US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis speaks at a press conference at the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) at Government House in Sydney, Australia, June 5, 2017. Photograph: (Reuters)
The US Defence Secretary Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis told the American Congress that the country is not winning in Afghanistan. This, in common words, means they are losing. Finally, someone acknowledged it.
A few months back, during a hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Nicholson, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, had been more optimistic, defining the situation as a "stalemate".
According to the US military, the Afghan government can claim to control 60 per cent of the country’s districts, 11 per cent less than the previous year. "We recognise the need for urgency," Mattis said.
Trump vs Obama
US President Donald Trump decided to leave it to the Pentagon to decide how many troops are needed on the ground. This decision gives more power to the military, a change from the previous administration which carefully supervised all military deployments.
It has now become clear that Trump’s foreign policy, at least when it comes to war-torn areas, is more troops, more bombs, more fighting. Coalition forces have increased the frequency of airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq. It has been recently documented that they have been using white phosphorous over Mosul, where many civilians still live.
Afghanistan's battered forces
Sixteen years and more than 2,300 military victims after the US invasion, Afghan Taliban are once again on the offensive, the Islamic State established a presence and cities are more prone to suicide attacks. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is tired, suffering and in a few cases vulnerable to Taliban infiltration. In 2016 alone they lost 6,000 soldiers.
The ANA faces shortages of up-to-standard equipment and, even worse, they lack ammunitions. Several military outposts are completely at the mercy of Taliban ambushes and do not even have enough bullets to try to hold their position. The most recent of such episodes happened in late May, when Taliban attacked a military outpost in Kandahar, killing 15 soldiers. A week earlier the same fate hit another outpost and ten Afghan soldiers lost their lives.
Afghans have a fighting spirit and the country’s history proves it. They defeated every army who tried to conquer their land, but there is a limit to the sacrifice a nation can ask its soldiers. During a conflict dedication is important, but not enough.
The rampant corruption within the army ranks is also a major problem. At the end of March, Afghan defence officials communicated that more than a thousand military personnel, including generals and officers, had been fired on charges of corruption.
History on their side?
The US military and the coalition forces have not been able to secure a lasting stability in Afghanistan, and a few thousand soldiers will not save the country. This is being presented as sending in reinforcements to win the war, when really they may be needed to prevent losing it.
Afghan history shows pretty blatantly that the solution does not lie in further military actions, but in a difficult and painful dialogue between the belligerents. National reconciliation, an honest judiciary system, people’s empowerment and economic development are the foundation on which Afghanistan can build peace. Time has proved how bombs are not effective.
In early May, media reported diplomatic rumours in Washington suggesting a possible deployment of 15,000 Indian soldiers in Afghanistan under the banner of the United Nations. This is just a very weak rumour, its origins are so unclear that it can hardly be taken into account. The Indian ambassador in Kabul, Mr. Manpreet Vohra, has denied any official communication on the matter between the two governments. “There is no such proposal from the United Nations to the best of my knowledge,” Mr. Vohra told WION.
India in Afghanistan
If these media reports are to be believed, the move could result in a further destabilisation of Afghanistan. Many Taliban leaders and fighters are based out of Pakistan and are supported by the country’s deep state. It is very likely that the reaction to a possible Indian deployment would be to increase the number of attacks, both against soldiers and civilians living in the country. This, for India, could also mean to "bring the war home", increasing the risk of attacks within the country. Many people on the streets of Kabul are also fed up with war: They had enough foreign troops on their soil in the last decades, and nothing has changed.
India has been a precious ally to Afghanistan, and is putting a lot of effort in the reconstruction process. The Salma Dam is perhaps one of the largest infrastructure that India completed in the country, and it is directly benefitting the local population. Since 2001 India invested $2 billion in Afghanistan and in late 2016 it pledged another billion on top of that.
Afghanistan will benefit of the services provided by the satellite India recently launched and defined as "a gift to South Asia". Indian doctors travel regularly to Afghanistan, and many Afghans are allowed to travel to India for medical purposes. All these investments are not made only out of generosity, there is a clear element of soft power. This is the way Delhi aims to solidify their position as major influencer of the South Asian region, and to isolate Islamabad as much as possible.
One can doubt the sincerity of their motivation.
Whatever the purity of their motivation, as far as long-term stability goes India's increased civilian investment, rather than America increasing military deployment, is what will improve Afghanistan.