James Mattis’ plan to make Afghanistan America’s ‘endless war’

James Mattis’ plan to make Afghanistan America’s ‘endless war’

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

Reports have emerged in the mainstream American media claiming that the decision has been taken with regard to sending additional 4,000 US troops to Afghanistan. While these troops are likely to go to Afghanistan and involve in, as some US officials have hinted in last few days, “training and advising” the Afghan security forces, a great deal of ambiguity continues to surround the way the US is actually planning to fight the war, a war that according to James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, the US is “not winning.”

What is certainly not clear — and no American official has shed light on — is how the additional troops can fight and win a war that 120000 troops couldn’t till 2014, the year when a grand ‘withdrawal’ had taken place.

This ambiguity is adding substance to the fact that the placement of additional troops is going to add to the strategic void that the US has been facing in Afghanistan — something that has only exacerbated since the beginning of Trump era.

Astonishingly, the day before the increase in troop strength was reported, Mattis admitted in testimony, in response to senator McCain’s pressing questions about the US strategy, before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US was in a “strategy-free time and we’re scrambling to put it together.”

As should be clear by now, the problem isn’t the number of troops, but in the fact the military is being used, without a strategy, to solve a political problem. And as elsewhere, such as in post-withdrawal Iraq or in post-NATO intervention Libya, the situation is likely to exacerbate than improve in Afghanistan too.

That there is a strategic void is evident from the way the primary US allies are no longer willing to commit their forces and resources to a war that continues to defy an easy solution—and indeed a coherent strategy to follow.

The ‘new vision’, probably given for public consumption at this stage by Mattis in his said testimony includes, apart from troop deployment, a “regional approach” to the problem.

The region we’re talking about is stretching from Afghanistan to Iran, India and Pakistan, not however knowing how, for instance, the US can reduce tension between India and Pakistan on the one hand, and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the other to make this approach a result-oriented one and achieve something credible on the ground.

Unless the US can figure this out, this regional approach would remain essentially a non-starter and contribute to the largely prevailing strategic void, and to unavoidable–and indeed uncontrollable—prolongation of the war.

Within Afghanistan and Pakistan, the largely prevailing view with regard to sooner than latter arrival of fresh troops is that it is a part of the US’ deliberate attempts to prolong the war and maintain the so-called “stalemate.”

While we cannot be sure of this, some developments within the US do indicate that tension with two of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, and the regional big power, Russia, are likely to escalate in the coming days, adding more and more substance to the necessity of staying militarily dominant in Afghanistan as a means to staying strategically relevant to the region, maintaining balance of power to its own advantage in the short and the long run.

Two things clearly indicate this likely escalation of tension.

First, the Trump administration is undertaking a fundamental review of its Pakistan policy, a review that is likely to see a rather stiff approach to Pakistan and its role in the region.

While the US has already started its drone campaign, its policy makers are also toying with other options that include reducing or even blocking military aid to Pakistan and dropping Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.

Second, the US Senate has already passed a legislation to impose fresh sanctions on Iran and Russia, targeting the latter’s oil production and arms sales, two of Russia’s most important aspects of economic health.

While the Russia sanctions don’t apparently look connected to the Afghan war, the legislation, when passed, would serve to limit the extent to which Russia can flex its military, economic and diplomatic muscle in Afghanistan.

Russian involvement in Afghanistan has seen a steady increase during last one year or so. The main aspect of this involvement is search for a negotiated end of the war. This involvement has, however, led the Americans to blame Russia for providing military support to the Taliban to keep their fight against the US fully alive.

Given that this is currently the basic underlying assumption guiding the American military and policy makers, the logical response could hardly be anything other than more militarization of Afghanistan—something that would directly serve to push the Taliban to increase their own attacks and, as such, block the way for a negotiated end of the war.

This was clearly on the cards when Mattis was asked what “winning” would look like in Afghanistan. He responded saying that it would mean a long-term US presence, adding further that it would “be an era of frequent skirmishing, and it’s going to require a change in our approach from the last several years if we’re to get it to that position.”

The approach that Mattis is hinting about changing is that of Obama administration’s emphasis on first designation the Taliban as “insurgents’” and then preparing a peace formula of negotiations.

Mattis wants to change this approach and replace it with ‘skirmishes’— something that inevitably would lead to more intense fighting, and would yield a more justifiable excuse for keeping Afghanistan under its sole military control.

The surge Mattis is planning may very well be a step towards turning America’s longest ever war into an endless war. Already into 16th years, the latest surge is going to take Afghanistan back to the square one.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist based in Pakistan. His areas of interest include politics of terrorism, global war on terror, ethno-national conflicts, foreign policies of major powers, application and consequences.