President Donald Trump and his top policy advisers are worried about America’s longest war, in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan are worried as well. The question of whether the country’s fragile, corruption-ridden, and politically polarized National Unity Government (NUG) can survive its many foes –including an emboldened insurgency, crippling political division among the countries’ elites, and devastating tensions with its neighbors — is a common one among political analysts, ordinary people, and even government employees. In the last months, the Taliban has launched some of the most complicated and deadliest attacks that left not only scores of soldiers and civilians dead, but also humiliated the Afghan government and its partners. This week’s deadly bombing in Kabul was just the latest tragic incident.
Last month’s attacks on military base in northern Afghanistan, in which between 160 to 500 soldiers were killed or wounded, raised a simple question: is there a government with basic statecraft and functional apparatuses in Afghanistan? The Taliban claimed that four of the attackers involved in the raids on the military base were the group’s “moles,” who had infiltrated the Afghan National Army’s ranks and had credible insider knowledge about the base’s structure and vulnerability. A similar claim was made after the assaults on the military’s largest hospital in Kabul. The politicization of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the loose recruitment mechanism has practically paralyzed the ANSF, destroyed its intelligence and command structure, and shifted the war equation in Taliban and the Islamic State’s favor. According to latest report, the government controls less than 60 percent of the country, which is alarming.
The future of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership is critical to Afghanistan’s survival. The longevity of the war and its massive human and financial costs have, however, generated a deepening sense of confusion, attrition, and disappointment among Afghanistan’s strategic partners. President Ashraf Ghani’s NUG has significantly invested in its foreign relations, particularly with the United States and NATO, with considerable successes. But the continuity of such relationship depends on tangible and immediate changes in the war theater, improving governance, state building, and restoring basic security to the country. Ghani and his team have failed to deliver on any of these fronts.
In its last summit, NATO leaders conditioned their assistance to Afghanistan on eradicating administrative corruption, which persists because of many structural flaws in the Afghan government, including a centralized political system, extremely patronage-based appointments in the government’s leadership, and the absence of political will among top leadership to take serious actions against those involved in stealing public money and property. So far, the government has not prosecuted any high-profile corruption cases and the perpetrators often enjoy impunity and are protected by mafias with unlimited access to power.
Afghanistan was not a top priority during the U.S. presidential election. However, for Trump, who campaigned to restore isolationism to U.S. foreign policy, the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan seems to have re-engaged Washington in the Afghan war. The United States is considering sending more soldiers to assist and train the Afghan army. In addition to the grave security situation in Afghanistan, the nature of Trump’s administration, which is dominated by senior military strategists with previous experience fighting in Afghanistan, has played a role in shifting Washington’s attention to Afghanistan again. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, both the former and current national security adviser, and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, who also lost a son in Afghanistan, have all fought in Afghanistan. They are familiar with the brutal nature of the Taliban and their dangerous ideology and agenda beyond Afghanistan. Plus, on a more basic level, military leaders always want to win a war.
But will the new surge, if happens, alter the calculus on the battlefield in the government’s favor? The answer to this question should go beyond mere military calculations. The war in Afghanistan is complicated, with many actors and divergent causes. If the interplaying causes and actors are not properly managed, the protracted war will continue and the surge and the U.S. prolonged engagement with Afghanistan will not succeed. The reasons are obvious.
First, Afghanistan’s war continues with little success because Afghan national politics is in serious disarray and crisis. Continued ethnic, linguistic, and political clashes have eroded ANSF’s morale and ability to fight with strength and internal cohesion. Corruption in the army is rampant — ranks and promotions are sold, military equipment is stolen, and meritocracy in recruiting and promotions is commonly compromised. Ghani’s crusade against corruption has not curbed the epidemic to a level acceptable to the Afghan people and international partners. ANSF enjoys superiority in numbers and weaponry over the Taliban, but the force is often stabbed in the back by its own leadership and the dirty politics that often permit unqualified and corrupt individuals to receive leadership position. The president’s disappointing decision, for instance, to appoint the former defense minister and military chief of staff as ambassadors after their resignations following the attacks on 209 Shaheen Military Corps confirms the bloody nature of Afghan politics and the ignominious culture of deal-making. With the current structure in place, a U.S. surge can hardly yield any positive change. There is a need for fundamental restructuring and reforms in ANSF if the force is to stand up to the grinding insurgency, desertions, and high casualty rates.
Second, the reinvigorated return of the Taliban is incubated by the treacherous political environment in the region. Much has changed since 2001, when the majority of actors in the region supported Afghanistan’s push for stability. The Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship has reached its lowest point, with both countries unable to overcome their profound differences. Pakistan has smartly utilized its strategic links and affinity with extremist militants to undermine the Afghan government’s efforts to control and govern. In Pakistan’s national security and foreign policy calculations, Afghanistan is often viewed as “strategic depth,” a client state where Pakistan can project its power to deter separatists, entangle India, contain Afghan nationalists who refuse to accept the Durand Line as the official border between the two countries, and maintain Pakistan’s relevance to regional and international politics under the guise of fighting global terrorism. Pakistan already receives substantial financial aid from the United States for the war against terrorism, though Pakistan does not uphold its end of the bargain. The Afghan government has had little or no luck in formulating a consistent strategy toward Pakistan and its destabilizing role in Afghanistan. While popular sentiments against Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan are high, Afghan elites and core decision-makers are ambivalent about how to handle a densely populated and nuclear neighbor that also happens to operate a massive terror factory. The souring relationship between the two countries jeopardizes any hope of sustainable and meaningful peace in Afghanistan and the greater region.
Third, Trump’s consideration of deploying more troops in Afghanistan coincides with the United States’ own confusion about its foreign policy, particularly engagement in the Middle East and Asia. Trump’s “America First” slogan repudiates his tenacious and abrasive foreign policy attitude. Trump paid his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, where he signed an unprecedented $110 billion arms deal with the Saudi monarchy. He also reaffirmed the United States’ unconditional military and diplomatic support to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states in their rivalry with Iran. Trump’s closeness to Saudi Arabia has augmented fears about two possible outcomes. First, Saudi Arabia may become more aggressive and use its extensive networks of extremists in the Middle East and around the world to promote its political agenda against Iran and Pakistan. Iran, on the other hands, may retaliate by drawing closer to Moscow and unifying and supporting its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon to fight the axis of the United States and Saudi Arabia. As Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry intensifies, countries with fragile political system like Afghanistan will suffer. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been fighting in Afghanistan. With the new political environment, the war enters a bloodier phase. Afghanistan’s geography and mountains have been tempting sanctuaries for Islamists and extremist groups who find it difficult to fight in their own countries because of oppressive and ubiquitous government apparatuses.
In such a situation, sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan may provide temporary physiological relief and quell insurgency for short time, but the fundamental solutions to Afghanistan’s war should be sought in political reforms, building inclusive institutions, containing Pakistan’s support for terrorism, and convincing external powers to stop exploiting Afghanistan’s soil for competing political rivalries. The world needs to hear good news about Afghanistan. The ground situation indicates, however, that such a story will take a long time to be told.
Ali Reza Sarwar is a Political Analyst and Researcher based in Kabul. Reza was a Fulbright Scholar at Texas A&M University and a Researcher at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.