President Trump is re-engaging in Afghanistan in a manner that basically reverses former President Obama's policies. This is best exemplified by US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis's speech to the US Senate Armed Services Committee on October 3, 2017 which laid out the administration's approach to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and bringing about stability in the region. According to him, the way forward “can only happen if the Taliban reject [the] support or conduct of terrorism.” The new strategy is known as “4r+S”, i.e. “regionalise, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.” The regionalisation of the situation in Afghanistan is the American realisation that what is happening in the country has to do with challenges beyond its borders.
This is reflected in the tougher language coming out of Washington aimed at Islamabad where President Trump is quoted to have said: “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists.” Whatever may be Pakistan's stance on the Taliban or other groups purported to be taking shelter on its soil, its image has taken a serious beating from the US president.
From what has been printed in international media, Washington has shelved the withdrawal of troops and committed 3,500 additional US troops to Afghanistan. Nearly USD 1 billion has been asked in allocation from Congress and NATO has been very supportive of this realignment. The NATO-led “Resolute Support” presence in the country is supposed to get an additional 5,000 troops bringing the total number to 18,000. The Afghan security forces are to get funding till 2020 and more than USD 7 billion is to be spent on reconstruction.
A lot of emphasis is being given on bolstering the capacity of Afghan forces so that they may lead the fight against the Taliban. The support will come from specialised units of NATO and the US. But the greatest realisation is that it is not merely an insurgency problem that is confined to Afghan borders. Also, one must contend with the fact that Afghanistan is largely a tribal society where allegiances shift like a wind in the willows. All in all, a very difficult situation that requires engaging, on the ground, with community leaders—and one that must be perceived to be Afghan-led rather than US-led.
Precisely how the US intends to tackle Pakistan is anyone's guess at this moment. That too is a complex situation. Pakistan has its own share of problems with the local Taliban and other firebrand groups which have had no compunctions about blowing up civilians and/or targeting the security forces. While Pakistan may issue protests about how there are no terrorist sanctuaries on its territory, the fact that Osama bin Laden was found (in hiding) and terminated on Pakistani soil does little to improve its credibility. And although Pakistani forces have since then conducted military operations against terrorists, it stands accused of going soft on some groups.
What is clear however is that the US intends to bolster the Afghan forces with training, military hardware, intelligence and joint-operations. However, there is only so much that can be achieved through arms. The war in Afghanistan has just entered its 17th year and there is, literally, no end in sight. Building up Afghan forces has been a painful process. The overwhelming reliance on foreign air support remains a major hindrance. And it is not just the military where problems loom large. High rates of illiteracy, high prevalence of drug abuse are basic challenges that will take many more years of intervention.
Billions of dollars are being poured into new military hardware for various branches of the Afghan armed forces. The challenge for the hearts-and-minds of the local populace is where the situation gets tricky. Going by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report titled “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict” that was unveiled in October 2018, there were 2,640 deaths and 5,379 injured over the period January 1 to September 30. And although this represented a 6 percent decrease in casualties compared to a year earlier (over the same period) for injured, casualties had actually increased 1 percent. The bulk of the casualties were caused by Taliban attacks (66 percent) while the ISIS was blamed for another 10 percent. The UN body estimates that casualties are going down year after year. But, this conflict has been going on for 17 years now and shows no sign of being resolved any time soon.
We will have to wait to see if President Trump is serious about overcoming the “stalemate” by not only engaging the anti-government forces but targeting shelters and sanctuaries used by such forces in non-Afghan territory. As long as there is ease of crossing the border undetected, these additional troops, training and billions of dollars in hardware sales will not amount to much. At the end of the day, the Taliban and other likeminded groups will only come to the negotiating table and sue for peace when there are no more places to hide.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.