The US in Afghanistan: Different president, same policies

The US in Afghanistan: Different president, same policies
Comment: A failure to invest Afghanistan now, is likely to only create greater problems in the future, writes Gareth Browne.
5 min read
24 Aug, 2017
"A few thousand troops will not solve the country's problems" [AFP]
In the dusty town of Sangin, a black flag flutters once more.

The small district in Helmand province where 104 British soldiers were killed battling the Taliban was recaptured by the jihadists in March of this year. Musa Qala, another town in the province which was captured by British troops in 2006 - a victory heralded as "iconic" at the time by then defence secretary Des Browne - has also recently slipped back into the hands of group.

These small, seemingly irrelevant towns are however indicative of a tragic trend. Across Afghanistan now some 10 percent of the country's districts are in the hands of insurgents. A country over which so many coalition and Afghan troops gave their lives, is slowly slipping back into the haunting shadow of the Taliban's black flag.

Trump's anticipated announcement regarding his "Afghanistan strategy", a fight he has previously declared "a complete waste" is one of significant re-engagement. Improved US military support can't come soon enough, but it lacks the wider strategy that might bring peace to Afghanistan in the long term.

In Afghanistan, old threats are being challenged by new players - Afghanistan has not been immune to the global rise of IS. The group we most commonly associate with Iraq and Syria has laid claim to the country's eastern province of Nangarhar.

In the few years since the withdrawal of the majority of coalition troops, the situation has become far more complex. That said, the Afghan government is fighting back, and with the help of the Americans.

Either the Afghan government succeeds or it'll be back to the days of tribal carnage

In April of this year the US dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb, the MOAB, which killed 94 IS militants. Witnesses in the district said it was more akin to an earthquake than any man-made weapon. 

While Trump's announcement of a troop increase appears to lack any minutiae regarding long-term strategy, a sudden US withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan would have left the country at crisis' doorstep, something which was a serious prospect with Steve Bannon in the WhiteHouse. The prospect of the Taliban, or IS, or both knocking on Kabul's door, did not seem so far-fetched.

But within Trump's new policy, there remains an aversion to long term development that might actually help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. As Rohullah Yakobi, an analyst who fled the Taliban when he was 12 years old says, "The new strategy must also address Afghanistan's deep-rooted and ongoing complex internal tribal, factional and political issues", and Trump's strategy showed no sign of that.

The resurgence of a jihadist haven in Afghanistan would be disastrous for all

The resurgence of a jihadist haven in Afghanistan would be disastrous for all, of course it would be Afghans who are worst hit. Afghanistan once served as a safe haven for the Taliban, were music was banned and the hands of thieves were chopped off.

The consequences back then were disastrous in allowing Al-Qaeda carte blance to operate and plan international terror attacks. There is no reason to expect that the jihadist resurgence that would certainly result in a drastic US pull-out would be any different. The Afghan sacrifice has been vast: Over the past few years Afghan soldiers have been dying at an unprecedented rate, on average 20 a day over the past month. But the Afghan security forces now have 100,000 more troops than they did in 2009, and any US support and training will be welcomed by them.

Some cynically refer to Afghanistan as the "Graveyard of Empires", but any strategy should be about far more than military might. Instead it should be concerned with giving a traumatised nation the support and time necessary to stand up to these threats on its own two feet.

Afghanistan has huge potential for wealth, and the unlocking of its vast natural resources might one day serve as the foundation of a prosperous state. A failure to invest Afghanistan now, though, is likely to only create greater problems in future.

Trump's loosening of the rules of engagement also risks undermining the whole strategy

A haven for jihadists of whichever flavour to run amok, would pose a threat to all. This was the case in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and in Iraq and Syria for the past few years, and it will be the case once more in Afghanistan if it is allowed to happen; if Afghanistan fails again, and a motley coalition of the Taliban and IS take over.

A few thousand troops will not solve the country's problems, but the intent for engagement it suggests can instill confidence in those working to build a new Afghanistan.

Trump says the the US will not be "nation building", but whatever the term used, the US must work to strengthen those building Afghanistan's civil and political institutions, and it must be patient in fortifying the Afghan security forces. Simply throwing soldiers and MOABs at the problem is a recipe for failure. As Yakobi says, the "Afghan security forces are stretched to the breaking point."

It is hard to imagine the Taliban having been so resilient without the support of actors within Pakistan. While Trump is right to call them out on this, his tilt to India suggested in his speech is less likely to bring them on side, rather, embolden them.

His loosening of the rules of engagement also risks undermining the whole strategy. US strategy should go beyond merely "killing terrorists" HR McMaster the advisor who clearly pushed the re-engagement policy should know this. But it is here where his strategy falls down most significantly.

As Yakobi says: "Afghans want to see tangible difference in their lives. The majority of them know that they don't have many choices. Either the Afghan government succeeds or it'll be back to the old days of tribal carnage. If the re-engagement brings about a real tangible difference in security, they [Afghans] will welcome it."

 Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.