U.S.-Afghanistan

Escalating the war

Print edition : September 29, 2017

U.S. soldiers keep watch at the site of a Taliban suicide attack in Kandahar on August 2. Photo: JAVED TANVEER/AFP

President Donald Trump addressing the nation at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, on August 21. Photo: The New York Times

Making a complete volte-face on Afghanistan, Donald Trump decides not only to continue the war but to deploy more troops for “killing terrorists” by using “overwhelming force”.

Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, was an avowed anti-interventionist. He had kept repeating that the United States-led wars, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, were ill advised and were a costly drain on the country’s exchequer. With reference to the war in Afghanistan, he had said that it was time to get out of the country. “Our troops are being killed by the people we train and we waste billions there,” he had said before his election to the office of President in November 2016.

However, the U.S. military under the Trump administration is showing no signs of leaving Iraq. Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump crossed the red line in Syria by ordering cruise missile strikes on the flimsiest of pretexts. The Trump administration has continued Obama’s aim of carving out an independent Kurdish enclave within Syria. The number of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, along with the quantum of arms supplies to Syrian rebels, has in fact increased.

In the last week of August, the Pentagon admitted that the number of U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan was more than what was announced officially. This acknowledgement came after Trump announced the continued and enhanced deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Obama administration had reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan to 7,500 from a high of 100,000 during the George W. Bush administration. The Trump administration has not announced the exact number of troops it aims to put on the ground, but a military surge is expected if the resurgent Taliban is to be beaten back. The Pentagon has indicated that 4,000 more troops are going to be sent immediately to Afghanistan. At present, more than 11,000 U.S. troops are positioned in the country.

Eight months into his presidency, Trump has come under the influence of his military advisers, who now occupy many of the most powerful posts in his administration. According to reports in the U.S. media, the major inputs for the Trump speech announcing that the military occupation of Afghanistan would continue indefinitely was provided by the office of the President’s National Security Adviser, Gen. (retd) H.W. McMaster. Steve Bannon and others close to Trump within the White House who were arguing for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan and an end to the imperial concept of “nation building” in foreign climes have been eased out of the administration.

The “never ending” war in Afghanistan, which started in 2001 and was showing signs of winding down during the last years of the Obama presidency, has recieved a new lease of life now. So far, more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died in the war in Afghanistan with another 20,000 wounded. More than $1 trillion of U.S. taxpayers’ money has been spent on the war. Afghanistan has lost more than 60,000 people in the past 17 years, and the country’s economy has been ruined as a result of the war. According to the United Nations, 1,662 Afghan civilians were killed in the first half of this year. The Afghan people today have one of the lowest standards of living in the world.

“A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from time-based approach to one based on conditions,” Trump said in his speech announcing the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. “America’s enemies must never know about our plans or believe that they can wait us out,” he said. He tried to distinguish his policy on Afghanistan from that of his predecessors by claiming that the U.S. was no longer in the business of “nation building”. U.S. troops are being deployed in Afghanistan for the sole purpose of “killing terrorists” by using “overwhelming force”. Under the new administration, the number of Muslims killed in West Asia and Afghanistan, under the guise of fighting terrorism, has risen dramatically. The air strikes in Mosul, Raqqa, Deir el Ezzor and other cities have claimed thousands of lives since the beginning of the year.

Trump authorised the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. military’s arsenal earlier in the year. In his speech, the President said that “killing terrorists” and preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan were akin to a military victory. He tried to justify his volte-face on Afghanistan by saying that the hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq had led to the rise of extremist groups such as the Daesh (Islamic State) and their takeover of vast swathes of territory. The Taliban in Afghanistan has no respect for the Daesh. The two groups have been fighting bloody battles. The Daesh has not been able to make significant inroads into Afghanistan mainly because of the hostility it faces from the Taliban and the majority Pashtun population under its influence. Trump was careful, however, not to rule out the possibility of holding talks with the Taliban at an unspecified point of time in the future.

Taliban’s reaction

The Afghan Taliban has reacted with belligerence to the Trump administration’s decision to continue with the military occupation. Its spokesman said that Afghanistan would become “another graveyard for this superpower in the 21st century”. Before Trump delivered his speech, the Taliban had demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Taliban leaders have been saying that comprehensive peace talks are possible only after the U.S. military quits their country, lock, stock and barrel. The Obama administration had signalled that it was not averse to the Taliban running a government in Kabul in coalition with other Afghan stakeholders. At the same time, the U.S. had indicated that it would retain control of the military bases under its command in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

Iran, China and Russia, the other major players in the region, seem to have concluded that the Taliban is the most important factor in Afghan politics and that a comprehensive peace in the region is not possible without their participation in the diplomatic process. These three countries in particular take a dim view of the Trump administration’s decision to escalate the conflict.

