Brian M Downing
The US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 expelled the Taliban in short order. Since then, efforts to modernize government and economy have failed and, predictably, a Taliban insurgency grew rapidly. The war stretched through the George W Bush years and those of Barack Obama. It’s now President Trump’s war. He’s signed for it – perhaps reluctantly, perhaps confident he can do what predecessors could not.
The situation has been deteriorating swiftly for the last two years. Obama sent in more advisors and support troops, and reaction forces had to be patched together as situations warranted. The Afghan National Army (ANA) suffers from corruption and high desertion rates. Special forces units handle major operations.
The Trump administration is upping the ante. An unspecified number of troops are on the way and local commanders will have greater authority. Pakistan and Afghanistan will be pressed to do more. What effects will this have on the war and on regional actors?
If the president believes that new policies can turn the tide of war and ultimately defeat the Taliban, he has been misled. The Taliban are well established in many parts of the south and east, where they have more popular support than the Kabul government. Several western divisions and a flood of aid programs will not alter that in a decade or more.
There are three responses to the Trump policy.
First, the Taliban could realize that ambitious scenarios of reconquering large parts of the country are not feasible. Their troops cannot stand up to American counterparts and air support. The Taliban will have to confine their ambitions to holding on to parts of the south and east, and negotiate a settlement.
Second, the Taliban can revert to this strategy of years past – fighting small engagements and wearing down the ANA and the Americans over the course of several years, perhaps into the administration of another president.
Third, the Taliban may become more internationalist. Though an international wing has always been present, the Taliban have concentrated on national goals and eschewed the grander visions of al Qaeda, ISIL, and the like, which strive for imperial glory. A new round of American and NATO intervention may greatly strengthen the internationalist wing and bring more cooperation with ISIL. Afghanistan may be an attractive destination for jihadis withdrawing from Iraq and Syria.
The Afghan army and state
American troops and policies are calculated to bolster ANA morale. Weary units will have Americans serving nearby, and more special forces units will be recruited, trained, and put into combat. In a year or so, the ANA will be a more formidable fighting organization and will resume the bulk of the war.
This of course was the thinking behind the Americanization of the Vietnam war in 1965. The South Vietnamese army did not use the respite to professionalize and become a better force. It was content to let the GIs handle the fighting – a state of affairs that persisted until Nixon began withdrawing US troops in 1969.
The Kabul government is irremediably corrupt and incompetent. This of course is one of the reasons for the Taliban’s resurgence since 2001. Greater US involvement will not provide any incentive to reform. Only its departure can do that.
Whatever the US’s intentions in Afghanistan are, greater focus there will not be looked upon favorably by all regional actors. Iran will see the greater American presence through the prism of national experiences and deem them a danger. This will be all the more so given the stream of hostile statements from the White House.
Over the years Iran has sent small amounts of arms to the Taliban. This was done not as a manifestation of affinities with the Taliban, more as a warning to the US of greater support in the event of an attack on Iran. Russia too has helped the Taliban to irk the US and gain a measure of influence with an established power. The Taliban may get more help in coming months.
The president spoke very critically of Pakistan. One of the most critical intelligence blunders since the 9/11 attacks was failure to recognize strategic ties between the Pakistani army and the Taliban. Pakistani generals see the Taliban as staunch allies against India and as a means of securing commerce with Central Asia. They want their longstanding allies to retain a strong position in Afghanistan.
These same generals support a slew of international terrorist organizations ensconced in eastern Afghanistan. Among these organizations are al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which train guerrillas to fight India in Kashmir and attack India itself.
Pakistani generals will bristle at Trump’s accusations. American supply lines run through Pakistan and the generals may remind Washington of this, possibly with a strategic closing of the Khyber Pass. They’ve done it at least twice in recent years.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.