A US Army serviceman sits on the tailgate of a helicopter in the Afghan capital Kabul on April 24, 2017. Photo: AFP
A US Army serviceman sits on the tailgate of a helicopter in the Afghan capital Kabul on April 24, 2017. Photo: AFP

In what is being described as a “Groundhog Day” development for the US Marine Corps, its most recent arrival in Afghanistan’s Helmand province marks a symbolic return to the peak days of US/Nato forces’ fight against the Taliban for control of the province. Helmand, where about 350 US marines have lost their lives in the past, is currently the Taliban’s stronghold.

While the new arrival of 300 marines looks marginal when compared with the 40,000 foreign troops previously positioned in the province, it is equally unclear what difference the new contingent can make in terms of pushing the Taliban back to where they were when the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces ended their combat mission almost three years ago.

Helmand today is a sea of muck, and the US forces’ arrival is only going to add a lot more mud to it if the mission is the same as in 2014: elimination of the Taliban.

While the official narrative has described the mission as training for the Afghan army in Helmand, where the casualty rate is very high for government troops, it is quite obvious that the US is trying to bolster the incumbent Kabul regime, which is facing challenges not only from within the country but from without as well.

The US military has probably concluded, correctly, that the demoralized Afghan National Army will be unable to defeat or even arrest the Taliban’s momentum and that the best hope is to increase America’s  own presence, combined with a policy of cajoling or coercing Pakistan into joining the fight against the Kabul regime’s enemies, especially the Haqqani network, which is reputedly the most effective element of the Afghan insurgency.

Meanwhile Pakistan, in its own interests, seems to be following a different trajectory, as it is deepening it alliances with Russia and China and aiming to put enough pressure on both the US and the Afghan government to accommodate the Taliban politically. The underlying assumption of this alliance appears to be an acceptance of Pakistan’s view by Russia and China that the Afghan Taliban’s objectives are limited to their own country and the insurgency can be ended only through negotiations. The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan has added a fresh significance to the necessity of co-opting the Taliban in the currently under-negotiation alliance.

On the other hand, one of the main reasons no dialogue between the US and the Taliban has so far taken place is the capacity in which the Taliban would be represented.

The Taliban have maintained a stance whereby the incumbent Kabul regime is nothing more than a puppet of the United States and therefore lacks legitimacy. They have continuously maintained that the United States originally attacked them, not an Afghan government that did not exist at the time. Hence the prerequisite need to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political force. Accordingly, their preferred venue of dialogue is their political office in Qatar, which would reinforce their standing as a political organization.

With such a recognition never forthcoming, the fresh arrival of US Marines has added a lot more credence to its improbability. What then are we looking at in Afghanistan?

The Taliban have launched a deadly spring offensive and the US has responded in pure military terms. The Afghan regime is fragile and the national army far from capable enough to repel the Taliban. Russia and China, meanwhile, are enlarging their own footprints in the country.

This scenario therefore certainly opens up the window for a long-term and open-ended US military presence in Afghanistan, turning the otherwise anti-terror intervention into an extended and permanent military-strategic outpost in the heart of Asia.

But the question is: Can an open-ended military presence lead to Afghanistan’s stabilization? By default, the meaning implicit in such a presence is that Afghanistan, being a weak country in all aspects – political, economic and military – needs foreign backing.

A permanent military presence, it must be recognized, would continue to motivate one or more of Afghanistan’s neighbors to pressure the United States to leave by supporting insurgents – and forestalling stabilization. Currently, Pakistan, Iran and Russia – which together control access to all usable routes to landlocked Afghanistan – are trying to exert such pressure.

Precipitous withdrawal without a settlement with the Taliban, on the other hand, could of course lead to even more catastrophic consequences.

What the US has at its disposal, therefore, is a very limited basket of  options.

Were the administration of US President Donald Trump to entertain the idea of making a settlement with the Taliban, such a deal would also have to include all of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, which would no longer consider it a lonely problem but first and foremost as part of a larger set of regional issues.

The presence of ISIS on Afghan soil has only added more credibility to this view.

In this context, the Russian-led peace process is based on this very view of the Afghan problem, a problem that its officials have increasingly started to look at as an outcome of Western attempts to remind Russia of its vulnerability on its southern flank and to divert its attention from other security issues or regions where it is more active and has higher leverage, such as Syria or Crimea.

The peace process is likely to go on in the future and gather pace once it becomes clear to the Trump administration that a military solution of the Afghan problem remains just as inviable and unachievable as it was back in 2001.

The “Afghan muck” remains a lot deeper for the United States than meets the eye, and it is likely to stay so with or without additional US marines. The sooner the Trump administration realizes this, the better.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com