Trump's Afghan policy causing a rethink on both sides in conflict

The Taliban made fewer territorial gains this combat season, but say they're still ready to fight Americans. Afghans welcome Trump's fight-to-win approach, but the path to victory is still unclear.

Rahmat Gul/AP
US forces and Afghan commandos patrol Pandola village in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, in April 2017.

In the Afghanistan war’s 2015 and 2016 fighting seasons, Taliban insurgents made significant gains. They captured the provincial capital of Kunduz in 2015, before losing it again, and briefly took partial control of the city in 2016. All the while they seized an increasing number of district centers. 

The systematic Taliban advances also threatened a number of other provincial capitals, as their reach extended across one-third of Afghanistan, a setback for American aims in the longest war in United States history.

But the 2017 fighting season has been different, analysts say: No provincial capitals have fallen, and strategic Taliban gains have been limited, largely due to a surge in air strikes initiated soon after the Trump administration took office in January.

“The Taliban definitely registered that something has changed, and had a bit of a reset,” says a Western official in Kabul.

The US “brought back the B-52s with a vengeance,” says the official, who is not authorized to speak to the media and asked not to be named. “You don’t need B-52s if you’re making little love-taps with Hellfire missiles, you need B-52s if you are dropping cataclysmic-sized bombs. And we haven’t done that since 2001 and 2002, so that’s a big change.”

The increase in airstrikes to the highest level since 2010 – along with a dramatic rise in civilian casualties, which has for years helped bolster Taliban ranks – has been augmented by a new US strategy of “fight and win” articulated by President Trump in late August.

Declaring that the new aim was “victory,” Mr. Trump raised overall US troop levels to 15,000, and eschewed setting a deadline for withdrawal, as former President Barack Obama once did.

“America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will,” Trump said. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Aug. 21 about a strategy he believes will best position the US to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the fighting this year has still been bloody, since the Taliban kicked off their spring offensive spectacularly in April against one of the most secure Afghan Army bases in northern Afghanistan. Insurgents disguised as soldiers took the lives of up to 250 recruits.

And the Taliban killing has continued: On Tuesday, a wave of suicide attacks against police and government targets in the south, east, and west of the country killed at least 74 and wounded many more.

On Thursday, the Taliban took out 43 Afghan soldiers and destroyed their military camp in southern Kandahar Province; in the north, a Taliban ambush claimed the lives of six policemen.

And the Taliban today still control more territory than at any point since they were ousted by the US in 2001. Official US reports indicate that in the first two quarters of 2017, government control “stabilized” at 59.7 percent of Afghanistan territory.

“It is true, the ice [of Kabul government control over Afghan territory] is melting, [but] is the rate of melt slowing? Are we going to end up with what glaciologists call ‘calving events,’ where a chunk falls?” asks the Western official.

“So you end up with less and less control under government territory, but with no major disasters, [which] allows the government to avoid a political inflection point,” he says. “No major chunks of ice are sliding into the sea.”

Can Kabul capitalize?

It is not yet clear how sustainable the effects of the ramped-up airstrikes may be, or whether the government could stop the momentum toward defeat if the Taliban were to seize two or three provincial capitals, says the official.

Also unclear is whether the embattled Afghan government and security forces can take advantage of the current dynamic to solidify a stalemate, much less gain the upper hand in the 16-year-war that saw a record toll of 6,800 Afghan soldiers killed last year.

Meanwhile, the modest increase announced by Trump of some 3,900 US troops is controversial, because even when more than 100,000 troops were on the ground in 2010 and 2011, as part of a surge ordered by Mr. Obama, they were unable to deliver a decisive blow against the Taliban.

But analysts in Kabul say the new US policy has nevertheless been a psychological boost for the beleaguered and divided Afghan government and its security forces.

“The number of US troops has a placebo effect, because it gives the central government the bank guarantees, if you will, that the international forces and political powers are behind us,” says Masood Karokhail, director of The Liaison Office, a Kabul-based organization that facilitates peace and reconstruction efforts.

