More than a year after President Donald Trump announced his administration’s new strategy for achieving success in Afghanistan and the wider region, the situation remains decidedly mixed with the conflict at a “stalemate.” Still, some senior officials feel there are some reasons for cautious optimism on the diplomatic front.
And though the casualty rate for US troops is far lower than it was earlier in the conflict, Americans are still losing their lives 17 years into the war with three US service members killed in a bombing on Tuesday.
A fourth service member was killed earlier this week with the US military saying he was accidentally shot by Afghan troops while the joint US-Afghan force was combating al Qaeda elements, the group that the US went to Afghanistan to fight some 17 years ago.
On Tuesday, Trump laid out his rationale for keeping US troops in the country telling the Washington Post, “We’re there because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here.”
Tuesday’s deadly attack took place in Ghazni Province, an area where the Taliban have sought to wrest control of the provincial capital and have stepped up attacks against government security forces. But the insurgents have been unable to hold any major populated areas and are pushed back by Afghan troops supported by NATO advisers and US airstrikes.
The situation there is emblematic of the wider military campaign – the Taliban is unable to take major cities or towns but the Afghan security forces, despite receiving some additional US support, are unable to put an end to the insurgency.
While US troops have suffered casualties this year, they are largely serving in a supporting role with local Afghan forces doing most of the fighting. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani recently announcing that some 29,000 Afghan soldiers and police had been killed or wounded since 2015. US casualties during that same period declined sharply as they largely shifted away from direct combat.
“We used the term stalemate a year ago and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a conference in Halifax last month.
Outside experts agree with Dunford’s characterization.
“It’s not entirely static but for the most part it’s a stalemate,” Stephen Tankel, an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, told CNN.
“The Taliban remain on the offensive” but are “unable to seize and maintain control over population centers” Scott DesMarais, an Afghanistan-focused researcher for the Institute for the Study of War, told CNN.
While US officials have acknowledged that the military situation remains in a stalemate, with some 65% of the population under Afghan government control or influence, officials have said that non-military factors, including efforts toward a settlement aimed at reconciliation, have progressed.
Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was recently named the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation and has traveled repeatedly to the region for discussions with national governments and the Taliban to try to jump-start a dialogue.
But senior US officials have also cautioned the US is “a long way,” from being able to say that point of reconciliation with the Taliban has been reached.
“I think we are a long way,” Dunford said while speaking in Halifax.
Speaking about the reconciliation efforts last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters “we’re doing what we can to support Ambassador Khalilzad. He is firmly in control now and acting very much in an energetic way, I would put it acting energetically to engage with Saudi help, United Arab Emirates help and Qatari help to get the reconciliation talks going.”
Mattis would not characterize the nature of those talks, simply saying “they’re active.”
Hopes for a reconciliation
Hopes for a reconciliation were buttressed earlier this year when the Taliban and Afghan government participated in a brief nationwide ceasefire. Yet the Taliban rejected a similar subsequent ceasefire proposal and fighting has resumed.
The prospects of a grand reconciliation are made more difficult by various factions within the Taliban and the Afghan government.
“You might still see fracturing inside the Taliban or inside the Afghan government” should reconciliation talks progress DesMarais said.
“Shifting political alliances within the Afghan government in advance of the 2019 presidential election may undermine the ability of Afghan political leaders to remain unified during any peace negotiations,” the Pentagon’s Inspector General Report on the war in Afghanistan said earlier this month.
“These types of processes take a long time, they never move as quickly as people want them to,” Tankel said.
And some experts warn against a US Afghan policy that is overly reliant on a possible reconciliation with the Taliban, saying that doing so would actually weaken the chances of such a reconciliation taking place.
Doing so “gives away any negotiating leverage and reduces the odds of any deal” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution told CNN.
“There needs to be an explanation about how we can protect our core interests without a negotiated deal,” O’Hanlon added.
And another part of the Trump administration strategy, getting Pakistan to exert pressure on the Taliban to force them to the negotiating table, has also not been as successful as officials had wanted, despite the US suspending over $1.66 billion in military aid.
O’Hanlon and Tankel both said that the decision on the way forward in Afghanistan will come down largely to what Trump decides.
Will Trump pull US troops out?
“There’s absolutely no political demand this war should be ended,” O’Hanlon said, adding “there’s very little intensity around the Afghan issue in American politics.”
While some Democrats, including the likely future chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, questioned the Trump administration’s strategy for South Asia when it was announced, observers don’t think it will be a major political issue.
“If Trump wants to he will be able to” end it, O’Hanlon added, saying there is “no passion in favor of sustaining it.”
“Nobody knows if Trump could wake up on any given day and end the US presence in Afghanistan via tweet,” Tankel said.
But the President’s comments to the Washington Post on Tuesday suggest leaving isn’t on his agenda at the moment and all three experts CNN talked to warned about the consequences of a premature withdrawal, saying that without the military pressure exerted by the Afghan forces and their US advisers, international terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the local ISIS affiliate, ISIS-K, could experience a resurgence and threaten countries around the world.
O’Hanlon added that that some senior military or defense officials could resign if Trump decides to reject their advice and pursue an abrupt withdrawal.
“I thought he was correct to make the mission open ended,” O’Hanlon said, while adding “if we find we’re not making headway, I think we should reevaluate.”