Taliban fighters under Mullah Hafizullah Haqqani attend a surrender ceremony in Baghlan province, Afghanistan, November 2017. Sahel/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
President Trump’s sudden decisions in December to withdraw United States forces from Syria and halve the number of troops in Afghanistan caught almost all his advisors by surprise. They led to the resignation of defense secretary James Mattis, and hasty backtracking in the state department as Turkey vigorously protested.
A month later, Trump still sees his bring-the-troops-home stance as fulfilling his campaign pledge to end US involvement in pointless wars. This week's tweeted declaration (“stop the ENDLESS WARS”) was typically robust. But as so often with Trump, rhetoric and reality don't quite coincide. The Syria timetable is now stretching out over many months while the Afghanistan one is also uncertain. Extracting US forces from these countries – and from Iraq, though it receives rather less attention – is proving tricky.
In Syria, the ISIS killing of four American soldiers in Manjib on 16 January shows the network's ability to remain active even outside the territory it still controls. Also in the north-west, the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) movement has by defeating or threatening other militias become dominant and able to exert increasing control of territory.
In Iraq, the government’s tough counter-terrorism policy against ISIS may well aid a resurgence of the group as the policy is seen increasingly as directed at the country’s Sunni minority as a whole. A report by the researchers Mara Revkin and Kristen Kao, the latter based in Iraq, on the theme of "to punish or to pardon?", says:
“More than 19,000 people have been detained on terrorism-related charges since 2014. Over 3,000 have been sentenced to death in rapid-fire trials that are sometimes decided in less than 10 minutes. Convictions are often based on thin and circumstantial evidence, the testimony of secret informants, or confessions induced through torture, making it easy for innocent people to be falsely accused and unfairly punished.
These injustices are fueling anger, and with it, a new wave of violence. Since 2016, the average number of Islamic State attacks in Iraq – including suicide bombings and targeted assassinations, has risen to 75 per month. In August, U.S. and U.N. reports estimated that the number of Islamic State fighters active in Iraq and Syria might exceed 30,000.”
A ground-level view
More newsworthy concerns over ISIS and other Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria mean that the numerically far bigger US military presence in Afghanistan – which has near doubled to around 14,000 troops in recent years – tends to be downplayed. Trump reluctantly agreed to this presence in the first two post-Obama years, but now clearly wants it to end. Yet the Pentagon faces major problems if it is to comply.
The essential fact about the war is that the Afghan government’s own security forces – army, airforce, police and special forces – have been unable to curb the Taliban presence which now amounts to a large part of rural Afghanistan. There is also evidence that much of the Taliban motivation now stems more from Pashtun nationalism and dignity, plus a desire for revenge against foreign intervention, than from Islamist theology as such.
The US military approach has changed radically across these two decades, from the age of 100,000-plus boots on the ground to one much more of “remote warfare”. In Afghanistan this entails a heavy reliance on air-power, special operations, and training the Afghan airforce and special forces – the latter with plenty of CIA involvement (see "Trump, Blackwater, and private war", 24 December 2018)
The use of air power has expanded considerably in the last four years. The US-based defence journal Air Force Times cites figures from US Air Forces Central Command to report: “The coalition released 6,823 weapons in the first 11 months of 2018. That’s more than the 4,361 bombs dropped in 2017, and vastly higher than the 947 weapons released in 2015 and the 1,337 bombs dropped in 2016.”
Meanwhile there have been determined efforts to expand the Afghan airforce, but the pace of development is much slower than planned. Since the US is closely involved in these, while prioritising its own much larger initiatives, the whole process fuels to a Pashtun-centred sense of foreign invasion and continued occupation (see David Zucchino, “U.S. hopes for Afghan Air Force go unrealized”, New York Times, 12 January 2019).
The long-term CIA operation to train and oversee Afghan counter-terror forces, reflecting the continuity of the CIA role in Afghanistan since the immediate aftermath of 9/11, produces a similar effect. Its advocates tout the programme's success rate, not least against the Haqqani network. But the Afghan special-force units involved have been accused of killing civilians they are supposed to be protecting, an abuse made even more toxic on the ground by their close CIA links.
It is rare to find competent open-source analysis of the US war in Afghanistan from a military perspective, but Jane’s Defence Weekly provides a welcome exception. Gabriel Dominguez's study on 9 January tracks in detail the US and Afghan security posture, these forces' current operations, and their claimed successes. Using a range of independent reports, all this is balanced with attention to Afghan military and civilian casualties, Taliban influence across a third of the country, and political uncertainties surrounding the forthcoming presidential election.
This election, which was scheduled for 20 April, has been postponed for three months, in reaction to the many problems that arose during October’s parliamentary vote. Much will depend on whether the actual result on, now, 20 July is regarded as fair. If it is, at least some elements of the Taliban will likely be inclined to engage in meaningful talks. If not, the war will continue (see "Taliban from enemy to ally", 2 August 2018)
A new approach
In the wider context of the "war on terror", Trump’s intentions collide unevenly with the local dynamics this two-decade adventure has unleashed. A US withdrawal, full or partial, from Syria, Afghanistan and possibly even Iraq would be welcomed by millions of people in western states and in the majority world (where, it is often forgotten, the US military project has been overwhelmingly condemned). At the same time, sudden Washington-imposed changes will quite possibly result in even more short-term conflict and destruction (see "US decline: a military calculus", 3 January 2019)
Such two-sided consequences reveal a larger problem in the world's security resources: the lack of truly internationalist capability. This is badly needed, and especially from within the United Nations system. A well funded and trained peacekeeping and peacebuilding force, readily available for deployment, would hugely improve chances for peace. In looking to the next decades, and the world after Trump, that is something we have to work for.