August 25, 2017

Afghanistan in 2017: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2017.

President Donald Trump’s decision on 21 August 2017 to send an unspecified number of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to continue assisting and training the Afghan national security forces and to expand counterterrorism operations in the country marks yet another effort to stabilize Afghanistan, at least enough to allow the Western coalition countries to withdraw their forces from the country.

It is widely believed that the new U.S. forces to be deployed in Afghanistan will amount to approximately 4,000 troops. If so, it will mean that Afghanistan, under the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, will have 19,500 troops from 39 foreign countries, 12,400 of whom will come from the United States. These numbers do not include the relatively small number of special operations forces that some countries deploy in Afghanistan to train their Afghan counterparts and to carry out joint operations against the Taliban.

President Trump’s decision goes squarely against the views Mr. Trump held on Afghanistan while he was a candidate for U.S. presidency. Then, he tweeted: “Afghanistan is a total waste. Time to come home! ” Now, on top of the additional troops he wants to deploy, he refuses to draw any timelines on the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The end-goal of the President’s plan is to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table to find a political solution to the Afghan war. Toward that end, the new U.S. strategy threatens to cut off U.S. aid to Pakistan, as well as asks India to support the United States in the area of economic assistance and development to Afghanistan.

This year, the security situation in Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse. UNAMA’s mid-year report on civilian casualties, released on 17 July, accounts “record high” levels of casualties in the first six months of 2017, with Kabul remaining the most affected city in the country.

By UNAMA’s account, in the first six months of 2017 as many as 1662 Afghan civilians have been documented as killed and 3581 more as injured. It is true that the total number of civilian casualties decreased slightly from the previous year, by 24 persons in total, but the total casualties, as compared with the previous years’ figures, remain still at record high levels.

It seems that women and children often were targets of deadly attacks. According to UNAMA, the use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and aerial operations in civilian-populated areas contributed substantially to the increases in both women and children casualties. Another factor claiming more lives was the increase in suicide and complex attacks by “anti-Government elements”, which included the Taliban (lead by its new leader Hebatullah Akhundzada), the Islamic State Khoresan Province (ISKP) and some elements of ISIS/Daesh.

One of the trends the UNAMA report observes is that the number of casualties caused by the ground engagements between the pro-government forces and anti-government elements is decreasing. Yet, the indiscriminate use of IED tactics in civilian-populated areas accounted for 40 per cent of all casualties in the first six months of 2017. The deadliest single attack in that period was the 31 May attack in Kabul, where a truck bomb killed at least 92 civilians and injured nearly 500.

In total, 26,500 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan and 49,000 injured, since the UNAMA mission began systematic documentation of casualties in 2009.

The new U.S. plan aims at stymieing the Taliban’s path to military victory. It is now estimated that the Taliban controls about 40 per cent of Afghanistan and is getting stronger. There are also alarming signs that ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan is growing. This has made such countries as Kyrgyztan worried and turn to Russia. For example, in June President Atambaev called for the establishment of a new Russian military base to protect Kyrgyztan from terrorist threats.

The multiple challenges Afghanistan presents are truly massive: civil conflict, ethnic discord, virtual state collapse and a web of foreign intervention are locking the country into a vicious cycle that prevents it from creating peace and good government, the necessary ingredients of any conflict resolution.

A first step to stability and security in Afghanistan would be an agreement between Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia on non-intervention in Afghanistan, supported by the U.S. / NATO military deterrence. For this, the additional U.S. troops could prove useful. But as long as the outside powers each have their favorite proxy in Afghanistan, there is no real hope for a serious peace settlement. A second step would be a political one. The main challenge is to incorporate at least the more moderate elements of the Taliban into a credible peace process.

These two steps are absolutely necessary for any hope for a peaceful settlement of the conflict that has torn Afghanistan apart for almost 40 years. If these steps are not taken, the Afghan conflict wears on and civilians continue to be caught in the terrible crossfire.