Analysis

Trump Caught in Afghan Quagmire Following Recent Taliban Attacks

U.S. president said he will increase U.S. troops there, but offers no diplomatic plan for ending war

An ambulance carries victims near the site of an attack at the Marshal Fahim military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan January 29, 2018.
\ MOHAMMAD ISMAIL/REUTERS

The bloody harvest in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, has yielded at least 130 people killed over nine days. In the latest attack on Monday at the entrance to a military academy, at least 12 people were killed. Two days earlier an ambulance laden with explosives blew up near a military checkpoint, killing at least 103 people, and a week before that the Intercontinental Hotel was attacked by a group of armed men who killed at least 18 people, 12 of them foreigners.

Since 2011, when Afghanistan was occupied by the United States and coalition forces, Western estimates are that 150,000 people have been killed there, including more than 2,500 coalition fighters.

Although these numbers pale compared to the death toll in Syria, the fact that during the peak years in Afghanistan there were about 100,000 American soldiers operating alongside the Afghan army makes this shaky state a terrible American military and diplomatic failure. U.S. President Donald Trump, who recently announced that he will increase U.S. military forces there after most of them were withdrawn in 2014, offered no diplomatic plan for ending the war in Afghanistan, other than a desperate plea by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “All countries who support peace in Afghanistan have an obligation to take decisive action to stop the Taliban’s campaign of violence.”

What are these “peace-loving” countries meant to be doing? The U.S. administration has no concrete proposals. About 15,000 American military advisers are already operating in Afghanistan, and they will soon be joined by at least 1,000 special forces soldiers whose training was cut short six months so that they could be sped to the Afghan arena. After that, some 4,000 fighters are expected to arrive to serve as “mentoring advisers” who will not only guide the Afghan army, but should spare Trump the need to revive the “flooding strategy” that was implemented in Afghanistan and Iraq, which assumed that power and more power would eliminate terrorist bases. In Iraq, this strategy worked quite successfully; in Afghanistan, as the ongoing war proves, it didn’t.

The Afghan army, in which the United States has invested more than $60 billion in training and equipment, numbers some 200,000 troops on the ground and air units, but it is a tribal army that relies on regional units and uses the “services” of private militias that often operate according to local interests rather than national ones. Today the Taliban controls more than 30 percent of the country, and its goal is to topple the elected government in order to establish an Islamic state along the model it had imposed in the 1990s. Both the Taliban and Haqqani network activists continue to enjoy the generous funding of tycoons, mainly from the Gulf states, and last year there were reports of developing ties between the Shi’ite Iranian regime and the Sunni Taliban. This connection is meant to serve two purposes – to prevent the Taliban from attacking Iranian targets and the Shi’ite minority living in Afghanistan, and to stop possible attacks by ISIS-Afghanistan on Iran. As a side benefit, it is also an effective way to compete with Saudi Arabia over influence in Afghanistan. ISIS-Afghanistan is the least significant force, although it was quick to take responsibility for some of the recent attacks, but there are also the rival forces of tribal or regional militias that threaten stability, a threat that will increase as the parliamentary elections in July get closer.

In the face of these numerous rival forces and the total dependence of the government on U.S. financial aid, every political or military decision in the country essentially rests with Trump. The big question is not whether tactical or strategic moves can defeat the government’s enemies, but how long Trump will continue to support a country that only sucks in more American troops.