It was almost 16 years after the US invaded Afghanistan that it decided to use its so-called Mother of All Bombs (MOAB), its biggest non-nuclear device, against an IS tunnel network. While a number of people in America and elsewhere felt overjoyed and read this bombing as the coming of an era of Trumpian military engagements, few seemed to bother asking how ISIS had been successful, despite the US’ military presence, in establishing that network in the first place?
How does its emergence appear when it comes to evaluating the “success” of US military and reconstruction programs in Afghanistan – programs that were explicitly about building the Afghan nation and state? Could it be any worse than seeing Afghanistan being overrun by yet another terrorist group?
While the Afghan army is far from able to take things into its own hands, the Afghan government has, equally, failed to actually act as a national government. As the latest report from the International Crisis Group has shown, factions led by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah continue to remain more concerned with pulling each other’s legs than working towards building state institutes.
While the National Unity Government (NUG) remains shaky and its future uncertain, the Taliban remain – as the latest attack on the Afghan army shows – stronger than ever, presenting the biggest challenge for the US, for the NUG and, indeed, for Afghans as a whole.
What is adding to the problem is that despite being in office for over 100 days, the Trump administration has yet to formulate an Afghan policy. The only thing we have so far seen coming from his office is authorization to his Generals to use big bombs against terrorists.
But the question is this: does dropping one bomb signify a strategy? Certainly, it doesn’t. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s recent visit to Afghanistan, which was aimed at reviewing US policy options, has only added to the prevailing view that the fate of Afghanistan will continue to hang under Trump. Coming days after the MOAB attack and days before the Taliban’s attack that killed hundreds of Afghan military personnel, it little to offer for review.
McMaster would certainly do a better job if he focused less on resource-related requests from the generals and more on the fundamental assumptions that have been guiding US strategy
Afghanistan remains a conundrum, defying a military solution for the last 16 years, and is now spiraling into an even more complex conflict. ISIS is drawing China and Russia into the arena and the Taliban are likely to form an alliance with them against Daesh and further use this as an opportunity to put pressure on the NUG and the US.
The situation, in simple words, is not good for the US.
A mere insistence on defeating the Taliban wouldn’t do the Trump administration any good; nor will it receive a lot of support from regional players.
Similarly, US General John W. Nicholson’s demand for more troops on the ground wouldn’t do much either to help train Afghan forces or inflict a crushing defeat on the militants. It is highly unclear what 12,000-15,000 troops can possibly do what 120,000 and US$71 billion in security assistance could not do in 13 years?
McMaster, an experienced military mind, therefore has an opportunity to bring some balance into the US policymaking process, particularly by putting forth alternative recommendations to those of generals and field commanders who consistently ask for more troops, more time to finish the job, and more financial backing from the US Congress not simply to keep the Afghan army operating at a semi-professional level but to ensure it gets a face-saving victory at some point in the future and can prevent the Russians and the Chinese from establishing a strong foothold.
Another fact to consider in all of this is that Pakistan remains committed to providing financial and logistical support to the Taliban with the aim of making sure its eastern neighbour, India, does not succeed in turning Afghanistan into a permanent base against Pakistan.
Can the US avert this geo-political chess game, in which it is a significant player, simply by sending more troops? And for how long can it continue to play the game?
McMaster, in this context, would certainly do a better job if he focused, in his report to the US president, less on resource-related requests from the generals and more on the fundamental assumptions that have been guiding US strategy in that country for a long time: that the Taliban can be defeated and that the Afghan state can be made a stable entity.
These assumptions have been proven outright wrong as the Taliban are, according to the US’ own reports, in control of a greater area than ever, and the Afghan government seems ever-ready to self-destruct.
The Afghan Army and the National Unity Government – the two pillars the US has created – are both trembling. For McMaster, the important question shouldn’t be about finding ways of reducing this trembling but about finding out what exactly went wrong.
The sooner the US answers this, the better for it and for the people of Afghanistan, who remain weak fish in a sea full of sharks.