Although Mattis asserted that Pentagon would soon come up with a strategy to change the tide of war, the reality is there is no effective counter-strategy against the Taliban in sight.S Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ admission to the US Congress last week that “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now” was a half-truth. Fact is, the US-led coalition and their Afghan partners are slowly but inexorably losing the 16-year-old war against the Taliban.
The notion that the additional 4,000 American soldiers Pentagon plans to ship to the battle front will stop the Taliban advance when 150,000 of them couldn’t do it a few years earlier is clutching at straws.
The Islamist hordes, financed, trained and armed by Pakistan, are gradually creeping back towards the capital, Kabul, which they had hastily abandoned in 2001.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in its most recent February 2017 report to United States Congress, states that the “Taliban controls 11 districts and influences 34 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts (11 percent), while the Afghan government controls 97 districts and influences 146 (60 percent). Twenty-nine percent of Afghanistan’s districts remain contested.”
The Long War Journal, an authoritative US website on military issues, has pointed out that the Taliban today control “a belt of bases in the south that stretches across the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Ghazni.”
Taliban presence in the two strategic southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand are particularly troubling. The Taliban has claimed it controls four of Kandahar’s 18 districts and dominates five more. Kandahar, it would be recalled was the birthplace of the Taliban and their political headquarters.
Even in the north where the Taliban has traditionally been weak, the key city of Kunduz has come under attack and was once totally abandoned by Afghan government forces last year. This April, the Taliban attacked a major Afghan Army base near Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and killed an estimated 170 government soldiers.
The rate and ferocity of Taliban attacks have soared this year. This is leading to loss of control of territory and horrendous casualties.
Last year, 6,800 Afghan soldiers were killed and thousands were wounded. Many thousands more are reported to have deserted. This year promises to be bloodier and the string of military disasters have led to the suspension of several generals and a defence minister.
Currently, there are about 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan providing support for the Afghan army and some in the Trump Administration are reported to be contemplating increasing that number by about 4,000. But how extra troops could be decisive in today’s situation against a well-equipped and confident Taliban has not been spelt out.
President Trump’s Defence Secretary Mattis, however, sounds optimistic. He told the Congress that Afghanistan would be transformed a year from now: government corruption would be reduced and the Taliban would be rolled back.
That might just take a miracle to achieve. Afghanistan’s well-meaning but bumbling President, Ashraf Ghani, has failed to curb corruption or provide the kind of leadership required in these desperate times.
The prognosis made by the US intelligence community does not reflect the optimism exuded by the US Defence Secretary. Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, in a Senate hearing said, “The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the US and its partners.”
The key issue is the refusal or inability of the US leadership to deal with the root of the Afghan problem: the Pakistan Army, which sustains, guides and mentors the Taliban.
Hundreds of senior US military and intelligence officials have repeatedly voiced their frustration at Rawalpindi’s controlling hand over the Taliban. Despite having specific information on how the Pakistan Army’s covert wing, the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) , has orchestrated several terrorist and military assaults leading to the death of Afghan and Coalition combatants, Washington has not acted.
The deaths to date of more than 2,300 Americans and an estimated 17,000 wounded in Afghanistan have not compelled decision makers in Washington to change strategy on Pakistan. The Taliban surge is unlikely to make them suddenly change their minds.
Retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Edward Lute, who has served on the National Security Council staffs in both the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations, told a PBS interviewer that the US has “several interests in Pakistan which I think surpass our interest in dealing with the Afghan Taliban.”
When the PBS journalist pointed out that “Pakistan obviously looms very large in Afghanistan, and provide a consistent safe haven for the Taliban”, the retired general replied that Pakistan’s internal stability itself is more important than the Taliban.
“Here you have more than 180 million Pakistanis in a country where you have not just the Afghan Taliban, but the Pakistani Taliban, remnants of al-Qaida, and other regional terrorist groups, all of which threaten the stability of the state”, he pointed out, adding that Pakistan is also “a state which has the fastest growing, the fastest expanding nuclear arsenal in the world. So, that very dangerous cocktail of terrorists, extremists, and nuclear weapons is actually probably more of a vital national interest to us than Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. So, there’s a large array of complex interests here which are at play.”
If that is what Washington’s Taliban policy rests on, then nothing can stop Pakistan and thereby the Taliban. Instead of contemplating a modest increase in troop’s levels, the Pentagon would do well in working out an exit policy.
If the above assertions are true it will be a huge setback for America’s anti-terrorism policy and a revamped Taliban can create further increased trouble for the United States.