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Trump’s Afghan Strategy – Old Wine, New Bottles

After much speculation, President Donald Trump finally released his strategy regarding Afghanistan and Southern Asia. Predictably, the announcement of the new strategy was accompanied by a host of criticismâs from journalists, analysts, observers (both Afghan and International) as well as rival policy makers. However, regardless of the criticism, Trumpâs strategy is moving forwards. This piece will aim to analyse the impact that this strategy will have within Afghanistan itself.
Trumpâs Afghan Strategy
The objectives of Trumpâs Afghan strategy are difficult to gauge, however, Trump highlighted during his speech at Fort Myer[i] that counter-terrorism would be the primary focus of US forces in Afghanistan. The overarching concern of this approach being that US involvement is intended to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terror safe haven. In response to recent Taliban gains, Trump also stated that preventing the Taliban from controlling the country would be a primary concern. As part of the counter-Taliban aspect of Trumps strategy, Trump intends to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table in the wake of a military defeat. However, Rex Tillerson has stated that there are no preconditions for negotiations with the Taliban,[ii] which leaves question marks in this particular area as to what exactly the consensus is. Trumpâs counter terrorism approach was further clarified when Trump explicitly stated that US personnel would not be involved in nation building, leaving them extra freedom to pursue counter terrorism objectives.
In order to implement the counter-terrorism approach, Trump intends to deploy approximately 4000 more US military personnel in order to support the 11,000 US personnel already in country. US policy makers also hoped for an increased NATO presence as well, but NATO allies have kept their cards close to their chest on this issue. Trump has pressed forwards with his strategy of increasing NATO presence, but in doing so has failed to gauge the atmosphere in his NATO allies capitals. NATO allies such as Germany and the UK have applauded Trumps commitment to Afghanistan, but have mostly refused to commit additional forces. New Zealand for example, increased their presence by just 3, from 10 to 13 personnel.
Trump is most likely aware that the US military has the capacity to implement his Afghan strategy on its own, and therefore the lack of NATO involvement does not necessarily present major tactical problems.
However, a more international presence would provide increased legitimacy for the NATO mission, portraying it as a unilateral mission.
In order to compliment the US forces, the US personnel in the country will also be under slightly looser rules of engagement (RoE.) This adjustment to the RoE was made under the pretext that âmicromanagement from Washington, D.C. does not win battles.â It is not currently clear what exactly is being changed within the RoE, but theoretically, such a loosening of the rules of engagement would allow greater tactical flexibility.
Trump has not specified how long the US forces will be engaged in Afghanistan for, and this refusal to provide a timetable is in stark contrast to Obamaâs âcalendar based approach.â As a result, Trump has come under criticism for his lack of clarity as to where US involvement is leading. Criticisms of this lack of an end date tend to accuse Trumpâs strategy of being merely a means to an unidentified end, or of being tactics without strategy. Fortunately for Trump, this shift from a time-based approach to a âconditions based approachâ may serve the US strategy well. With the benefit of hindsight, Obamaâs announcement that US forces would end combat operations in 2014 essentially announced to the Taliban that the US surge was only temporary. Obamaâs announcement of an end date meant that any long term promises made by the USA to Afghanistan were severely undermined. The Taliban on the other hand, realised that they just had to wait out the surge. Without an end date, the Taliban, IS-KP, the Haqqani Network and any other militant groups in the country are faced with a problem in that they must adjust their strategy to a long term US strategy (assuming that the Trump administration does not bow to future domestic pressure to end the war.)
The Strategyâs Impact on Afghan Governance
The elongated US stay in Afghanistan did come with conditions, and these were largely aimed at the current Afghan National Unity Government (NUG). Trump warned Afghan policy makers that as long as visible attempts to counter corruption and improve the governments legitimacy as a democratic institution can be observed, then US assistance would continue. However, Trumpâs strategy has made clear that it does not intend to get involved in nation building in much the same way that the US post-2001 strategy did. Therefore, the US strategy will provide little support in the field of governance. Such an exclusion from Trumpâs strategy has attempted to highlight to Afghan policy makers that their future is in their own hands.
