Afghanistan’s fate hangs in Trump’s silence

Salman Rafi Sheikh December 5, 2016 6:06 AM (UTC+8)
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With the US president-elect Donald Trump making hardly any reference in his election campaign to the US’ longest fought war, the question of the policy that he would follow has acquired some significance. Its importance has increased due to the president-elect’s apparent aversion to the concept of committing US forces to help its allies, like the incumbent government of Afghanistan. While we shall have to wait for a clear Afghan policy, Trump’s apparent opposition to the idea of sending US forces to other countries did encourage the Afghan Taliban to impress upon him to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and respect their country’s sovereignty.

While little to no attention was paid to this aspect of American foreign policy in the presidential campaign, Afghanistan’s ground situation today is such that warrants a lot of attention—unless, of course, the president-elect is willing to see the Taliban rolling all over the country.

The ground situation continues to signal a gradual and substantial increase not only in terms of the territory the Taliban controls but also in terms of their role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Ironic though it sounds, the Taliban have expressed willingness to safeguard “all national projects which are in the interest of the people and result in the development and prosperity of the nation.”

The statement comes after Afghan and Turkmen leaders inaugurated a railway line on Monday connecting Afghanistan to Europe through Turkmenistan.

On the contrary, the offer can equally be understood in light of the fact that more than US$2 billion worth of damage was inflicted on public and private properties and infrastructure during the last two months of the Taliban’s various attacks across the country, according to an Afghan official.

Further, the offer has come at a time when Afghan security forces, despite being assisted by the US forces, continue to to lose more and more territory to the Taliban.

According to the recent report of SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), among the country’s 407 districts, the number controlled by the government slipped from 267 in May to 258 in August. Independent estimates, however, found that the Taliban directly and indirectly control more districts.

Notwithstanding this delicate balance between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the report itself shows a dismal picture of the US-financed reconstruction program for Afghanistan. A study of the report would reveal that this “reconstruction” process is anything but reconstruction.

It also depicts an immensely ineffective process, riddled with corruption and unsustainable programs. It is one that ensures that, inevitably, whatever regime sits in Kabul remains entirely dependent on the US and immense funding from abroad, even as US troops “draw down” and the conflict only expands.

That the conflict is expanding and that the Taliban have intensified their offensive is also evident from the number attacks they carried out and the number of casualties Afghanistan had to bear.

According to the United Nation’s recently-compiled data, from 2010 to 2016, the number of civilian injuries and deaths rose from 2,149 deaths and 3,482 injuries in 2010 to 2,562 deaths and 5,835 injuries in 2016. Out of these injuries and casualties, 23% of casualties were caused by the pro-Government forces, which shows a 42% increase compared to last year, occurring primarily due to the use of indirect and explosive weapons and aerial attacks.

What this situation warrants, for Trump, is longer stay of the US forces in Afghanistan. However, it is unclear what different strategy will the US would now follow to bring a meaningful change, let alone reverse the ground situation.

Pouring more US military personnel or money wouldn’t help either, as it never has. Despite the $68 billion spent by the US trying to build up the country’s security forces, the Afghan army continues to lose a third of its soldiers every year between battle casualties, desertions and those who decline to re-enlist.

And as the above cited SIGAR report reveals, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) suffered over 15,000 casualties with over 5,500 deaths in this year alone. In other words, more ANDSF personnel have died in a single year than all US forces throughout the entire 2001-2016 wartime.

ANDSF, even with brand new equipment provided by the US and its various contractors, are still inadequately armed compared to the US and other NATO troops.

And while the Afghan forces, being aided and directed by the US forces, continue to suffer loses, the future policy is aiming, ironically enough, at cutting down the funding for these operations from US$5 billion to 4.72 billion.

What is the way forwards then? Clearly, Afghanistan is going to stay, rather linger on, as one of the most important foreign policy challenges for the US president-elect. This challenge is a lot more different from what Trump will be having to deal with in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

Afghanistan needs a realistic assessment by those controlling its strings: the US and its allies. 15 years of war have left all parties with minimum of choice: they could either continue to fight an unending war or start a political dialogue with those willing to talk, told me one Afghan official during his visit to Islamabad last week.

Ashraf Ghani’s government has already set a precedent of dialogue by entering into a political deal with Hekmatyar, although some people from Afghanistan suspect the official narrative and believe that Hekmatyar, flying on Pakistan and China’s wings, has inserted himself into the system to direct Ghani’s government to pave the way for the Taliban’s return to power on particularly the same lines.

With this scenario developing in Afghanistan in an imperceptible way, the challenge for the US and the Afghan government is no more limited to fighting the Taliban in the battlefield alone. It equally includes to engage in dialogue on terms and conditions that do not lead to reversion of the system to the late 1990s.

Salman Rafi Sheikh
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 politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com
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