A war that never ends

Print edition : April 14, 2017

Afghan security forces and foreign troops at the site of a blast in Kabul on March 1. Photo: OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS

Investigators at the site of a suicide attack in the district police headquarters in Kabul on March 2. Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP

Despite the U.S.’ plans to wind down its military presence in Afghanistan by 2014, its troops remain there as the security situation remains worrisome.

The war in Afghanistan has been one of the United States’ longest wars in recent history. Its troops have been in the country for 16 years now. The U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners currently have more than 16,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Around 27,000 American contractors, many of them with a military background, are also deployed in the country. The resurgent Taliban, meanwhile, is gaining more territory by the day and is widening its scope of attacks.

Unlike previous years, when the Taliban and other insurgent groups staged very few attacks during the winter season, there was no military lull this winter. The spring and summer were traditionally the fighting season in Afghanistan. An alarming development is the growing presence of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) in the country. The group, which announced its existence in 2015, has labelled itself as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). The so-called emirate of Khorasan announced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has Afghanistan, Pakistan, north India and Bangladesh on its map.

The Daesh has claimed responsibility for many high-profile terror attacks in the country, including the storming of the military hospital in Kabul in early March. The authorities in Kabul initially tried to downplay the death toll from this latest terror attack. In the second week of March, however, senior Afghan army generals acknowledged that more than 50 people, including senior doctors and patients, had died in the well-planned attack. The Afghan authorities now suspect that some senior Afghan army officers may have been complicit in the attack. Twenty-four people have been arrested so far in connection with the attack on the hospital. There are unconfirmed reports that some doctors could also have been involved in the planning and execution of the attack. The attackers gained easy entry into the hospital by dressing up as doctors. The medical van in which they entered loaded with weaponry and suicide vests had an official permit issued by the Afghan Defence Ministry. It took the Afghan security services more than seven hours to bring the situation in the hospital under control.

The Afghan Taliban issued a statement denying any role in the attack. The Taliban has been strongly opposed to the Daesh and has fought pitched battles with the group. The Taliban, in fact, has played an important role in confining the influence of the Daesh to a small geographical area, mainly in the eastern province of Nangahar. The two groups have declared “jehad” against each other in Afghanistan.

The Daesh was quick to claim credit for the attack on the military hospital. If true, it is the most sophisticated and complex terror attack it has carried out in Afghanistan so far. In July last year, the Daesh carried out another heinous attack by targeting a group of peaceful Hazara protesters on the streets of Kabul. More than 80 people were killed in that attack. In the third week of March, three U.S. soldiers were injured when their armoured vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in eastern Afghanistan. The Daesh has claimed responsibility for the incident. The Pentagon claims that its special forces have eliminated the top leadership of the Daesh in Afghanistan and drastically reduced the number of that group’s fighters there. Yet, the Daesh has been claiming credit for successive terror attacks in the country. Other countries in the region, along with major powers like Russia and China, are worried about the growing profile of the Daesh in Afghanistan. This is one major reason why Russia and China, along with Iran, want a speedy negotiated settlement with the Taliban to end the long-drawn-out conflict in Afghanistan. Iran wants to secure its long border with Afghanistan and is said to be tacitly cooperating with the Taliban in the fight against the Daesh. Iran has concluded that the Taliban poses a much lesser threat to its security than the Daesh. The Taliban is also opposed to the presence of U.S. bases on Afghan territory.

With the new administration in Washington painting Iran as a primary foe of the U.S. in the region, U.S. military bases and troops along its border and a rampant Daesh are the last thing Tehran wants. Russia and Iran are together fighting the Daesh in Syria. Russian officials have expressed concern about the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan because it has far-reaching consequences for the geopolitical safety of Russia. Russia estimates that there are more than 2,500 Daesh fighters in Afghanistan. “The Islamic State continues to recruit people and enhance its combat capabilities. If it is not restrained, then the chances are that we will have to face a more powerful force,” Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special emissary to Afghanistan, warned last year. He blamed the U.S. for underestimating the threat posed by the Daesh.

China is another country that has serious security worries because of the situation in Afghanistan. Uighur fighters from the restive Chinese province of Xinjiang are with the Daesh and are engaged in combat in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Donald Trump on the campaign trail rarely focussed on the war in Afghanistan. In 2015, he told the media that Afghanistan was a “mess” and that it was a mistake “getting involved there”. He was critical of the huge amounts previous American administrations had spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that the money could have been better spent on domestic infrastructure development and the creation of jobs. But once he assumed office, he has been mainly talking of the need to make America’s defence forces stronger, and if his administration’s initial actions are any indication, Washington will be pursuing a more interventionist policy globally. He has already made proposals to increase America’s military budget to record levels.

Plan for a military surge?

Already there are signs that the Trump administration is contemplating a military surge in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama had originally planned to wind down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by 2014. He had declared that the “longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion”.

But the increase in militant attacks and the failure to hold meaningful negotiations to end the war has meant that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has continued. It was the U.S. military that prevented the Taliban from taking over cities such as Kunduz, Lashkar Gah, Tarin Khot, Maimana and Farah City. Only 60 per cent of the population is today under the control of the government in Kabul.

In his inaugural address, Trump did not mention the situation in Afghanistan, but the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, Gen. Joseph Vottel, told the U.S. Congress that more U.S. troops were needed there. Trump did discuss the matter of sending more troops to Afghanistan in a phone call with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in December. Republican Senator John McCain, who is noted for his hawkish views and is currently the Chairman of the U.S. Congress Armed Services Committee, has said that America “is in serious trouble in Afghanistan”. U.S. Defence Secretary General (retd) James Mattis admitted that the Taliban had “eroded some of our successes”. Mattis was head of the U.S. military’s Central Command from 2010 to 2013 and had closely supervised the war in Afghanistan. After assuming the post of Defence Secretary, he has signalled that he is willing to keep U.S. troops in the country for an even longer haul.

Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of the American forces in Afghanistan, conceded that the military situation was “stalemated” and that Afghanistan now had “the greatest concentration of terrorist organisations in the world” after 16 years of U.S. occupation. At the same time, Nicholson stressed the fact that staying on in Afghanistan was essential as the war was part of America’s “enduring counterterrorism platform” that is “critically important to the homeland”. The general told the U.S. Congress in February that the Pakistan-based Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) provided the core fighting group for the Daesh in Afghanistan. According to him, the core group of the Daesh in Afghanistan comprised tribal fighters from the Orakzai region of Pakistan.

The U.S. has spent three-quarters of a trillion dollars on the war effort in Afghanistan alone. As many as 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died and 20,000 have been injured in Afghanistan. There is no reliable record of the number of Afghans killed since the U.S. invasion. The U.S. had carpet-bombed Afghanistan before launching the invasion. Since the United Nations started keeping records in 2009, more than 70,000 Afghans are reported to have lost their lives. In 2016, as many as 3,498 civilians were killed, the highest number since 2009. The U.N. has calculated that civilian casualties caused by the Islamic State in Afghanistan increased tenfold last year compared with that in 2015. The U.S. has spent more than $8 billion to combat the illegal trade in narcotics in Afghanistan.

During the final years of Taliban rule, opium production had gone down significantly along with a downturn in the narcotics business. Today, Afghanistan has once again become the world’s largest heroin producer and exporter. Government officials, the Taliban and other groups fighting in the country have benefited from the opium trade. It has also led to serious drug problems in the neighbourhood. Pakistan and India are now grappling with a serious problem as heroin and other drugs flow freely from the porous borders of Afghanistan.