New Afghan strategy offers war not victory or peace

New Afghan strategy offers war not victory or peace

Salman Rafi Sheikh,
SHARE
U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft from the 335th Fighter Squadron drop 2000-pound joint direct attack munitions on a cave in eastern Afghanistan

In its search for a strategy that might bring a victory — or even a semblance of it — in its longest war ever, the US is ending up offering more years of warfare than peace to the people of Afghanistan, leading the Afghans to conclude that peace in the country and military victory for the US against the Taliban mean two entirely different things.

The US’s strategic and tactical priorities make it clear that neither is it aiming at bringing the war to an end, nor looking at military withdrawal from Afghanistan. On the contrary, the immediate objective seems to be a deeper and longer military engagement than has been the case since the 2014 withdrawal.

What has been called by the Pentagon a strategy that might bring the conflict to an end is a strategy that has immediately led to a massive increase in the US bombing of Afghanistan.

The Trump administration’s new strategy is called “R4+S,” which stands for regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.

While regionalizing means that the US would be focusing on the whole region surrounding Afghanistan, reinforcing and sustaining means supporting the Afghan forces through air strikes and 3,000 additional troops, and realignment stands to re-configure both the depth and extent of the US military involvement in Afghanistan.

As a matter of fact, some reports have indicated a reasonable increase in civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the present surge. According to a report of UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, about 466 civilian deaths and injuries took place from airstrikes between January and September, which is 52 percent up from the same period last year.

To be more specific, it means that the US military advisers will be involved in training and advising the Afghan soldiers on relatively lower levels than they were previously involved at. This, according to US officials, means that the US military personnel will be active “where the decisive action is taking place, and we didn’t have any advisors” previously. It also means that the US troops will be active on the ground along with more Afghan troops than has been the case so far. In simple words, the Afghans will be seeing more US troop on roads and in streets, leading combat operations and other missions, than they have been seeing for last few years.

Surely, such ‘relaxed’ rules of engagement plus increased bombing indicate that the war in Afghanistan is re-intensifying. It also means that more people, especially the non-combatants and civilians, will die.

This considerably increased presence on the ground is part of new rules of engagement that have been introduced in the Trump administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan. According to it, the US troops will be having a lot more room than previously given to engage with and target the Taliban and other extremist groups, allowing them a lot more leverage and power to decide the course of everyday battles and engagements.

As a matter of fact, some reports have indicated a reasonable increase in civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the present surge. According to a report of UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, about 466 civilian deaths and injuries took place from airstrikes between January and September, which is 52 percent up from the same period last year.

That increased civilian deaths are a direct result of US air strikes is evident from the way the US air strikes have also increased during the same period. According to the US Air Forces Central Command data, the US air force dropped 751 bombs and missiles on Taliban and Islamic State militants in September 2017, which is 50 percent up from the month of August and the highest since October 2010 as well. This is, in the words of Gen. John Nicholson, who is top US commander in Afghanistan, a part of the “tidal wave of air power (which) is on the horizon” in Afghanistan.

The new Afghan strategy is, in short, nothing short of doubling the country’s air force and ground troops’ capacity. However, the question is: can this be done overnight? Certainly not!

Let’s take the example of new US military aid to Afghanistan, which includes Black Hawk helicopters. It is obvious that flying and managing these helicopters requires intense training, spanning over several years. Afghan pilots, who currently fly other US military aircraft, such as A-29 small fighter planes and MD-530 attack helicopters, have received several years of training at bases in the US. And Afghan pilots will need several more years of training to fly the Black Hawks, a process that is just beginning. What this means is that the US military personnel will remain engaged in Afghanistan for almost an indefinite and undefined period of time in the name of ‘training and advising.’

Although this has been done to equip the Afghan military with modern tools to enable them to defeat terrorists, crucial problems remain unresolved in the US led training missions as well. According to a report of SIGAR, training efforts have been seriously hampered by numerous major problems, including failure to understand and address “intangible factors, such as corruption and the will to fight,” overestimating the capabilities of regular government forces, and neglecting “critical capabilities” that take time to develop.

How, this being the case, the training conundrum will ever be resolved? The only answer the US officials have is longer stay of the US military trainers and advisers in Afghanistan, and longer US military support for the Afghan forces — something that means prolongation of war in Afghanistan.

Will then the US be able to achieve the reconciliatory part of its “R4+S” strategy?

While increased bombing and more US soldiers in action may allow the US to realign, reinforce and sustain its gains, a big question mark remains on its ability to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Even lawmakers in the US are skeptical that the new strategy can yield this result. So asked Sen. Jeanne Shaheen during the US Senate and House Armed Services Committee’s latest hearing, “do we think that just because there’s now air cover for troops, the Afghan army, that that’s going to be enough to bring [the Taliban] to the table?”

The lawmakers’ questions and the skepticism they showed reveal that they continue to believe that the new strategy will not prove strong enough to break “the stalemate.” Therefore, the question of breaking the stalemate remains potentially unresolved even after the introduction and implementation of new strategy and tactics, let alone the possibility of ending the 16 years long war.

print
SHARE