Afghanistan braces for a longer US stay

Salman Rafi January 12, 2017 4:53 AM (UTC+8)
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While the Obama administration is preparing for its exit from the White House, this administration’s legacies would continue to impact American foreign policy to an extent where a potential reversal might not appear a feasible choice. This is particularly the case with Afghanistan.

Back in 2007, the out-going US president Obama had based his election campaign on the slogan of ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the irony of the matter is that the latest decision taken by the Obama administration with regard to Afghanistan is to increase and re-deploy Marines in some regions of Afghanistan, such as Helmand, where the US trained Afghan forces have drastically failed to resist the Taliban effectively.

This deployment is likely to remain intact for as long as needed, said Lt. Gen. William D. Beydler, the commander of Marine Forces Central Command.

Whereas the Marines have been re-deployed to help foil the Taliban’s highly mounted attacks and attempts to bring cities under their control, this is in complete contrast to the claims made in the briefing given to the Pentagon in December 2016 by the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson.

Nicholson claimed that the Afghan forces’ “Operation Shafaq, executed largely through the end of July, and then beginning in August” was highly successful in terms of foiling 8 different attempts made by the enemy “to seize provincial capitals inside the country.”

Nicholson went on to claim that the Afghan forces were “tested” in 2016 and they did prevail. “Since the start of the Taliban’s campaign in April, the Afghan security forces have prevented them from accomplishing their strategic objectives”, he said further.

These claims notwithstanding, the fact that a marine force is going to be re-deployed in Afghanistan speaks volumes about Afghanistan’s ground situation that Nicholson failed to talk about in his briefing.

According to Afghan sources, this decision signifies yet again that the US has no plan to leave Afghanistan any time sooner, nor is it going to equip the Afghan security forces with weapons advanced enough to tackle the Taliban effectively.

“Keeping the Afghan security forces dependent on the US military for training, intelligence and equipments is not going to help them fight an enemy the US itself has been unable to overcome in last 15 years or so”, said one Afghan war-veteran, who is based in Pakistan’s city of Peshawar and has long fought the Taliban.

Contrary to what the Afghans are aspiring for, the US has its own plan of extending this “training and advisory” mission into the next few years or so.

As a matter of fact, some of the US’ own regional policies are directly contributing to the prolongation of stay.

Nicholson said in his briefing:

“The Afghans traditionally had a core of MI-17 pilots who were trained on the airframe and some of them very experienced. So early before Crimea, Ukraine, before sanctions, there was international support for continuing with Russian-made airframes. That all changed after 2014 and after those sanctions were imposed. So the issue now is the sustainment of that — of that fleet to continue while we field a new fleet. President Obama forwarded to the Hill a request and the supplemental for purchase of UH-60 alpha model helicopters. So these helicopters will be modified with an improved drivetrain transmission so to enable them to operate better in the environment up there. But it will involve a transition for the pilots.”

This means fleets of Mi-17 transport helicopters Afghan forces have used for years will be replaced by US-made Sikorsky (owned by defense giant Lockheed Martin) UH-60 Black Hawks.

While Nicholson said that pilots will have to be re-trained, what he didn’t talk about is other implications of the transition that include, for instance, changes in airport infrastructure, new supply chains and ground crew training, implying thereby continuing dependence of the Afghan forces on the US military.

Whereas this transition is also an indication of, as Reuters reported, of heaving fighting taking place in Afghanistan, the move also presents the US’ attempt to reduce Russia’s role in the country, who, according to Nicholson, is already co-operating with the Taliban and “has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban. And their narrative goes something like this: that the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State, not the Afghan government.”

While Russia is certainly trying to re-define its relations with Afghanistan, including the Taliban—a policy which is pretty much in line with that of China, Iran and Pakistan, Nicholson did again fail to mention how the US itself, the Afghan government, and the US’ Arab allies have already extended legitimacy to the Taliban.

For instance, by repeatedly emphasizing the need to engage in negotiations with the Taliban, the US has unwittingly recognized them as a “legitimate force”, thus potentially undermining its own narrative of “war on terror.”

As a statement issued by the US state department in the early days of December clearly stated, “As we have long said, the only way to end the conflict in Afghanistan is through a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban. We are ready to accept any political resolution of the conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban so long as the outcome of any process ensures that the Taliban cease violence,” and accept other demands.

While the US claims that it is fighting Al Qaeda and the so-called “Islamic State” in Afghanistan, it is clear that the real battle it fights is against the Taliban and its control over the country vis-a-vis America’s proxy regime in Kabul.

The negotiated settlement it is trying to concurrently strike with the Taliban as its military campaign against the movement approaches two-decades, is both a bid to save its struggling proxy regime in Kabul, and an acknowledgement of its limitations in the region.

Both the Taliban and the US are aware of this limitation, providing the former with an incentive to continue the war and the latter with the much needed excuse to prolong its stay in the country, increase military presence and expand the military’s advisory and training missions.

Certainly, Afghanistan is to brace, under the given circumstances, a longer US stay and a much longer war rather than peace and settlement.

Salman Rafi
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmanrafisheikh@hotmail.com
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