The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Update for Saturday, April 13, 2019

This is the first of planned regular weekly posts. I want to begin by recommending this year by year timeline of the U.S. war in Afghanistan from the Council on Foreign Relations.  Among the highlights are Donald Rumsfeld declaring an end to "major combat" in May, 2003, when there were only 8,000 U.S. troops in the country; followed immediately by the expansion of the NATO mission to a total of 65,000 troops from 42 countries. In May 2005 U.S. president Bush and Aghan president Karzai signed an agreement to:

strengthen U.S.-Afghan ties and help ensure Afghanistan's long-term security, democracy, and prosperity." Moreover, the agreement calls for Washington to "help organize, train, equip, and sustain Afghan security forces as Afghanistan develops the capacity to undertake this responsibility," and to continue to rebuild the country's economy and political democracy.
By July 2006 violence was surging around the country:

"As with most insurgencies, the critical precondition [to the Afghan insurgency] is the collapse of governance," says Afghanistan expert Seth G. Jones. Jones and other experts point to the many Afghans who lack basic services, the government's difficultly setting up its police forces, and the lack of international forces to assist with security.
By November of that year U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates was criticizing NATO for not sending more troops. In 2008 U.S. air strikes killed large numbers of civilians, alienating the population. In 2009, president Obama recommitted to Afghanistan and sent 17,000 more troops, at the same time promising to withdraw by 2011. In March, Obama sent 4,000 additional troops and pledged to bring about an end to Pakistani support for the insurgency. In July, U.S. marines launched a major offensive in Helmand province. By August there were more than 65,000 U.S. troops in the country. In December, Obama announced another major escalation.

In November 2010 NATO agreed to hand over full responsibility for security to the Afghan government by 2014, beginning in stages in 2011. The 100,000 U.S. forces then in the country were to hand over responsibility first in relatively stable places. Obama announced that withdrawal of troops would begin and that 33,000 would be removed by the summer of 2012. By that time, after a decade of war, the U.S. had spent $444 billion and lost 1,800 troops. In 2012 secretary of defense Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. combat role would end in 2013.

Afghanistan officially took responsibility for security in June 2013, and Obama announced that only 9,800 forces would remain in a purely training and advisory role, although special forces would confront al Qaeda. But in 2017, with the insurgency continuing to erode government control, president Trump announced he would be sending several thousand additional troops. In 2017 he pledged an open-ended commitment. But by 2018 the Taliban were carrying out bold attacks in the capital and elsewhere around the country. Currently the U.S. and Taliban are engaged in peace talks, so far futile, and it is unclear whether U.S. troop withdrawals will be contingent on an agreement.

Although there hasn't been an official announcement, it is obvious that U.S. troops are engaged in combat against the Taliban. However, here's some of what happened in just the past few days.

Taliban attack a police convoy in Ghor, killing 7, including the head of security operations for the province.

Taliban announce a spring offensive with the aim of "eradicating occupation" and "cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption," the Taliban said in a statement.

Four Romanian troops are injured in an attack in Kandahar.

Taliban attack Kunduz from four directions, so far are repelled.

Government claims 27 Taliban killed in a battle in Nangarhar, with 2 government forces dead. [These very lopsided reported casualty totals are common, it's unclear whether they are reliable. They are not confirmed by independent journalists.]

Government says it repulsed an attack in Faryab killing 11 militants.

So here's the question. With the support of tens of thousands of highly trained, heavily armed and well equipped North American and European forces; hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid including an air force and armored vehicles; air support from the U.S. including drones, fighter jets, and gunships -- why is the Afghan government losing to an insurgency that has no recognition or declared financial or military support from a single country. Yes, they get safe haven in Pakistan and probably get access to weapons and some other help from Pakistan, but that's it. There have been reports of arms from Iraq given to Taliban forces near the Iranian border. That's somewhat dubious due to their ideological differences, but Iran might want to have influence in that region.

Otherwise, the asymmetry of the situation is astounding. The Taliban don't need foreign trainers, or advisers, or money. They have no air support whatever. They have little or no artillery and only a few armored vehicles that they have managed to capture by overrunning government military bases -- something they do quite frequently. And they are winning.