Afghanistan: Flawed US strategy


At least 41 people were killed and more than 80 wounded in a suicide bomb attack in the Afghan capital Kabul on Thursday. A cultural organization was the target but the Afghan Voice news agency was hit too. Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS), the latest enemy in the long Afghan war, said it was behind the attack and the Taliban have denied responsibility. But does the identity of the perpetrators matter?

Thursday’s blast once again shows that there is no respite from violence for the people of Afghanistan. Seventeen years after a US-led force invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban whom they held responsible for harboring Al-Qaeda which staged the Sept. 11 attacks, security and stability are still eluding this Central Asian country.

Both Kabul and the wider country live in fear of sudden attacks on the nation’s military, police and civilian populations. In 2017, the Taliban and Daesh both carried out several attacks in the country, even as they fought each other over territory, particularly in eastern Afghanistan. Airstrikes and commando operations by US forces do not seem to have had any effect on their ability to strike wherever and whenever they want.

Earlier this week, at least 10 people were killed after a suicide attacker detonated a bomb in an attack claimed by Daesh. The target was an office of the National Directorate of Security, situated near the US embassy and other diplomatic missions.

This deteriorating security situation is not due to lack of enough troops or weapons. Every commander since Gen. Dan McNeill in 2007 has asked for more troops and both presidents George Bush and Barack Obama were only too willing to accede to their demands. At the height of the 2010 surge, there were more than 100,000 US troops on the ground. The US military dropped the largest bomb in its arsenal on a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan in April last year.

But places where British and American troops fought their hardest battles are now firmly under Taliban control. The fact is that the war is “still in a stalemate,” as the top US military commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson admitted in November. Will a few thousand more troops “break the stalemate”, as President Donald Trump hopes?

On Oct. 5, Trump announced a new strategy and plans to send a further 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, thus pushing the total number to 15,000 men and women. He also scrapped rules limiting American engagement of the enemy, whoever it may be, and gave new powers to US Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis. This means the focus has shifted from “nation-building” to the use of sheer military might to hunt and destroy the Taliban and other insurgents.

If anyone thinks more Western boots on the ground (especially on the frontline), coupled with ramped up airstrikes, promises a more effective campaign against the Taliban, the past decade of tactical failure with ten times that number of troops should force them to rethink their strategy. The experience of the past 16 years has shown that more military power only risks fomenting insurgency. US troops can kill the Taliban and its supporters, but the group continues to replenish its ranks with new fighters.

There is a basic flaw in the new strategy. The US hopes to inflict a high enough cost on the Taliban to force them to the negotiation table. Why should the Taliban talk to the enemy? The group, we are told, will be part of a political settlement. The very fact that the Americans are forced to treat the Taliban as part of a political deal will only make them more determined to continue the fight against the former so that they will be in a position to dictate a settlement with no role for the Americans or their local allies.