“Remember Obama said, ‘We can’t defeat the Taliban,’ and now suddenly Trump’s new strategy is, ‘We are going to destroy the Taliban,’” says Mr. Karokhail. “There’s a shift in gear.… [Before] you saw a lot of fatigue and less money, resources. This hasn’t changed. But still there is a new adrenaline I see that [says], ‘No, we have to win here.’ Trump’s strategy was quite well received.”

Plan light on non-military goals

While the new US strategy has been welcomed by many in Kabul, after years of bad news, Western draw-down, and Taliban advances, it is also heavy on kinetic, war-fighting aspects, and light on critical non-military steps the government has long struggled to achieve.

“The psychological impact is always being pushed, [but] I don’t think the strategy itself is particularly comprehensive nor a game-changer,” says Emily Winterbotham, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank in London.

“It focuses far more on the counter-terrorism perspective,” says Ms. Winterbotham, who served as political adviser to the EU Special Representative in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2015.

“They key issue in Afghanistan is that the government is either non-existent in large parts of the country, or illegitimate in the eyes of quite a significant number of the population,” she says. “Until you tackle that lack of legitimacy and credibility, you are always going to have an insurgency, irrespective of what the US is doing.”

The vanguard of the US effort has been the stepped-up bombing campaign, which saw 751 bombs dropped by the US Air Force in September compared with 503 in August, a 50 percent increase, according to US military statistics tabulated by Reuters.

The United Nations has meanwhile reported a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from US airstrikes in the first half of 2017, compared with the first six months of 2016.

Boost to Afghan air power

The Pentagon calls the new Trump-era Afghanistan strategy R4+S, an acronym that stands for “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.” Describing it in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee Oct. 3, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said “realign” meant that the fighting “will continue to be carried out by our Afghan partners, but our advisers will accompany tactical units to advise and bring NATO fire support to bear when needed.”

The old mindset of “survival,” says Karokhail in Kabul, has been replaced by a “new mindset” that is more aggressive.

To achieve the level of military competence envisioned by the Pentagon, Afghanistan will require better equipment, at the very least.

US and Afghan officials have already embarked on a plan to modernize Afghanistan’s decrepit Soviet-era air assets. The plan calls for tripling Afghan air force capacity in a $6.5-billion, five-year program that includes 159 new Black Hawk helicopters, and doubling the size of special operations units. Funding for the first year of the program had already been allocated, but will require the Trump administration’s authorization each additional year.

In an elaborate handover of the first Black Hawk helicopters at Kandahar airfield this month, the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, vowed that “a tidal wave of air power is on the horizon” that would spell “the beginning of the end for the Taliban.”

Such optimism has also been the hallmark of previous would-be victors in Afghanistan, from the British to the Soviet Union, which both saw their entanglements famously earn Afghanistan the moniker “graveyard of empires.”

A Taliban vow to fight

Even as Trump warned in August that “no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms,” the Taliban responded by vowing to continue the fight as long as a “single American soldier” remains in Afghanistan.

“It seems America is not yet ready to end the longest war in its history,” the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement. “As Trump stated, ‘Americans are weary of the long war in Afghanistan.’ We shall cast further worry onto them and force American officials to accept realities.”

Still, the commander of Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism force that engages the Taliban and Islamic State militants often in Kabul, says the extended US presence is welcome.

“The Americans should be here, it is necessary,” says Lt. Col. Abdul Raqib Mubariz, commander of the Crisis Response Unit, two days after a late-September attack in which rockets targeted the Kabul airport – and reportedly the recently departed plane of Secretary Mattis – and his squad fought a seven-hour gun battle.

A veteran of 85 Taliban and Islamic State attacks in the last eight years, Lt. Col. Mubariz tells the story of the fight with military efficiency, but says there is much work for Afghan security forces to do.

“There is an urgent necessity for coalition troops, especially Americans,” says Mubariz. “Our army needs them to train the young generation. Only the young generation can stand this country on its own legs.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Taliban did not seize complete control of Kunduz in 2016.

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