US military strategy in Afghanistan
Representational image of the US military. Source: army.mil
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The message is clear. U.S. armed forces are in Afghanistan to protect Americans from terrorist attacks that could originate from this region. These are pure national interests, devoid of any other sentiment.

Is President Trump’s vision on Afghanistan really different from Obama’s, and will it translate to a military strategy that will help stabilise Afghanistan?

At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, an extensive review was undertaken to find a military strategy for Afghanistan, which was then called a “war of necessity”. The military supported a comprehensive Counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, which integrated both military and civil efforts, and addressed not only security but issues of governance and justice. This approach required both a surge in the forces available in Afghanistan and a long-term commitment.

A second option suggested by Vice President Biden was a narrower counter-terrorism (CT) approach. This recommended limiting attacks to al Qaeda and other high value targets with drones and special forces. It was primarily driven by the economic costs of what seemed an unwinnable war and did not envisage additional forces being sent to Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the COIN school prevailed and 30,000 additional troops were approved in 2009, bringing the peak total in Afghanistan to about 100,000 soldiers. Unfortunately, a part of the Obama strategy also spelled out a phased withdrawal timetable, beginning July 2011.

This robbed the military of much of the advantages of the surge, as the withdrawal timelines hardly provided sufficient time to stabilise the country. The surge did have a short-term positive impact on the security situation, but much of this success was reversed as troops started pulling back.

As Obama neared the end of his first term, he had tempered his goals from “war of necessity” to the concept of “Afghan good enough”. There was a growing realisation in the American administration that there are no easy victories in Afghanistan. This signaled a move away from a comprehensive COIN to the narrower CT approach.

In 2011 Obama announced, “We will  not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place… America, it is time to focus on nation-building at home.” By 2015, U.S. troops in Afghanistan had shrunk to 9,800, in mostly training and advisory role.

The military vacuum led to a Taliban resurgence and their control over the Afghan countryside grew steadily. The Islamic State also established its footprint in the country. Civilians killed in 2016 were 11,418, the highest since international agencies began keeping records in 2009,

The key components of Trump’s ‘new strategy’ are consistent with the last presidency. Trump said, “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, American interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America”.

This is almost an echo of Obama’s speech in 2009, in which he said, “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as possible.”

The message is clear. U.S. armed forces are in Afghanistan to protect Americans from terrorist attacks that could originate from this region. These are pure national interests, devoid of any other sentiment.

The projected increase of about 4000 soldiers is much of the same — a CT approach followed by Obama since he began his draw-down. It is an aim limited to ensuring that Afghanistan does not descend into chaos and breed terrorist groups that threaten America. This is reinforced by Trump’s statement that “we are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

To be fair, there is a much more open acknowledgement of some realities. The AfPak region has now been expanded to include South Asia. The White House press release of the President’s speech is titled, Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia. A critical part of this strategy is to “further develop strategic partnership with India”, although the remarks of “India making billions of dollars in trade with the United States” seemed unnecessary.

Trump has also been very blunt on Pakistan’s role in supporting terrorists on Afghan soil accusing the country of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” Trump also talked about preventing “nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists”, a direct reference to Pakistan. This has always been a matter of grave concern for the U.S, but spoken about in very hushed terms.

How should we view the new Trump strategy? Coldly, and in pure national interest. The pressure that the Trump administration can bring to bear on Pakistan will undoubtedly be a major factor, though Pakistan is now quite adept at playing this game. Even if Pakistan does take some action against the Taliban and Haqqani networks, it is unlikely to touch terror groups that are focused against India.

Despite Trump’s claim of “we will win”, there is likely to be only be a marginal change in the situation in Afghanistan. Today, the key players in Afghanistan include Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan, the latter being the main spoiler. A comprehensive regional approach will be required if a solution is to be found for the Afghan imbroglio. This should be India’s focus.

The author retired as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army’s Northern Command

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