Syed Ali Zia Jaffery |
In a gruesome attack on the Afghan National Army headquarters, more than 100 people lost their lives. The military formation covers most of Northern Afghanistan including the Kunduz Province, which fell to the Taliban in 2015. The Taliban boisterously claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Our fighters have inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan army stationed there.”
– Zabihullah Mujahid (Taliban Spokesperson)
The attack comes on the heels of an important event that took place lately in the country. Last week the US dropped GBU 43, colloquially known as the “mother of all bombs”, on hideouts of the Islamic State K faction in Nangarhar. The use of a high yield weapon against a secondary threat in Afghanistan is a sign of things to come on part of the Trump Administration. Besides, the new overtures being put forth by Russia have once again put Afghanistan at the epicenter.
It is important to analyze the possible ramifications of the unbridled Taliban and the growing tentacles of the IS on Trump’s policy for Afghanistan.
Trump: upping the military ante
The situation on ground depicts a worrying story, to say the least. Apart from ineffective governance and rampant corruption, one aspect is not only a cause of concern but an indictment of US war drive.
US President Donald Trump had time and again referred to the war in Afghanistan as a waste of time and money during his election campaign. However, the use of the MOAB was a harbinger of a policy shift. The US’ desire to support the Afghan government and promises of a “nation building” approach expressed earlier is more likely to give way to a military surge. There are reasons to believe that Trump may redouble the kinetic leg of the US war efforts in Afghanistan.
Firstly, the increasing presence of the IS in Afghanistan, if countered militarily will seem to be in-line with Trump’s promise of “Bombing the hell out of the ISIS”. Secondly, the situation on ground depicts a worrying story, to say the least. Apart from ineffective governance and rampant corruption, one aspect is not only a cause of concern but an indictment of US war drive.
Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the United States have not dented the war-waging and operational capabilities of the Taliban; if anything, the force has become more virulent. The Taliban have not been obliterated because of the US’ disproportionate use of force, which proves counterproductive against insurgents. Moreover, much to the frustration, the Afghan military apparatus has not attained much proficiency in combat. This factor compels US field commanders to push for more military commitment on ground.
A Syria-like situation cannot be ruled out if the US and Russia cannot paper over their differences concerning the Taliban.
Another factor that may probably convince Trump to increase troop level in Afghanistan is Russia’s involvement. With a renewed aim of increasing its clout and assertiveness, Russia is making inroads in the Afghan theater. Russia’s approach diverges with that of the US. Despite the agreement of both countries on countering the influence of the IS K-wing in Afghanistan, there are differences on the status of the Taliban. Russia favors negotiations with the Taliban while the US deems it as a major threat. The Russians tilt towards China and the emergence of a possible tripartite partnership involving Islamabad too. It would be reasonable to expect a heavy US footprint in Afghanistan in the near future.
Implications and the way forward
Kabul is more likely to become an important theater in great power politics. A Syria-like situation cannot be ruled out if the US and Russia cannot paper over their differences concerning the Taliban. The Russian backing of the Taliban and its strengthening of ties with Pakistan may call for the Trump Administration to talk tough with the latter. This would give New Delhi an opportunity to further influence the US to twist Islamabad’s arm in clamping down on the alleged “terrorist infrastructure”.
The situation must be assessed truly; reconciliation between the Taliban and the National Unity Government seems to be well in order.
As the past suggests, the application of military power will do little to hamper the spirits and fighting prowess of the Taliban or even the IS for that matter. The main issue is that the country is deprived of effective governance and workable state institutions; there is mayhem which drives people to swell the ranks of the miscreants. Little has been done to address the root causes of insurgency.
A military-heavy Counter Insurgency strategy is more likely to cause further instability. Colossal bombing campaigns will do little to win hearts and minds. If anything, Afghans are more likely to increase their rancor for the West. The situation must be assessed truly; reconciliation between the Taliban and the National Unity Government seems to be well in order. A military victory against the Taliban seems a remote possibility and hence a kind of a tenuous agreement may provide the US with a face-saving exit from an unwinnable war.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Associate at the Center for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR), Islamabad. He frequently writes on defense and strategic affairs of South Asia. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.