Whilst such an idea is theoretically sound, as it encourages an element of self-sufficiency in the NUG, it is difficult to see how such an approach goes any further than mere words. If removing the influence of corruption and patronage were easy, it would have happened long ago. The truth is that corruption and patronage is well entrenched in the Afghan NUG, and is degrading the NUGâs legitimacy in the eyes of the people it is supposedly responsible for. Therefore, forcing corruption away from Afghan governance will not come quickly. As if to highlight the level at which patronage and corruption is taking place, President Ghani has come under criticism for the repeated promotion of Tariq Shah Bahrami (current Lieutenant General) through the ranks of the Ministry of Defense.[iii] With patronage and corruption to varying degrees existing at the highest levels of NUG power, it would be unwise to assume that the chronic corruption that has engulfed the NUG will not go away soon, nor will it disappear quietly. Whether or not Trump is willing to accept the long period of time required to remove corruption from Afghan politics is unclear. However, the lead up to the 2018 parliamentary elections will provide a test for the NUG, in which they will have the opportunity to show the world whether they have lived up to their side of Trumpâs strategy by ousting corruption.
Trumpâs strategy also appears to have placed the metaphorical ball in the NUGâs court at the least opportune time for the NUG. The NUG is deeply divided, with parties and groups creating the front lines of the run up to the 2018 Afghan parliamentary elections. Perhaps the most high profile divide being the recently formed âCoalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan.â The coalition is formed of three parties, these being Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan, Jombesh-e Melli Islami and Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom-e Afghanistan. All three of these parties are united by their opposition to the politically surrounded President Ghani. The Coalition has been provided fuel for their campaign when Vice President Dostum (also leader of the Jombesh Party) was denied entry at the Mazar-i-Sharif Airport. In opposition to the coalition, the highly controversial figure, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has sided with Ghani, calling for patience and respect for the governments authority at a time of trouble. Support from Hekmatyar comes at a price for Ghani though, as the controversial individuals past as a militant commander continue to form the base of criticisms against him. Further divides may form between Ghani and Hekmatyar over the presence of foreign forces, with Hekmatyar being staunchly against the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan and Ghani being supportive of the US increase in presence.
The tensions and divides within the NUG were further exasperated by a major terror incident in Kabul on May 31st, in which approximately 150 people were killed by a suicide blast. In the aftermath of the blast, Salahuddin Rabbani (head of Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan) called for the dismissal of the heads of security institutions, implying that their negligence contributed to the high death toll. The situation was further inflamed by political opportunism when Ahmad Zia Massoud called for an interim government to replace the current heads of the NUG. Rabbaniâs demands gained traction during the protests which followed the May 31st attack, and since then have continued to hold some traction in Afghan discourse. More recently still, the Provincial Governor of Balkh Province was involved in an incident in which he used private militia to arrest (and allegedly abuse) a political rival from Mazar-i-Sharif Airport. The Mazar-i-Sharif Airport episode highlighted the way in which private militias and brute force continue to add an additional level of threat to any political divisions in Afghan politics.
The Strategyâs Impact on Afghan Militant Groups
To further compound difficulties facing the already troubled NUG, the Taliban is far from battered and broken. The Taliban currently control or at least contest approximately 40% of the country[iv] with groups such as IS-KP further deteriorating security in Nangarhar, Jowzjan and Sar-e-Pol. However, groups such as IS-KP, whilst dangerous, still do not represent the same threat to the NUG as the Taliban. Yet the targeting of IS-KP and Al Qaeda affiliates seems to have taken disproportionate significance in Trumpâs strategy.
With the strength of the Taliban in mind, it is difficult to comprehend how the 11,000 US personnel, soon to be joined by approximately 4000 more and an unspecified number of NATO personnel will be able to make a decisive impact across such as large country. The low troop numbers would essentially mean that there is 1 member of the US military to over 2000 Afghans. The US forces would of course be in support of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP,) however the Afghan security forces are far from equipped to secure the entire country, as desertion, low morale and lack of equipment remains a prolific problem. Whilst the Taliban do not control any major population centres, the Talibanâs strength relative to the security forces is considerable. This strength is highlighted by the way in which they are able to mount large scale and often successful offensives against district centres such as Ghormach[v] and Jani Khail[vi] in Paktia Province.
