India and Pakistan has further intensified Islamabad’s apprehensions. Despite its own problem of violent militancy, Islamabad is not willing to take tougher action against the Afghan insurgent sanctuaries.
It is apparent, that no matter how intense the US administration’s pressure, it cannot force Pakistan to change its position. Even the deployment of more troops cannot help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan without persuading Pakistan to withdraw its support to Afghan insurgents particularly the Haqqani network. But that can only be possible with the US addressing Pakistan’s security concerns however exaggerated they may be.
One cannot agree more with what Stephen Hadley and Moeed Yusuf have written in their op-ed piece in New York Times last week: “United States policies towards Pakistan have long underestimated the centrality of this regional dynamic in defining Pakistani choices.” According to them an approach that links efforts to enlist Pakistan’s support in Afghanistan to a strategy aimed at improving India-Pakistan ties could change this.
This is perhaps the only way for the United States to avoid getting mired in the third war in Afghanistan.
The writer is an author and journalist.