Afghanistan is About to Become Trump’s Folly
US President Donald Trump’s much awaited “new” Afghan strategy almost certainly will have little to contribute to ending the war, let alone “winning” it for the United States. While criticism has focused on the cost of the war, both human and financial, that the US would have to defray, pouring more troops in Afghanistan is only going to delay the inevitable -- until it becomes impossible for the western powers to hold the country.
As invaders have learned, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to the British to the Russians and other armies over the past 2,500 years as their troops stumbled to defeat in the country’s wrinkled mountains, there is no way to hold Afghanistan forever. The Taliban can continue to fight and recruit from within Afghanistan because they have a ready-made war-context and no superior authority or public to justify and answer to for their actions. They are a faceless and stateless enemy.
Both US military and financial support to Afghanistan have shrunk over the 16-year span of the war, with 12,000 US combat troops there now, and Afghanistan’s internal situation, both political and security, hasn’t undergone any change, let alone shown improvement. What difference can a few thousand more troops can make? What can additional troops, say 4,000, do what 100,000 couldn’t at the peak? The “new” strategy doesn’t have an answer.
Even if fresh troops engage in a “train and advice” mission, it won’t achieve much, for the Afghan Army is anything but an institution bearing a national character. It’s an arena where ethnic interests and tribal affiliations figure more importantly than institutional norms and visions, where insider attacks aren’t always motivated by a given soldier’s ideological framework but by simple ethnic and tribal enmity, and often the attackers appear to be mere pawns in the hands of their generals.
The Afghan Army is thus an arena of politics. As an institution, it is politicized to the extent where it comprises anything but a “national army.” The war-torn country has close to 1,000 officers of general rank on its books — more than the United States, whose military is three times as large. Still worse, as of last year, the US Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction didn’t have an exact idea of how many soldiers were being paid.
The numerous generals are far out of proportion to the size of the army, other forces, and more importantly, battlefield realities. They quite often get their appointments on politics and political lineage—something that then becomes a part and parcel of the institution they join. The ethnic and tribal markers then play out among the soldiers as well. Much to Pashtun ire, most of the army are ethnic Tajik. Tajiks are mostly close to India while most Pashtuns comparatively favor Pakistan – two countries that remain implacable enemies.
Add to this problem the Pashtun identity of the Taliban as well. People from the Taliban-dominated areas have repeatedly confirmed how the Taliban rather than the Afghan army or the government provide them protection and settle disputes quickly.
While it may be debatable whether people go to the Taliban for protection and dispute settlement out of fear or due to the US-installed system’s inability to perform, it is certain that even in areas and sections of the polity where the Afghan government has a presence, its performance, riddled with corruption and incompetence, is worse than poor.
“The only politics that the Afghan ruling and ethnic elite know of is leg-pulling of rival tribal and ethnic factions,” said an Afghan, who previously taught at Kabul University and now runs a small shop in the suburbs of the capital.
“And, why would such a situation be changed and for whose benefit?” asked the teacher-turned-shopkeeper. “It’s simple business, and business must continue for them.”
Given the mineral wealth Afghanistan has, external powers are unlikely to stop paying attention to the country. The US is only better placed militarily than all these powers to exploit this wealth, and it is going to add more troops to make sure that no other power can lay hands on it without US approval.
Two months ago, the Afghan ambassador to Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, was breathlessly spinning how “President Trump is keenly interested in Afghanistan’s economic potential” as in “our estimated US$1 trillion in copper, iron ore, rare-earth elements, aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium." This led unnamed US officials to tell Reuters last month that what Donald Trump wants for the US is some of that mineral wealth in exchange for “assisting” Kabul against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, known as IS-K in Afghanistan.
Therefore, against Russian and Chinese attempts to create a foothold, the US is bringing in ‘new allies’, India included, to prevent what the Sino-Russia duo wants: an Afghan solution hatched by Afghans and supervised by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the economic and security organization put together by China, of which Afghanistan is an observer and future full member. Such a solution would allow Afghanistan to merge itself in the SCO and China’s Belt and Road initiative and open its wealth for exploitation by its neighbors.
The US, as a competitor, wants to preempt this. The emphasis on economics is obvious as Trump said in his speech, that India “makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in economic assistance and development.”
Pouring in more troops is forcing the Afghan Taliban into battles. By sustaining a war scenario, the US surge is shrinking the space for negotiations and dialogue, and by putting almost the entire blame on Pakistan for not doing enough against the Haqqani network, the Afghan guerrilla group headed by Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, it is creating a justification for a stay in Afghanistan for a long time. All this adds up to shrinking the workable space for other countries.
Add also to it Trump’s definition of victory, which is fundamentally premised upon “preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.” Its implications are not difficult to discern. To “prevent” a Taliban takeover, the US will have to continue the war until the Taliban are completely defeated. Will this ever happen? Highly unlikely.
This takes us back to square one: will (and how) an additional few thousand troops be able to completely defeat the Taliban when 100,000 in the country’s impenetrable mountains couldn’t over the past 16 years?
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and long-time contributor to Asia Sentinel