As we approach the one year anniversary of U.S. President Donald Trump’s unveiling of his South Asia strategy in August, it’s worth reflecting on the policy’s outcomes to date. The outcomes remain inconclusive and the verdict on the policy remains divided. While General John W. Nicholson, the Commander of NATO’s Operation Resolute Support chose to refer to the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as “talking and fighting,” U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis explained the situation in Afghanistan as the “co-existence of violence and progress.”
One pillar of Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan was “the integration of all instruments of American power-diplomatic, economic, and military- toward a successful outcome.” However, in the same speech, Trump also put forth a high-on-military, low-on-diplomacy strategy by saying that a political settlement could be considered “after an effective military effort.” While “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror acts against America” were seen as the parameters of a successful outcome, the specifics of what constituted this seemingly open-ended and condition-based “victory” were not clearly defined. They have remained indefinite since.
Since Trump announced his South Asia strategy, the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is said to have risen to 15,000 despite the lack of specific official data in this regard. However, the number of civilian casualties in the first three months of 2018 are as high as the same period in 2016 and 2017. In addition, 1,500 casualties were attributed to anti-government elements, a 6 percent rise as compared to the same period in 2017. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s “unconditional peace proposal” in February to the Taliban — including a ceasefire, legitimate recognition of the Taliban as a political group, scope for new elections and a constitutional review — was believed to be receiving some consideration from the Taliban, despite the uncanny quiet from their end.
The Taliban’s announcement of its spring offensive in April 2018 added much credibility to doubts about the Taliban’s non-responsiveness to the proposal, at least in the immediate period. Also, more recently, the Taliban leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada marking the end of Ramadan, stated that Afghanistan’s salvation lay in the departure of American and other occupying forces and if America wants peace, it must be willing to negotiate directly with the Taliban. Taliban’s unwillingness to engage with the Afghan government throws a wrench into U.S. efforts to push the Taliban and the Afghan government toward reconciliation with a supporting role for itself. Quite interestingly, Nicholson in a recent NATO Press Conference stated that “the objective of the U.S. South Asia strategy has been reconciliation.”
Nicholson on May 30, stated that 80 percent of Taliban attacks had been defeated or the Taliban failed to take control, and the remaining 20 percent of successful attacks were defeated in a time-frame that ranged from a few hours to 10 days. He has also claimed that the Taliban “has not sought to gain and hold new ground.” However, according to the Long War Journal, 41 districts in Afghanistan remain under Taliban control while 201 districts remain contested, placing Taliban controlled and contested territory at approximately 60 percent.
As recent as the announcement of the ceasefire on June 9, the Taliban overran the Kohistan district in Faryab province that has remained contested for a year. According to local sources, the Taliban has increased its deadly attacks against Afghan forces since the announcement of the ceasefire which in view of the current capability and capacity deficit of the Afghan forces, further worsens the security and governance situation. Contrary to Nicholson, the Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan maintains that the Taliban remains offensive on multiple fronts. In this context, it remains to be seen if Lt. General Austin Scott Miller whose name is being proposed as the replacement for Nicholson, will bring any change on the ground. Nevertheless, the evolving scenario in Afghanistan and the major stakeholders’ approach towards the peace process overlooks the issue of the protection of civilians.
The counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the remnants of al Qaeda has been another important pillar of Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan. While the U.S. military placed the number of ISKP fighters in Afghanistan at approximately 700 in April 2017, Afghan officials estimated the number to be 1,500. However, the number of ISKP attacks has seen a spike since the announcement of the strategy. These include the October 2017 attack on a Shia mosque that killed 56 and wounded 55; the December 2017 attack on a Shia cultural center in Kabul that killed 41 and injured 80; the double suicide bombing in April 2018 that killed 10 journalists; the April 2018 bombing at election centers in Kabul and Baghlan that killed nearly in 60 people in total, and the recent attack on the Ministry of Interior in May 2018.
The recurrent spate of attacks by the ISKP has indicated that the group, besides sustaining itself, is now capable of carrying out high-profile attacks against the Afghan state. In the period since the announcement of the ceasefire by the Afghan government, the U.S. is believed to have intensified its fight against ISKP in Afghanistan by shifting the focus of its aerial surveillance to ISKP and al Qaeda. Inherent in the implementation of the military dynamic of Trump’s South Asia strategy had been the removal of restrictions on the use of air power making it easier for on-ground commanders to use air power “as they see fit.” Thus, it remains to be seen if the recent announcement of an intensification of the use of air power against the ISKP and al Qaeda would yield any dividends.
More than 17 years after U.S. forces entered Afghanistan, many envisioned endgames have come and gone but the prospects for peace and stability remain as elusive as ever. What transpires in the Washington, D.C., beltway regarding Afghanistan not only impacts the individual strategies of major players like India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran but also the dynamics of amity and enmity among them.
In the case of both India and Pakistan, what Washington expects each of these countries to do, and what each of these countries intend to and are willing to do in Afghanistan are important determinants of the shape of things to come. Add to this India-Pakistan enmity and its fallout in the Afghan theater, irrespective of American designs. Meanwhile, China’s inroads into Afghanistan not only in the politico-economic but possibly into the military domain as well, with or without Pakistan, are a significant development for the future of Afghanistan. Moreover, given the increasing tensions in Washington’s dynamic with Moscow and Tehran, the evolving nature of Russia’s and Iran’s moves in Afghanistan, most visible in their respective outreach to the Taliban, adds to the complexity of the geopolitics unfolding in Afghanistan.
Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India
Nandita Palrecha is a graduate student of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University, Washington D.C.