Kabul is politically crippled while the Taliban is fiercely progressing on several fronts.
If Afghanistan falls, it will represent a new terrorist problem to the world. A few months ago, American generals proposed to American President Donald Trump to increase the number of American troops there by at least 5,000. It seems he refused because he thinks all the old approaches have failed especially that the US spent around $718 billion on a war that it continues to lose. The current number of American troops there is 8,400 while in 2011, it was 100,000.
Afghanistan suffers from Taliban’s vigorous return. Meanwhile, the government feels it is weak. Kabul is slowly losing its control over the country. The Afghan authorities control 52% of territories. Two years ago they controlled 72%. The state has lost control over 15% of its territories since September 2016 and until March 2017. Meanwhile, other provinces suffer under Taliban’s rule where around 500 soldiers get killed each week. All this indicates that the government is on its path towards a dead end in Kabul as security and developmental challenges confronting the country are tough and they require coordinated efforts and state funds. However, there is no hope on the horizon.
Ashraf Ghani’s government and Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, who were presidential rivals in 2014, control the country’s political scene. They decided to join a national unity government to avoid a short-term political crisis but instead they sowed the seeds of a long-term crisis by undermining the fragile Afghan constitution. Corrupt military groups that only care about protecting their interests have controlled politics in Afghanistan since 2014. It’s a sick environment. There’s little hope that the situation may change with the parliamentary elections next year or with the presidential elections in 2019. Considering the state’s decreased control over all provinces, there may not even be a state by the election date in 2018.
Security, military and presidential meetings are being held in Washington to discuss Afghanistan and aim to convince Trump to maintain American activity there. They think this is the more secure option even if it’s not the most efficient. Like North Korea, Afghanistan represents a security problem that’s impossible to solve and Trump’s administration must find a way out of it. An American source told me: “The president may choose the safe way and commit to the common logic of maintaining the money flow and increasing the number of American troops. The best he can expect out of this approach is to prevent the Afghan state from losing more territories. However this will not divert the path of the civil war and it will not defeat Taliban. Afghanistan represents clear failure of American policy. Trump does not want to bear its responsibility as in the end he’s a president from outside the institution and he proposed himself as someone who wants to improve American policy on the local and foreign levels. Therefore, it will be no surprise if Afghanistan is the matter which raises disagreements between him and the generals he commends.”
American media reports said the president proposed dismissing John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, and argued that the US should get a share of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. The Wall Street Journal reported that the American administration is looking into reducing US’ commitment and decreasing losses “in the longest war in America’s history.” However, decreasing American financial and military support to Kabul may make the end of the civil government near as the country will further plunge in civil war and foreign sponsors, like Pakistan, India, Russia and the US, may interfere in favor of their proxies. Afghanistan’s situation will be similar to the Syrian civil war with two possibilities: permanent deadlock as a result of conflicts which will lead to sectarian clashes or Taliban’s complete victory and resumption of its Islamic-like governance which it has adopted before 2001.
Is Afghanistan a failed state? Yes. Is it a failed cause that must be abandoned? No.Huda al-Husseini
What’s interesting are the recent meetings between Tajik and Hazara leaders and Uzbek former warlord and current vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum who “fled” to Turkey claiming he seeks medical treatment. According to media reports, they said in a statement that they seek to establish “a coalition to save Afghanistan.” This recent meeting in Turkey either aims to establish an opposition movement and paralyze the government or seeks to solidify the basis to form a new alliance that consists of several ethnicities shall the US withdraws from Afghanistan and hostilities resurface.
My source added: “It’s difficult to blame Trump’s administration if it considers withdrawing. Trump thinks he has nothing to do with getting to this point. However he will be blamed more if he chooses to drastically reduce American intervention in Afghanistan. Therefore, he must specify his Afghan policy amid Taliban’s uproar. It will be Trump’s war after any decision he makes. President George W. Bush sowed, and Barack Obama and Trump will reap after him. If Trump chooses to withdraw, then this will happen very soon because Trump is still new and he still blames those who preceded him.”
A failed state
An American official told Reuters that despite Trump’s hesitancy, he may order increasing the number of troops as this is the least bad option and he may also order full withdrawal. There are claims that Trump granted absolute power to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan but the latter does not want to do so without the president’s approval. Senator John McCain recently said he may introduce an amendment to the annual defense policy bill to provide a strategy for the war in Afghanistan noting that: “Eight years of a ‘don’t lose’ strategy has cost us lives and treasure in Afghanistan.” He added: “"Our troops deserve better.”
Taliban however is in no mood to negotiate. Strategies and intentions are some of the reasons behind the failure of American policy in Afghanistan. The US also does not have influence over Taliban. Therefore, they must increase the number of US troops so Taliban becomes more inclined to negotiate. However, the only problem is that Taliban did not sit for negotiations and the chances that it will sit today are less. It’s not military superiority that will prevent Taliban from negotiating as the movement is always demanding the complete withdrawal of NATO forces. To Americans, this request does not mark the beginning of negotiations. There’s also the issue of integrating Taliban in the political process. The movement’s commanders insist to have guarantees that sharia will govern the constitution. Integrating Taliban politicians in the current regime will be a nightmare though. Taliban is also confronting challenges due to groups linked to ISIS. The movement is winning in the Afghan arena now, and it’s unlikely that its commanders will give up their extremist ideology and accept to reinforce the peace process with Kabul and its allies in the NATO.
Is Afghanistan a failed state? Yes. Is it a failed cause that must be abandoned? No. The statement “America First” will not succeed if American policy fails in all tense regions across the world.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.