The Afghan Catch-22: What is Donald Trump’s Policy on Afghanistan?

By Haris Khurshid

Last month commander of American led international military forces in Afghanistan Gen. John W. Nicholson asked Congress to dispatch a few thousand more troops to break the “Stalemate” against the Taliban insurgency. The troop surge of 2010 and NATO assistance were unable to help Afghan forces defeat the resilient Taliban insurgency which now holds sway in one third of Afghanistan. And today, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have asked the U.S. president to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Since the withdrawal of a major chunk of US forces in 2014, major security responsibilities were transferred to the Afghan National Security & Defense force. Since this transfer, there has been minimal progress in terms of reducing Taliban’s hold in rural Afghanistan.  A small contingent of 13,300 strong Resolute Support mission is unable to contain the spreading insurgency as it is mainly tasked with ‘Train Advise and Assist’ responsibilities to help build capacity of fledgling Afghan forces. These troops can be deployed in counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaida, the newly emerged local Islamic State affiliates and high value Taliban targets.

Ironically, the outspoken President Donald Trump has been reticent about Afghanistan during his election campaign and even after his tumultuous initial weeks in the Oval office.  For many this is because the decade and a half long entanglement in Afghanistan is a paradox leaving new administration clueless.  Mr. Trump, according to his Defense Secretary James Mattis is “rightfully” mum on the matter as he is waiting for input from generals on the ground and officials in the state department.

The government in Kabul is trying hard to press the United States for prolonged military engagement and financial aid as potential draw down of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will leave the under resourced and  overly stretched Afghan military to fight the Taliban on its own. Last month, U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. John W. Nicholson, too, admitted the “Shortfall of a few thousand” troops in a testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The commander stressed the need for staying in Afghanistan and termed it “critical to our national security.” Besides, the General informed congressmen of the new shift in policy of China and Russia who see Islamic State as a bigger threat compared to the Taliban movement. China and Russia along with Pakistan have come closer in tacit diplomatic support of Taliban as the three countries share common threat of extremism from Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and consider Taliban a key against the Middle Eastern group.

Given the highly motivated resilient nature of Taliban insurgency which survived surge of thousands of troops, it is clear that a military option alone cannot bring peace in Afghanistan. However, for strategists in Whitehouse there are three possible scenarios of Afghan war strategic re-calibration.

First, The United States may order a surge 3.0 with troops ranging 20,000 to 50,000 to go full throttle against insurgents and drive them out of sanctuaries in harsh rural terrains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and surrounding areas of Baghlan and Kunduz in the north. This will ignite the war to the level of Obama’s 2010 surge albeit with a modest number of troops on grounds supported by heavy artillery and air cover. This is less likely due to the potential sharp rise in troop casualties, financial cost and increased violence in a war torn country.

The second approach is sending in 2000 to 10000 troops as advisors to assist Afghan forces at tactical level through expanded scope of special operations to target key Taliban leaders and their command and control structure. The troops may be authorized to go after insurgents through extensive use of kinetic operations, drones and aerial bombing. This strategy will be aimed at breaking stalemate and weakening Taliban’s position and eventually inviting them to come to the negotiating table with Kabul.

The third is gradual withdrawal from the costly Afghan conflict which is more often advocated by anti-war analysts arguing that enough blood and treasure has been wasted to bring democracy to the central Asian nation. This option corresponds well with Trump’s earlier views of “we should get out of Afghanistan” but bring with it the political price of “accepting defeat.” Besides, entrenched stance of generals to stay in Afghanistan and deny sanctuaries to terrorists planning attacks on homeland will deter the president to pull out.

Although a mix of these approaches can be a distant possibility but the second option of limited troop buildup and peace overtures seems more viable in the current geo-political circumstances. Most of all, it is the “timeline effect” that will determine the efficiency of new military strategy. Hence, while unveiling the new Afghan war policy, Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump has to give a well-defined time frame to achieve Washington’s goals.


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