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Trump holds Afghanistan’s future in his hands

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MateenK View Drop Down
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    Posted: 03-Mar-2017 at 2:46pm

Donald Trump holds Afghanistan’s future in his hands


IT MAY be America’s longest war, but during his election campaign Donald Trump barely mentioned Afghanistan. When he did, it was somewhat baffling: at one point, he said that America could not pull all its troops out because neighbouring Pakistan had nuclear weapons. As the insurgents of the Taliban prepare for a spring offensive against the American-backed government, there is still no indication of what the new administration’s approach will be.

For once, Mr Trump’s refrain that Barack Obama left a terrible mess for him to deal with has merit. Mr Obama’s policy on Afghanistan seemed driven more by politics at home than by conditions on the ground. He ordered a timely “surge” in American forces when warned by General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 of imminent “mission failure”. But he then squandered hard-won gains by reducing troop levels faster than his generals advised, hoping to be able to declare victory and leave in time for congressional elections in 2014. When NATO prematurely called time on combat operations at the end of that year, Afghan forces, far from ready to take full responsibility for the country’s security, were left exposed.

Mr Obama further encouraged a resurgent Taliban by suggesting he wanted to end even America’s modest training mission before leaving office. However, faced with the possibility that the government might fall to the insurgency if he exercised this so-called “zero option”, Mr Obama relented, doing just enough to preserve what has become a miserable stalemate.

An international force of 12,600 remains in Afghanistan, of whom 8,400 are Americans. About 2,500 are special forces who carry out raids against terrorist targets, such as al-Qaeda and the local branch of Islamic State, but not the Taliban. The rest are there to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan security forces, including the police. Under rules of engagement first laid down by Mr Obama and only slightly relaxed last summer, the NATO troops could only come to the aid of their Afghan allies when they were facing a defeat that might have “strategic” implications—a criterion that commanders in the field had difficulty interpreting.

Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an author of many critical reports on the conduct of the war, says that too little of the training takes place with forward combat units, where it would be of most use. Close air support, which was vital for NATO, has dwindled. In 2011 nearly 35,000 combat sorties were flown; in the first ten months of 2016 that had fallen to 4,500. The number of missions to evacuate casualties has dropped from nearly 3,000 in 2011 to none.

The consequences have been dire. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, the American commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, warned that current American troop levels are inadequate to prevent the Taliban from continuing to retake territory, especially in Helmand province, the heartland of the insurgency, and Kunduz. SIGAR (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a post created by Congress) reckons that the proportion of the country under uncontested government control fell during the 12 months to November 2016 from 72% to 57%, although about 64% of Afghans still live in uncontested areas and only 8% in areas fully under the Taliban’s control (see map).

The 360,000-strong Afghan security forces are taking a lot of casualties, says General Nicholson. In the year to November, 6,785 were killed and another 11,777 wounded. In 2015 and 2016 combined, 19 Americans were killed in action.

Just to maintain the current deadlock, General Nicholson has asked for “a few thousand” more troops, some of whom he would expect to come from other members of NATO. A further loosening of the rules of engagement and an increase in the air-power available to him would also help. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told General Nicholson that instead of playing “not to lose”, America needed a strategy to defeat the Taliban.

What will Mr Trump do? In keeping with his mantra of “America first”, he might conclude that Afghanistan is a hopeless case, with its divided, dysfunctional government and a thriving insurgency that still draws support from Pakistan, a supposed American ally. He could leave the bickering regional powers—Pakistan, India, Iran, China and Russia—to sort it out.

On balance, that seems unlikely. An administration that sees countering “radical Islamic extremism” as its overriding strategic priority would find it hard to justify leaving Afghanistan to its fate. The defence secretary, Jim Mattis, is reviewing plans “for a path forward”. He and the national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, both served in Afghanistan. Their instinct will be to recommend that Mr Trump set a bolder objective than Mr Obama was willing to endorse and refrain from setting timetables that ignore military reality.

Even then, Mr Cordesman argues, Mr Trump will also have to pep up Afghanistan’s political leaders. Corruption, as much as insecurity, has stymied international efforts to revive Afghanistan’s sickly economy. Without some progress on that front, no amount of external military support will kill off the insurgency.

http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21717835-will-he-pull-out-or-double-down-donald-trump-holds-afghanistans-future-his-hands



Edited by MateenK - 03-Mar-2017 at 3:08pm
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