In February, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, shockingly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the nearly 16-year old war in South Asia with the Taliban was essentially a “stalemate.”
Not exactly what anyone wanted to hear — including Team Trump.
So it’s no surprise that some elements of a new Afghanistan strategy started to emerge in the press this week as the result of an internal review, including bumping up U.S. forces there by 3,000 beyond the (approximate) current troop level of 9,000.
The new policy would end the Obama administration’s limitations on the air campaign, U.S. troop numbers in country as well as the involvement of American advisers in their role assisting Afghan security forces in the field, reports The Washington Post.
After years of seesawing U.S. troop levels and commitment, the purpose of the new strategy — beyond rooting out al-Qaeda and ISIS — seems to be to exert more military pressure on the Taliban to force negotiations, bringing some peace to the long-troubled land.
No easy task.
It’s important to note that President Trump reportedly hasn’t yet signed off on the new plan, though he is expected to make a decision soon, at a minimum before he attends the NATO mini-summit in Brussels at the end of the month.
While in Brussels, he’ll likely ask NATO partners to pony up additional resources for the alliance’s Resolute Support mission. (NATO and other partners currently provide 6,500 troops for training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces.)
In the meantime, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday, the president is asking hard questions: “... one of the things that he [Trump] has asked his national security team to do is to actually … rethink the strategy. What are we doing to achieve the goals that you are asking about, how do we actually … win? How do we eliminate the threat?”
Those are all critical queries.
Eventually, we’ll all want to know more about the new plan — if approved — such as, how the strategy deals with the continuing challenge of Pakistan, where Taliban fighters have been able to find a safe haven across the border for years.
What about al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan?
And how does the new approach address the problem of the Russians and Iranians, who, by some reporting, are involved in Afghanistan, including allegedly backing our main adversary, the Taliban? What about good governance from Kabul?
These are all important parts of any comprehensive strategy.
There’s a long-standing anecdote — perhaps apocryphal, but telling — involving the Taliban, where one fighter is reported to have said that, while the Americans have the watches, we (the Taliban) have the time.
In other words, all the Taliban has to do is really survive U.S. intervention as a movement among the people, waiting out the foreign “invaders” who will eventually grow weary of the fight and then go home like the Brits and Russians did before them.
Hopefully a new strategy — with new international energy from NATO and other partners — will help the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS accept that their time as a force for violence and repression in Afghanistan is finally running out
This piece originally appeared in the Boston Herald