It is also difficult to determine how many of the US personnel being sent to Afghanistan as part of Trumpâs strategy are actual combat personnel. Speculations currently suggest that the units will be drawn from the 82nd Airborne as well as an airborne brigade from the 25th Infantry Division. Raw troop numbers are rarely as they seem, as authors such as Frank Ledwidge have highlighted the way in which the UK deployed approximately 3,300 personnel to Helmand in 2006, yet of this number only a fraction were able to actually conduct combat operations. Furthermore, of the additional forces to be deployed to Afghanistan, it is also unclear as to what proportion of them will be restricted to a training role with the Resolute Support operation, and what proportion will be used for more kinetic operations against terrorists.
Alongside the increase (albeit small) in US ground personnel, an increase in the utilisation of US air power is also expected. With so few actual troops in country, the USAâs numerous air assets are intended to act as a force multiplier. US air assets have already been increasingly proactive against IS-KP targets in Nangarhar, with an increase in sorties being observed throughout 2017.[vii] Theoretically, this is a sound use of US technological superiority, but increased air power usage is also likely to correlate with increased civilian casualties. The UNAMA has already raised concerns over civilian casualties in the first six months of 2017 relative to the same period in 2016,[viii] an increase in the use of air power would add to the already swelled civilian casualty figures. The volume of civilian casualties is already a particular concern, but recent incidents such as air strikes in Logar[ix] and Herat[x] which caused high civilian casualties serve to highlight the risks of reliance upon air power. Such incidents provide fuel for Taliban and IS-KP propaganda and further erodes governmental legitimacy, who are often blamed for allowing the strikes to take place.
It is highly likely that Trumpâs strategy will succeed in killing terrorists, but to what end? There is no real discussion on Trumpâs behalf as to how the US strategy will counter the root cause of insurgency, terrorism and instability in Afghanistan. Much of the passive and active support received by groups such as the Taliban is the result of local grievances, such as mistreatment at the hands of government-affiliated militia[xi] or economic discontent. Therefore, in order to address the core reasons as to why the Taliban are able to control such vast portions of the country, solutions other than purely military counter-terrorism solutions must be provided.
Trumpâs claim that the USA is not in Afghanistan to conduct nation building operations is likely intended to place the fight against the Talibanâs appeal in the hands of the NUG, rather than the USA. In doing this, Trump has effectively offloaded the fundamental âwinning hearts and mindsâ aspect of any counter insurgency operation onto a weak and divided NUG. The way in which Trump has stated that his objectives are merely to kill terrorists who represent a threat to US and Afghan security means that by definition, he can claim success. However, this military focused approach to a complex situation in Afghanistan is unlikely to bring security. The problem for Trump in this regard being that victory in warfare is based upon perception. That is, if the people of Afghanistan, the US electorate, Afghanistanâs neighbours and the USAâs rivals all perceive the lack of stability in Afghanistan as a product of US failure, then the USA has failed in Afghanistan, regardless of how many terrorists were killed as part of Trumpâs strategy. Stability and prosperity appears to be the benchmark of success in Afghanistan, and it is currently unclear how the small increase in troop numbers will contribute to this decisively so soon after Obamaâs own troop surges failed to achieve long term results.
Currently, Trumpâs strategy struggles to define itself as a new strategy. Firstly, it is not necessarily a new approach to the problems facing Afghanistan. The small troop increase is not large enough a number to classify Trumpâs strategy as a radical break from the previous strategy. Whilst their role is being stressed as a counter terrorism role rather than a nation building role, it would be wrong to say that the post 2014 strategy which existed before Trumpâs has been a comprehensive nation building approach. Furthermore, Trump appears to be pursuing the strategy in relative isolation from his NATO allies and Afghanistanâs neighbours. Trumpâs threats towards Pakistan and overtures towards India may inadvertently serve to entrench Pakistanâs connections with the Taliban as a counter to Indian influence.
Trumpâs strategy barely represents a break from the pre-existing strategy. Slight adjustments have been announced, such as a change to the RoE and a very slight troop increase. However, such adjustments offer no answers to some of the most significant problems in Afghanistan. The strategy has been sold to the public as a refreshing break from the norm, but it is very much a case of old wine in new bottles.
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