Trump's gift, Taliban's gain

In the seventeenth year of American-led war in Afghanistan, the gap between plan and outcome is as wide as ever. 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 December 2017

Afghan policemen stand near a pile of burning opium narcotics on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Omid Khanzada/PA Images. All rights reserved.After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, there was probably no way of stopping the United States from going to war in Afghanistan to terminate the Taliban regime and crush al-Qaida. The sheer impact of the strikes, at a time when the vision of a New American Century was at the heart of the George W Bush administration, made what followed near inevitable. Bush's response to the horror had support from many European governments, and he soon declared war on an “axis of evil” with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the next in his sights (see "From Afghanistan to Iraq?", 14 October 2001).

It is worth remembering, though, that a few voices in the US and in western Europe foresaw a long drawn-out war in Afghanistan. They argued that the attacks should be treated as appalling acts of transnational criminality, and dealt with through the rule of law, however long that took. Going to war, it was said, would give al-Qaida what it wanted. The very first of this series of columns made this argument:

A few voices argued that the attacks should be treated as appalling acts of transnational criminality, and dealt with through the rule of law, however long that took.

"If the US takes [widespread military action] it will be precisely what the group [responsible for the 9/11 attacks] wants – indeed the stronger the action the better [from] its view. Vigorous military action by the US, on its own or in coalition, will be counterproductive, whatever the intense and understandable domestic pressures (see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 28 September 2001).

When the Taliban regime collapsed and al-Qaida dispersed, that assessment looked wrong. But presumed military success neither went deep nor lasted long. Instead, a security vacuum developed. Within four years the Taliban were back in force, at the centre of a pervasive insurgency that by 2012 had sucked in 140,000 foreign troops.

Barack Obama was then in the White House. His deployment of the final surge of 30,000-plus troops was motivated not by expectation of victory but in hope of forcing the Taliban to negotiate an acceptable future. The plan's failure led Obama to order the withdrawal of the great majority of American troops, followed by the UK and other allies. By the end of 2015, only a tenth of their number remained. 

At that point, the strategy was to keep sufficient numbers to train Afghan security forces and provide air-power and armed-drone back-up. It has also failed, shown not least by the rapid increase in illicit opium production, especially in the important province of Helmand. The sheer scale of that increase, which includes greater Taliban control of the lucrative processing of the raw opium paste, is described in a Brookings report:

“From 2016 to 2017, the area under opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 63 percent, to 328,000 hectares (ha); the estimated total production of opium shot up by 87 percent to 9,000 metric tons (mt). That’s the most in Afghan history. Most of the expansion of took place in Helmand province, long the hub of Afghan opium production as well as Taliban insurgency. With 144,000 ha cultivated with poppy, that province alone surpasses production levels in all of Myanmar, the world’s second largest producer of opiates. But cultivation expanded throughout the country, including in the north, such as in Balkh and Jawzjan” (see Vanda Felbab-Brown, "Afghanistan’s opium production is through the roof—why Washington shouldn’t overreact", Brookings, 21 November 2017).

The author points out that the withdrawal of foreign military contingents has itself considerably reduced Afghanistan's GDP as a whole, leaving opium-poppy cultivation one of the few profitable alternatives.

If this is part of a much wider problem for Afghans, the outlook of Trump’s security people reinforces it. Their plan to send more troops and encourage allies to do likewise is fleshed out by an informative analysis in Jane’s Defence Weekly:

"US troop numbers had already risen from 8,400 to 11,000 and will be joined by another 3,000, while 27 other states, mostly NATO members, will increase their numbers as well.  The overall strategy will be directed not at comprehensively defeating the Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs) but at preventing the country being used by these and other groups as bases for mounting attacks against western interests. With the military’s usual love of acronyms, the strategy has been dubbed “4R + S” which stand for regionalise, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain" (see Gabriel Dominguez, “Afghan Quagmire”, JDW, 6 December 2017).

In practice, this means:

* regionalise – act while recognising that Afghanistan is at the centre of security interests for India, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran, rather than just an area for the west to control

* realign –  US troops will integrate their advise-and-support into much smaller Afghan troop formations, embedding themselves more in day-to-day operations

* reinforce – extra US and other troops whose presence will make this possible

* reconcile – apparently relates to the desired outcome of a more peaceful state, the whole thing to be sustained long term.

There is no longer talk of timescales, as Obama favoured, so the foreign troop involvement in Afghanistan is seen as being indefinite.

Between strategy and reality

This schema faces a twofold problem: the regional context, and the security situation on the ground. The first area is more complicated than the US military perceives. Iran, a key actor, has extensive interests and influence in western Afghanistan.  But the Trump administration sees it as an enemy and regards it with intense suspicion, making constructive cooperation hard to envisage. Russia has no particular appetite for cooperating with the US and its allies if the end result is increasing US influence in the region. India is viewed by Trump's Washington as a crucial player in stabilising Afghanistan. But that is anathema to Pakistan, whose strategic concept of “defence in depth” entails rooted opposition to India's direct involvement there.

The prospect of Afghanistan making a transition to a more peaceful state is, frankly, nowhere to be seen.

The second area, the actual security situation in Afghanistan, is dire. The current US military assessment is that 8.1 million people are in Taliban-controlled or influenced areas, a quarter of the entire population. Helmand, the key opium-growing province, has nine of its fourteen districts in this category. The Afghan defence and security forces have overall lost ground in the past few months. Army numbers have decreased by 4,000 and police numbers by 5,000, with desertions and corruption adding to endemic problems of illiteracy.

Iraq in 2003-04 was essentially run by the US's Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer. In spite of repeated warnings from close allies, the CPA proceeded to dismantle most of the Iraqi army. It consigned hundreds of thousands of young men to unemployment, and sacked many of the technocrats running the country if former Ba’ath party members, despite that often having been a job requirement. The decisions proved disastrous, but the hubris following the supposed victory over Saddam Hussein meant that warnings were ignored (see "A thirty-year war", 3 April 2003).

Afghanistan fourteen years later offers a comparison. The Pentagon is calling the shots, and Trump gives the military as much free rein as did George W Bush. This time, the state department has been deliberately shrunk, and lost many of its experienced diplomats. The prospect of Afghanistan making a transition to a more peaceful state is, frankly, nowhere to be seen.

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