But the state that has reason to be the most upset with Trump’s Afghan policy is Pakistan. In his speech, Trump accused Pakistan, “a major non-NATO military ally” of the U.S., of colluding with the Afghan Taliban and offering its fighters and leadership “safe haven” on its territory. Trump went to the extent of alleging that Islamabad was duplicitous in its dealings with Washington. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump had said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists.”

Trump’s threatening words were followed up by warnings that the financial and military aid that Washington doles out annually to Islamabad could be in jeopardy. The Trump administration announced in late August that it was withholding previously promised military aid worth $255 million. The State Department told Congress that the money would only be released after it was ascertained that Pakistan had done enough to eradicate safe havens in its tribal areas and stopped cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. The U.S. claims that it has given more than $33 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, the year the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Most of the money was disbursed during the first decade of the war. U.S. aid to Pakistan has been dwindling at a fast pace since then. In 2016, the Obama administration held back $300 million from the $1 billion “coalition support fund” for Pakistan. Islamabad does not seem to be overly perturbed by Washington’s pressure tactics. Pakistan announced that it was suspending talks with the U.S. on issues relating to Afghanistan for the time being.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the Trump administration added insult to injury by calling on India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. There was an implicit threat in Trump’s speech that the U.S. would dump Pakistan if it refused to play ball and make India its primary ally in the region. But Trump’s transactional style of politics was also in full view. “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more in Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Trump said. U.S. officials even hinted that military help from India would be welcome in the killing fields of Afghanistan.

Trump’s position was a radical departure from the stance taken by previous U.S. administrations, which preferred India to stay mostly under the radar in Afghanistan and confine itself to developmental activities. The Bush administration was even against India opening up new diplomatic consulates in Afghanistan. Pakistan had objected to the presence of Indian diplomatic outposts along its border with Afghanistan. Islamabad had alleged that New Delhi was using them to foster secessionist activities in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan. India has already spent over a billion dollars in Afghanistan to construct hospitals, roads and other infrastructural facilities. There is a lot of goodwill among ordinary Afghans for India, but according to most observers of the region, ethnic kinship and religious bonding will have the upper hand in the long run.

Anyway, as things stand today, the Taliban, which has the backing of the majority Pashtuns, holds sway over 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory. The central government in Kabul is dependent on the U.S. and sundry warlords to control the rest of the country. According to reports, the relations between the mainstream Taliban faction and Islamabad are becoming increasingly fraught. The Pakistani security establishment is not too happy with the Taliban’s growing proximity to Iran and other countries. Iran, which was at daggers drawn with the Taliban when the group was in power in Kabul, has evidently reappraised the scenario in the region.

The Daesh and the Taliban

Iran, Russia and China are mortally afraid of the Daesh gaining a strong foothold in Afghanistan. The Taliban is the only local force capable of nipping the Daesh in the bud. The Taliban and the Daesh have fought a few pitched battles on Afghan soil, with the Taliban coming out on top. The Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was killed on Pakistani soil in 2016 after he crossed the border from Iran into Balochistan. According to reports in the U.S. media, it was the Pakistani intelligence that had tipped off the U.S. about the Taliban leader’s movements. Mullah Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone attack.

Pakistan claims that it has done more than enough to help the U.S. in Afghanistan. Many in Pakistan believe that the country has sacrificed a lot and borne the brunt of the U.S. misadventure in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Pakistani political and military establishments are also preparing for the inevitable exit of the U.S. from Afghanistan. Sections of the Taliban, most notably the Haqqani faction, are known to have close links with influential sections of the Pakistani security establishment. It was well known for some time that top leaders of the Afghan Taliban, including Mullah Omar, were functioning out of a safe house in Quetta, the Balochistan capital. The fact that Osama bin Laden was also located and killed in Pakistan has not helped to bolster Pakistan’s image in the West.

At the same time, because of Pakistan’s military alliance with the U.S., the Pakistan Taliban has wreaked havoc domestically. Many of its leaders find refuge and assistance across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been subjected to heinous terror attacks since the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan began. In a way, it was a case of chickens coming home to roost. The Pakistani establishment was a willing accomplice of the U.S. in the execution of the game plan to overthrow a secular and progressive government in Kabul. Some of the “freedom fighters” ( mujah idee n), armed, financed and trained by the West with the active help of Islamabad, later transformed into foes. The destabilisation of Afghanistan by the U.S. and Pakistan, which started in right earnest in the 1970s, has had the unintended consequence of destabilising the region and the world. Al Qaeda and the Daesh gained strength in Afghanistan, nurtured by the West and its regional proxies such as Pakistan.

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