The first month of a new United States administration is a time for setting the policy agenda over a four-year term. Donald Trump came to power promising to take decisive action to defeat ISIS and curb America's armed interventions abroad. Beyond the day-to-day turbulence in Washington, military setbacks to the US's partners in Iraq and Afghanistan are already testing those key objectives.
The Iraqi army’s assault on Mosul has run into repeated problems, while the security situation in Afghanistan continues to be dire. Some in the US military are even arguing for another "surge" of troops there, whatever the strategy in Iraq and Syria turns out to be.
Afghanistan, relatively neglected in the media as it has become, is worth watching. Barack Obama committed 30,000 extra troops to the country during his first term in office. That brought the total number deployed by western states to around 140,000, with 40,000 of them coming from Nato allies. The intention was to suppress the Taliban by a degree sufficient to negotiate a Nato withdrawal that would leave Afghanistan reasonably stable. The strategy failed, but most troops were withdrawn anyway by the end of 2016 in the hope that the Afghan security forces could take over. As a result only 8,400 US forces remain in the country, plus 5,000 from Nato partners,
In the event, the Kabul government's sway holds only in a bare majority of the country, while the Taliban and diverse armed militias operate in around two-fifths of Afghanistan. A report on the Senate armed-services committee's questioning of General John Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, on 9 February amplifies the picture:
“in addition to the Taliban, 20 of the world's 98 designated terrorist organizations now operate within Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where political and military leaders are under constant pressure from Washington to crack down on terrorist safe havens in the country's border areas, mountainous territory that remains mostly lawless. (Defense secretary) James Mattis made phone calls to his counterparts in each nation this week.
The Afghanistan campaign has become further complicated by the resilience of an Islamic State faction operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Each, Nicholson said, continue to make subtle but steady attempts to ‘legitimize and support the Taliban’."
The continuing presence of ISIS is a particular concern for the Trump administration, given his pledge to crush the movement. That would require an expansion of US forces not just in Iraq and Syria but in Afghanistan as well – meaning another era of “boots on the ground”, however much air-power is used, including drones.
Amid diplomacy, war
For the moment, the US's main concern is with the ISIS groups that have embedded themselves in Afghanistan, especially Nangarhar province. American airplanes are currently backing Afghan forces in trying to expunge ISIS influence from part of Nangarhar. The Pentagon hopes that the Afghan airforce (AFA) can eventually take on that role, with Nicholson arguing for a large programme to replace the AFA’s ageing MI-17 Russian helicopter with newer American UH-60 Black Hawks.
An illuminating analysis in a conservative journal takes the view that Trump will not prioritise the conflict in Afghanistan, with the result that US military commanders will have something of a free hand and will increase troop numbers (see Kelley Beaucar-Vlahos, "The New Battle for Afghanistan", The American Conservative, 14 February 2017). But it also notes that the massive surge undertaken by Obama failed to curb the Taliban – so what would 10,000 or even 20,000 extra troops do?
At the same time, the revenues from opium production and export are reported to be increasing, giving more power to the Taliban and other armed opposition groups, especially in Helmand province.
If this were not enough, a further complication arises: Russia's role. Vladimir Putin is trying to gather countries such as Pakistan, India, China and Iraq for tentative discussions on curbing the war, perhaps even involving talks with the Taliban. The motives may include fear that ISIS will come to present a threat to Russia, perhaps through radicalisation among Russia’s over 16 million Muslims. In any case, Russia appears uninterested in bringing the United States and its allies into the fold.
Beyond the diplomacy, the war continues to inflict a terrible cost on ordinary Afghans. A harrowing report cites the loss of Shaima, a widow living in Kabul, who lost three of her sons, all serving in the Afghan police, in a single day (see Mujib Mashal, "An Afghan Mother’s Heartache: Three Sons Dead in a Day", New York Times, 14 February 2017). It is the kind of tragedy repeated every day across the country. In eleven months of 2016 the Afghan security forces lost 6,785 personnel, more than three times as many as the US forces lost in fifteen years of war. Many thousands of civilians were also killed.
Afghanistan has now been in a state of war since the early 1980s, nearly thirty-five years. Still, but no one state or even group of states would appear to have the commitment to sink political differences and work cooperatively to help Afghanistan rebuild. Indeed, under Donald Trump the conflict is all too likely to escalate.