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US plan to win Afghan stalemate is zero-sum game

There has been an increasing concern in the Pentagon about the Afghan security forces' inability to withstand the annual Spring Offensive launched by the Taliban. Photograph: (Zee News Network)

WION Web Team New Delhi, Delhi, India Jun 14, 2017, 05.21 PM (IST)

By Agnisheik Chatterji

The US administration's decision to open the possibility of redeploying thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan is a welcome one, but its success hinges on several factors.

US President Donald Trump Tuesday decided to empower the Pentagon to decide on the troop levels in Afghanistan, in his bid to "win" the stalemate in the war-torn country.

Not very long back -- even till 2015 -- the US was talking about an exit strategy from Afghanistan. They were looking to withdraw their troops by 2017. From 100,000 American soldiers in 2011, the US government has whittled down its presence to 8,400 troops, who are primarily engaged in non-combative roles. 

But a rash of events turned that plan on its head. The pivot is primarily down to Washington's scrambled policy in the region that is bedevilled by a resurgent Taliban, a dormant Al Qaeda and a growing Islamic State.

There has been an increasing concern in the Pentagon about the Afghan security forces' inability to withstand the annual Spring Offensive launched by the Taliban. 

The fact that the US administration has spent close to $71 billion on training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), coupled with an annual $23 billion expenditure on the reconstruction of the ravaged country, stakes in the Afghanistan war remain ambitiously high. 

Despite spending billions of dollars in training the local forces, the Afghan government controls roughly 59.7 per cent of districts in 2017, down from 72 per cent in November 2015. This is down to a resilient Taliban chipping away at the fraying stalemate in the country and failure of the US in ably training the security personnel.

The recent attack on American soldiers has also pressured the US government to get their act together in the country. Five soldiers have been killed since April to underscore the turmoil swirling in the tough terrains of the South Asian nation.

When Senator John McCain questioned the government's will to act on the Afghanistan conundrum, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis admitted that they were still "not winning" the longest war in Afghanistan.

"We are not winning in Afghanistan right now," Mattis said during Tuesday's congressional hearing, adding: "And we will correct this as soon as possible."

Light-footprint approach 

The US army has long wanted reinforcement of troops to combat the stasis that has gripped the ANSF too. About 35 per cent of the personnel do not re-enlist every year, according to the report submitted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Mattis defined "winning" in Afghanistan as a situation where the Afghan government, with international help, drives the insurgency down to a level that local security forces can handle it. 

Although additional troops on the ground might lessen violence and the Taliban juggernaut in the short- to medium-term, duration of their stay would be imperative for any positive outcome.

The Americans can't just expect to arrest the level of violence and make a hasty retreat by leaving behind a few soldiers in non-combative role. That is because it is unreasonable to train the local security agencies in three, four years and then leave them to fight the extremists. The local forces would need air and logistical support to thwart future battles.

An untimely "right-sizing" of US troops would thereby diminish or negate important capabilities in countering terrorist threats, financing and overseeing contracts. 

US' presence in Korea is a point in case where decades of military deployment has yielded a semblance of stability in the region.

As mentioned before, 35 per cent of personnel don't re-enlist, meaning that full recruitment to cover the gap would ultimately result in dilution of quality. Also, there have been several concerns about the ability of middle- to senior-level Afghan commanders' ability to lead troops in combat.

So the decision to introduce more US military presence would be good news in the region, but the burgeoning costs of the war is fraught with peril and also fiscally unsustainable.

Negotiations remain a pipe dream

In 2011, the US had all the cards in their negotiation with the Taliban. The US had about 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and the Taliban were in the doldrums. But even then, the two parties failed to forge a peace plan as Taliban continued playing hardball.

So if the current administration hopes to push the years-long war into a negotiated settlement by reining in the Taliban, their plan is more likely to fall off the cliff.

Today's Taliban is a different beast. The group has splintered in the aftermath of their leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour's death in 2016. Negotiating with a multi-headed group will be a nightmare for the White House.

The political infighting in the country is another factor that has precipitated Taliban's gains. Uncertainty in the corridors of power in Kabul and local governments have handed the Taliban a fertile ground to re-ignite their support among the masses. 

The SIGAR 2017 report says: "The National Unity Government grappled with political challenges ranging from defiance from Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord whose bodyguards are charged with sodomising a political opponent, to resolving conflicts with the parliament over a path to promised parliamentary elections and Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential contest." 

If the US has to be successful in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, they have to upgrade the quality of polity in the country.

The US has to rectify its operational problems too, which has largely been marred by corruption.

Several Afghan security forces leaders have been prosecuted on corruption charges. There has also been widespread misuse of the funds sent by the US in the last few years, especially after they scaled down their presence.

The US will have to crack down on financial irregularities as well to sustain their project in the long run. 

'McMaster's War'

The Trump administration's renewed policy in Afghanistan has been largely forged by national security advisor Lt Gen HR McMaster. So much so that certain sections of the White House have dubbed the fresh Afghan blueprint as "McMaster's War".

The shift in decision-making from the White House to the Pentagon has been credited to McMaster.

He has been an endorser of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" tenet which advocates winning the hearts and minds of the populace to help defeat the insurgency.

But the task of micro-managing the local population remains an uphill task as the Afghans would be wary, and weary, of yet another bout of foreign presence in their country. 

US troops have been viewed by the locals with deep hostility due to the bloody quagmire they have endured for 16 years and wanton shootings perpetrated by US soldiers. 

As Abraham Lincoln said in his 1858 “A House Divided” speech, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it".

Therefore, it remains vital for the US administration to adopt a multi-pronged strategy -- not just miltarily -- to consolidate any gains they make in the country.


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