In Depth

Afghanistan: US unveils new strategy as situation worsens

With the government losing ground to militants, Trump vows to get tough on the Taliban


The US will deploy thousands more troops to Afghanistan, reversing the Obama-era policy of withdrawal as part of a new strategy in the region announced yesterday by President Donald Trump.

Up to 3,900 additional troops will join the 8,400 US service members already in Afghanistan, The Guardian reports, as part of a policy overhaul that will also see the US increase pressure on Pakistan to support their efforts to destroy the Taliban.

Previously an advocate for pulling out of the country, Trump says that consultation with his military advisers has convinced him that doing so would create a "vacuum for terrorists", like the one that allowed Islamic State to thrive in Iraq after US forces left in 2011.

Aware that the decision to extend what is already the longest conflict in US military history would be a hard sell to the American public, Trump says that he understands the nation's "frustration" but that his approach would put US interests first 

"I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money – and most importantly lives – trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations," he says

"We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists."

The President's words may have been simple, but 15 years on from the US-led invasion, the battle for Afghanistan has become "more widespread, violent and complex than ever," says the New York Times. The way ahead is far from clear.

What's the situation in Afghanistan?

Not good. The Taliban now control "more territory in Afghanistan than they have since an American invasion ousted them from power nearly 16 years ago," says the New York Times.

When the US and Nato's combat missions ended in 2014, the militant group took advantage of the breathing room to regroup and relaunch, "emboldened by the comparative lack of interest from the international community," says the BBC

As of May 2017, a US government report found that 45 of Afghanistan's 407 districts were under Taliban control or influence, while 119 others are contested between militants and security forces.

Overall, the Kabul-based government is estimated to directly control less than a quarter of Afghanistan, with "influence" over another third.

The revival of the Taliban insurgency has come at an almost unfathomable cost to Afghanistan's civilian population. 

In the first half of this year alone, 1,662 civilians were killed, either as deliberate targets or as collateral damage in military engagements. This continues an "almost unbroken trend of nearly a decade of rising casualties", says the Guardian.  

Since 2009, armed conflict in Afghanistan has been responsible for 26,512 civilian deaths and almost 50,000 injuries, according to UN statistics

And then there's Islamic State, which has been attempting to expand its "global caliphate" into Afghanistan, launching attacks on security forces and the Shia minority.

Initially, there were reports of violent clashes between IS and Taliban militants, but worryingly both sides appear increasingly open to joining forces in order to inflict maximum bloodshed. 

In one recent atrocity, IS and the Taliban carried out a coordinated attack on a Shia community in rural Sar-e-Pol province on 5 August, slaughtering 44 civilians, Al Jazeera reports. 

In May, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told Time magazine that the number of IS fighters in Afghanistan was still in the hundreds, but that many more could follow. 

"If you look at Dabiq, their publication, they are asking all their followers not to go to Iraq and Syria and to go to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh," he said. 

Will the new US strategy change anything?

President Ghani says he is "grateful" that the US is renewing its commitment to "our joint struggle to rid the region from the threat of terrorism", Afghan news service Tolo News reports.

"Following this strategy towards stability allows the region to work together in achieving mutual goals of peace and prosperity," he says.

But Middle East commentators aren't so sure. Trump's speech "retained the main planks of Barack Obama's policy and tried to dress it up as something fresh", says The Guardian

The central tenets of this "new" strategy – raising US troop numbers, exercising pressure on Pakistan for support and opening the door to negotiations with the Taliban – have already been tried by his predecessors with limited success.

"There's little reason to think Trump's approach will produce better results," says Bloomberg.

One aspect of the plan that has attracted praise, however, is its open-ended nature. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says he welcomes the adoption of a "conditions-based approach" to the region, a departure from President Obama's timetable for withdrawal.

Ahmad Majidyar, a fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Bloomberg that the threat of being abandoned by the US and left vulnerable to Taliban reprisals had made it harder to win allies in Afghanistan.

"They were saying we cannot side with the US government or the military," he said. 

"It also encouraged the Taliban to just wait out the US forces instead of coming to the negotiating table." 

The role of the thousands of additional US troops now preparing for possible deployment to Afghanistan remains to be seen, but Trump has not ruled out more direct military involvement. 

Although the "heaviest burden" must still fall on the "good people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces", Trump says, his administration would "expand authority for American armed forces to target... terrorists and criminal networks". 

"Like many Afghan commanders," says the Los Angeles Daily News, Lieutenant-General Mohammad Zaman Waziri hopes that the new US troops will actively fight alongside his Kabul-based 201st Corps, as they did in the George W. Bush era.  

But US officers in Afghanistan say that such dependency is exactly what they're trying to avoid.

The ANA's development into a self-sufficient fighting force has been slow-going, plagued by corruption, desertion, indiscipline and several instances of Taliban infiltrators turning their weapons on fellow soldiers.

Major Richard Anderson, operations adviser for the 201st Corps, told the LA Times that a "let the Americans do it" attitude still pervades the ranks and that putting US troops back on the frontlines would be a setback to their progress towards independence.

"We took them from: 'we can help, but if we do it, you'll never figure it out,'" he said. "At times it seems like a drag is there, but once you get them to the point… they can do it."


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