Observer Comment on US Strategy in Afghanistan

If we do not have a reasonably competent, friendly government in Kabul, nothing the west achieves will last. Ignoring the Afghan nation’s needs is not an option

This week’s comment in the Observer calls for a more inclusive role for Pakistan than the one recently articulated by Washington. Comment as follows: Donald Trump’s view on the conflict in Afghanistan was highly critical in 2011 when he tweeted that the US was “wasting lives and money” there. He later termed Barack Obama’s strategy a “complete waste”, saying it was “time to come home”. Trump stood on his head last week, ordering the deployment of additional American troops and committing the US to an open-ended war that he vowed to “fight to win”. So which Trump is right – the pre-election sceptic or today’s ardent warrior? The answer is neither.

When Obama took office in 2009, he raised US troop levels to around 100,000, part of a Nato force of about 150,000. His plan was to turn around a war that had already dragged on too long, then hand over to better-trained and equipped Afghan army and police forces. The handover duly took place in 2014, but the conflict was not over. Since then, security has steadily deteriorated. Obama was right to try, and Trump wrong to prematurely scorn his efforts. But what the 2009 surge ultimately proved was that even the most modern armies, wielding the latest weaponry and backed by unchallenged air power, cannot wholly overcome the sort of unconventional, guerrilla campaign at which the Taliban excel. More than 2,400 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001, and more than 450 British troops. But according to US estimates, government forces now control less than 60% of the country.

Given this galling history, Trump’s “new strategy” – adding around 4,000 soldiers to the current US total of just under 10,000 and asking Nato allies, including Britain, to send a similar number – makes no sense. Such paltry reinforcements will make little or no difference on the battlefield. The bulk of the fighting will in any case continue to be undertaken by Afghan security forces, who are currently dying at the rate of about 30 a month. Nor is the move likely to provide relief for civilians. There were a record 1,662 civilian deaths and 3,581 people injured in the first half of this year, according to UN figures. Armed conflict has claimed the lives of 26,512 civilians and injured 48,931 since 2009.

Trump’s rejection of nation-building and his insistence that the mission’s focus is “killing terrorists” who might one day strike at America betrays a deeply parochial ignorance. In launching the invasion in 2001, George W Bush mistakenly failed to distinguish between al-Qaida and the country’s Taliban rulers. His hunt for the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks morphed into forcible regime change. But you cannot hope to destroy terrorist safe havens and networks unless a country’s indigenous forces and citizens are broadly on your side. If you do not have a reasonably competent, friendly government in Kabul, nothing you achieve will last. Ignoring the Afghan nation’s needs is not an option.

While Trump’s new policy stance is as unhelpful and as uncomprehending as his old one, it need not be the last word. An international diplomatic push is essential to forge a consensus position among regional parties. This means a joint effort to bring about a ceasefire, followed by peace talks, sponsored by the US, Russia, China, India and Iran, too, however counter-intuitive that may be for Trump.

Pakistan should also be included. There is no point in Trump threatening Islamabad. It has been done before, to no avail. Pakistan’s legitimate security and strategic concerns must be taken into account in any Afghan settlement. If the US were to genuinely engage in multilateral diplomacy, it might be surprised at the degree of common ground on combating illegal drugs, securing borders, halting refugee flows, enhancing regional stability and suppressing Islamist extremism.

The US and the government of Ashraf Ghani must also accept that the various elements comprising the Taliban have an undeniable stake in the country’s future. For their part, Taliban leaders and allies must accept that they will never be rid of foreign interlopers without a political agreement with other national groups, parties and minorities. A western offer of unconditional talks is already on the table. Now is the time to enlist UN help in relaunching a comprehensive internal dialogue.

As Friday’s murderous Islamic State attack on a Shia mosque in Kabuldemonstrated, some fanatical extremists utterly reject peace and care nothing for the Afghan people (or indeed the people of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia). Extirpating this ubiquitous menace also requires a united international effort, for there can be no compromise with terror. But Trump’s sole focus is on war and more war. The number of US air strikes since he took office is already more than twice the 2016 total, hence the spike in civilian casualties. Until he adopts a more imaginative approach to making peace, Britain must refuse any request to send more troops to Afghanistan – and say no to Trump’s war.

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