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The Great Afghan Paradox

Posted by James Kitfield on

James Mattis at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan on March 14.

By most metrics the war in Afghanistan is going badly. According to the most recent quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the troop strength of Afghan Security Forces is in “sharp decline” even as the Taliban are on the march throughout the countryside.

The number of “security incidents” is similarly on the rise, to include a series of recent suicide bombings in Kabul, including one in late April attributed to Daesh (aka the Islamic State) that targeted and killed nine journalists and four police officers. Opium production skyrocketed by nearly 90 percent in 2017, and the Afghan government continues to rate near the bottom on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index.” The publication Long War Journal, which tracks the conflict, recently estimated that the Taliban now “controls or contests” 58.5 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, a high-water mark for the Islamist extremist group. 

The Taliban has seized the initiative and are dictating the pace and location of combat this fighting season, and they control or contest more Afghan territory than at any time since the United States ousted them from power back in 2001,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, and editor of Long War Journal. He characterized the Trump administration’s “surge” from roughly 8,400 to 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and a stepped-up bombing campaign, as necessary but not sufficient to check the Taliban’s momentum. “The Obama surge [2009-2012] forced the Taliban to retreat from key strongholds but they regrouped in safe havens in Pakistan, and since the U.S. and NATO withdrawal in 2014 the Taliban has taken advantage of a dysfunctional Afghan government and security forces. Why the Trump administration thinks it can now defeat the Taliban with 14,000 ‘train and assist’ troops, when we failed to defeat them with over 100,000 U.S. combat troops, is beyond me.”

Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and NATO’s “Operation Resolute Support,” now confronts a familiar set of challenges. Afghan Security Forces number 313,728 on paper (army and police), but are declining as a result of attrition and recruiting problems, and Afghan units are wildly divergent in terms of quality. For its part, the Afghan government is riven by the corruption that attends a booming drug trade in a developing country. The government is also split by a barely workable “power sharing” arrangement between rivals President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who now face another potentially disruptive presidential election scheduled for later this year. Despite the Trump administration freezing security aid to Pakistan, the Taliban and other extremists continue to enjoy sanctuary there that allows them to rest, regroup and plot in relative safety. Finally, Nicholson faces a ticking time clock back in Washington managed by a mercurial commander-in-chief in President Trump, and a war-weary Congress.

“All the trend lines suggest the Taliban has the initiative and momentum right now, and 14,000 U.S. trainers and advisers may not be enough to push the insurgents back on their heels. So this is a very dangerous period,” retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, former commander of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, thinks.

“The upcoming presidential elections are important both practically and symbolically, but with the Taliban targeting polling stations and election officials, and controlling or contesting a majority of the country by some estimates, I’m not sure you can hold a legitimate election,” said Barno, who noted that former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a key architect of the Trump administration’s Afghan strategy, is no longer in the White House. 

“If the election scheduled for this year leads to greater volatility, as happened during the last election cycle, then I think you’re going to hear a lot more `time to throw in the towel’ sentiments voiced in Washington,” said Barno. “At that point it will be interesting to see if President Trump remains invested in Afghanistan, or if he goes back to his earlier position that we should leave, and risks ceding this space to the Taliban and ISIS. U.S. military leaders would see that as catastrophic.”  

Indeed, U.S. military leaders have pushed back against a narrative of failure in Afghanistan, arguing that it is much too early to judge the impact of a campaign of additional troops and more aggressive tactics that only began last autumn. As recently as the end of 2016, they note, U.S. troops were still withdrawing from Afghanistan. With the Islamic State kicked out of most of the territory of its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, U.S. Central Command has shifted resources and key enablers such as airpower and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets to Afghanistan. As a result, the number of munitions dropped in the first quarter of 2018 was the highest recorded since reporting began in 2013, and is more than two-and-a-half times the amount dropped in the first quarter of 2017.

The Army’s new 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade is also in Afghanistan on its maiden deployment, and Resolute Support commanders have lifted restrictions so that advisers can push forward and work with lower-echelon units. Perhaps most importantly, the command has announced plans to double the size of Afghan Special Operations Forces, which have consistently prevailed over the Taliban on the battlefield.

“The American advised units – commandos and Special Forces – over the last several years have not been defeated in combat with the Taliban. Those that were not mentored by our units were being defeated,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis testified before the Senate Appropriations’ defense subcommittee on May 9. “As we…start having more NATO advisors working with them – mostly American but other NATO countries as well – then we will end up with more capable units in the field.”

Mattis also argued that the growing number of “security incidents” in the SIGAR report is misleading because it fails to distinguish between attacks initiated by the Taliban, and those initiated by Afghan Security Forces. “Who is initiating attacks is as important as the [total] number of attacks,” said Mattis, noting that Taliban initiated attacks – often directed at less risky “soft targets” – are down by 17 percent this year. “Where we are ambushing the Taliban, that means we have the initiative.”

Recent history suggests Mattis and his generals may have a point that it is premature to judge the impact of the Trump campaign. It was well over a year after U.S. forces redeployed to Iraq in the summer of 2014 to help rearm, retrain and assist derelict Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) before they began having notable success on the battlefield, first in recapturing Ramadi in December 2015, then in recapturing Falluja in June 2016, culminating in the recapture of Mosul from ISIS just last year. 

“It looks good on paper that the U.S. has deployed the additional ‘train and assist’ forces, but it takes a lot of time to get people settled, and pushed out to forward units where they can have an impact. That process is probably only 40 percent completed, and it’s way too soon to judge whether it will be successful,” said Anthony Cordesman, one of the best defense analysts who works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In the meantime, the Taliban have so far proven incapable of capturing and holding major cities or provincial capitals, he noted, and it was never realistic to assume 14,000 U.S. troops would be decisive in ensuring Afghan Security Forces could defend the entire Afghan countryside. “We’re still in a war of attrition in Afghanistan, and while you can argue whether or not we’re losing, we’re clearly not winning.” 

The Great Afghan Paradox arises from the fact that victory remains elusive and sometimes seems impossible even after seventeen years of fighting, while a defeat that cedes Afghanistan to Islamist terrorist groups with the blood of thousands of Westerners on their hands is all but unthinkable. Already Daesh has made inroads in the country and is claiming some of the most horrific suicide bombings there, for instance, and just last month U.S. forces killed Al Qaeda leader Hazrat Abbas and his bodyguard in an airstrike in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. 

“We went to Afghanistan to eliminate the sanctuary where senior Al Qaeda leaders planned and conducted the initial training for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and we stayed to prevent the likes of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from reestablishing sanctuary in an area that seems to have a magnetic attraction for them,” retired Gen. David Petraeus, formerly the commander of all U.S. and NATO troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, told Breaking Defense.

The United States and its allies have largely succeeded in that mission, he said, and are doing so today with dramatic reductions in the number of troops and associated costs. “I’ve said before this is a generational struggle, and we may have to continue operations in Afghanistan for a considerable time to come,” Petraeus told me. “I don’t think throwing our hands up in the air and saying ‘Let’s go home’ is a good option.”

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