Donald Trump said little about Afghanistan during the 2016 election, but his criticism of military interventionism raised the possibility he would try to extricate the US from a war that has lasted 16 years, cost $750bn dollars, and killed more than 2,300 US soldiers.
Not so. Trump’s advisers have reportedly suggested he send at least 3,000 troops to Afghanistan, where more than 8,000 American soldiers are already deployed. NATO may also dispatch “a few thousand” additional troops, including some from the UK.
This so-called “mini-surge” has been justified by government officials as necessary to reverse Taliban gains in the country. And, indeed, the war has been going very badly for the US and its allies. The Afghan government now controls less territory than at any time since 2001. Civilian casualties are at record highs. Military fatalities have escalated alarmingly.
One can therefore understand why Trump, who campaigned on an anti-interventionist platform, may now want to counterattack in Afghanistan. But military escalation has been tried unsuccessfully before. President Obama surged tens of thousands of American servicemen into the country in 2010, bringing total American troop levels to about 100,000.
Those extra troops helped temporarily clear areas in southern Afghanistan of the Taliban. But the gains were ephemeral. If tens of thousands of additional soldiers failed to provide lasting security then, why would fewer troops make any difference now?
It could be argued that the Afghan army, which has received extensive training from the US, is now stronger than it was in 2010. That might be true, but it still suffers from desertions and low motivation. An appalling Taliban attack on a base in northern Afghanistan last month, which killed 170, showed how vulnerable the army still is.
Afghanistan’s security has also been undermined by a weak and divided administration in Kabul. The ruling National Unity Government was brokered in 2014 after a disputed election. The two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, entered a power-sharing agreement, with Ghani taking the presidency, and Abdullah becoming Chief Executive.
However, the government has been deeply ineffective and seems on the brink of meltdown. Ghani has allegedly been marginalising Abdullah. Furthermore, the administration is divided along ethnic lines, with Ghani’s office packed with his fellow Pashtuns, and Abdullah’s with Tajiks.
To make matters worse, the governor of Balkh, Atta Mohammad Noor, may join the administration. He is an old rival of the current Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and has crossed swords with Ghani (who unsuccessfully tried to dismiss him from his post in Balkh).
Divisions in the administration have led to cabinet positions being unfilled—including the key post of defence minister—because consensus could not be reached on appointments. This has had a deleterious effect on security, compromising the government’s capacity to fight the Taliban efficiently.
Then there is an issue that has dogged Afghanistan ever since the US-led intervention in 2001: corruption. Despite some improvements, the country remains one of the most corrupt in the world (near the bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index). Corruption robs the government of legitimacy and facilitates Taliban recruitment.
No amount of international military intervention can solve these problems, because they are political and require internal reform.
There is also the fact that the Taliban still enjoys sanctuary in Pakistan and appears to be receiving support from Iran and Russia, too. According to an essay by Bruce Reider, history shows clearly that “external support is a decisive factor in determining the outcome of an insurgency.”
The US has been urging the Pakistanis for years to stop harbouring the Afghan Taliban in Quetta and elsewhere, but to little effect, and it is hard to see Trump succeeding where others have failed. As former US Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, said in a speech recently, “convincing Pakistan to effect a strategic shift is wishful thinking.”
Pakistan has little incentive to pick a fight with the Afghan Taliban and add to its already serious security challenges. Washington cannot easily apply pressure on this issue, either, because NATO supply routes into Afghanistan transit through Pakistan, and the Pakistanis can shut off access if they want to (they did this before, in 2011).
The US is fixated on Islamic State in Afghanistan, dropping its largest non-nuclear bomb, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (or Mother of All Bombs, MOAB), on the group’s cave network in April. But IS now has only 600 fighters in the country, according to the US military. The Taliban has many more. IS controls territory in only four out of Afghanistan’s 400 districts.
The Taliban cannot be defeated on the battlefield. So what can the US and its allies do? Short of withdrawing completely, the only hope now is for a negotiated political settlement that gives the Taliban some role in Afghanistan’s government. This will not be easy: talks have failed before, and Trump’s State Department is understaffed and faces cuts.
But there is no other way forward. And, on the plus side, a growing number of countries are keen to see a stable Afghanistan and could help negotiate a deal. Iran and Russia, for example, fear a permanent US military presence there and want to see American soldiers exit the country (this might explain any backing they give to the Taliban).
A number of countries are invested economically in Afghanistan, and the war threatens their interests. China, for example, plans to include the country in its “One Belt, One Road” nexus of trade routes. That network has, as its largest component, a corridor through Pakistan. China is therefore eager to see peaceful conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
India inked a major deal with Tehran and Kabul last year, which allows goods to enter and leave Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar. There is even talk of that project being connected to China’s Pakistan corridor. A peace deal in Afghanistan could serve as a vehicle for further cooperation between these countries and boost regional interconnectivity.
Maybe this is all a pipe-dream. But Russia has recently convened preliminary talks on Afghanistan with India, China, Iran, Pakistan and the Kabul government. The US declined to attend the latest round of talks, but should get on board and join the process. Kabul’s successful 2016 deal with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar shows that diplomacy can work.
Donald Trump often boasts of his ability to strike deals. This is a perfect opportunity for him to roll up his sleeves and get talking.