Trump advisers call for more troops to break Afghanistan ‘stalemate’

Nato nations would be asked to also send thousands of troops under proposed plan

The international force assisting the Afghans has about 13,000 troops, of whom about 8,400 are American. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The international force assisting the Afghans has about 13,000 troops, of whom about 8,400 are American. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

 

Senior Trump administration and military officials are recommending sending several thousand additional US troops to Afghanistan to try to break a military deadlock in the 15-year war there, in part by pressuring the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government.

The added troops would allow US advisers to work with a greater number of Afghan forces, and be closer to the front lines. The recommendation, which has yet to be approved by President Donald Trump, is the product of a broad review by the Pentagon, state department, intelligence community and other government agencies on the longest US war. It is broadly consistent with advice Gen John W Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, gave Congress in February.

Warning that the US and its Nato allies faced a “stalemate,” Nicholson told lawmakers he had a shortfall of a “few thousand” troops and said more personnel would enable the US military to advise the Afghan military more effectively and at lower levels in the chain of command.

Special-operations forces

The international force assisting the Afghans has about 13,000 troops, of whom about 8,400 are American. US officials said 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops, including hundreds of special-operations forces, could be sent. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Nato nations would also be asked to send thousands of troops, and the precise number of US forces deployed would probably depend on what those allies were prepared to do. Trump is expected to make a decision on his Afghan strategy before a May 25th Nato meeting in Brussels. The recommendation of his top advisers was first reported by the Washington Post.

How to handle the situation in Afghanistan, which was rarely discussed during the presidential campaign, looms as a major decision for Trump. In some respects, it is a liability for a president who has called for putting “America first”. Deploying more troops would cost billions of dollars, and there is no guarantee of a clear win. The US failed to produce successful negotiations when it had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, a poor country with little in the way of natural resources.

But without a strong US military role, the Taliban and more extreme groups such as the Islamic State’s Afghan wing would most likely gain ground, weakening Trump’s vow to defeat Islamic extremists. Pulling back would also put Trump at odds with generals whom he embraced and turned to for national security advice.

The shift of strategy recommended by Trump’s advisers reflects the assessment that a major new troop commitment – such as the 30,000-troop reinforcement president Barack Obama announced in December 2009 – is undesirable and politically impossible. But it also reflects the assumption that maintaining the current level of forces could leave the US presiding over a slow deterioration in security, with fading hopes for a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Deadlines

One twist is that the new strategy would dispense with the hard deadlines the Obama administration set, and was sometimes forced to revise, for gradually withdrawing troops. Many military officers have argued that setting a public deadline for withdrawal is counterproductive because it allows adversaries to wait out the US and Nato troop commitment instead of forcing them to the negotiating table.

But Trump’s advisers do not want a new US commitment to be open-ended, and they are suggesting that its duration be dependent on steps by President Ashraf Ghani to fight corruption and appoint more effective commanders. Lieut Gen HR McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, led an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan and is especially sensitive to the need for better governance in Kabul. Jim Mattis, the secretary of defence, also has extensive experience with Afghanistan, having overseen the military effort there as head of the US central command.

The generals, however, are not the only ones who favour a stronger commitment to Afghanistan. US intelligence officials also want more support, calculating that a stronger military presence would assist their intelligence efforts against extremist groups in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan.

One issue that remains unclear is how the new strategy would deal with the safe havens the Taliban and other militant groups have in Pakistan. Nicholson acknowledged to Congress that it was “very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”

He urged “a holistic review” of US policy towards Pakistan. US forces have two basic missions in Afghanistan: advising and training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism missions, like a recent operation in which about 50 Army Rangers and a similar number of Afghan commandos killed the leader of the Afghan branch of the Islamic State.

Nicholson told Congress the shortfall was mainly in forces for training and advising the Afghans. Currently, advisers are working with Afghans mostly at the command level of the army corps. But more advisers, he said, would enable the US-led coalition to work at the level of the Afghan brigades.

Military advisers are generally considered more effective if they are not limited to advising foreign armies in their headquarters, but extend to units in the field. The Obama administration’s decision last summer to give US commanders more flexibility to provide air support for Afghan forces fighting the Taliban increased the need for advisers below the level of the Afghan army corps, Nicholson told Congress. – (New York Times)