The US extends its longest war
An Afghan man inspects the site of a suicide attack followed by a clash between Afghan forces and insurgents after an attack on a Shia Muslim mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, last Friday. Photograph: Omar Sobhani/ Reuters
‘Never invade Afghanistan. ” Harold Macmillan regarded this as the first rule of politics, and President Donald Trump has now discovered just how intractable is this famous graveyard of empires. His announcement last week that the US is to increase its troop numbers there to about 14,000 rather than withdraw them, as he previously advocated, acknowledges the military realities involved and the problems arising were a strategic vacuum created. It would be filled by a Taliban movement allied to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, he insisted, as he vowed to defeat them.
The 16 years since the Bush administration intervened in October 2001 following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington makes this the US’s longest war. Its chronology tracks a history of expansion and contraction in the numbers of US troops involved, the increasing participation of its Nato allies and difficult relations with neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. It reached a peak with Barack Obama’s radical increase of troop numbers in 2009 to 100,000. After the assassination of the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Obama dramatically scaled back the troops and aimed at a withdrawal. But he too then encountered a resurgent Taliban.
Trump is loath to continue Obama policies but has had to accept continuity on Afghanistan. That this reflects the influence of military advisers is widely assumed and commented on. They are the authors of a strategic vacuum approach to the conflicts there, to which he adds his determination to see a victory over Islamic State and their allies. He demands that Pakistan does more to fight this war and less to harbour Taliban leaders. He has given the military much more freedom to act, with no fixed timeline or exit strategy.
That goes against Obama’s approach of exercising political control over military actions and emphasising diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful agreement. Taliban forces now control about 40 per cent of the country and demand all foreign troops leave as a precondition for direct negotiations. Their support derives from ancient hostilities to foreign occupation, control of the narcotics trade and from ethnic and geographical divisions. The coalition government holds major cities and regions but is unable to enlarge its rule without outside support.
Trump’s open-ended commitment to this war and his avowed search for a victory makes him vulnerable to military escalation, for which his uncertain relations with Nato allies renders it difficult to find outside support. The alternative and better approach would put much greater emphasis on pursuing political and diplomatic ways to find a durable Afghan peace based on withdrawal of foreign troops and a grand bargain with surrounding states, including China, Russia and Iran besides Pakistan and India.