Pashtun Taliban Insurgency
The American AfPak Strategy
The United States cannot compel reconciliation in Afghanistan while Pakistan, Russia, and Iran continue to enable the Taliban insurgency. NATO, US, and Afghan efforts continue to ensure the Taliban cannot win militarily. However, military pressure alone is not sufficient to achieve a political solution to the Afghan conflict. Diplomatic and social pressure are also necessary. In addition, ISIS-K remains a barrier to Afghan stability despite heavy losses of terrain and fighters. They maintain resilient recruiting efforts, largely by recruiting fighters from violent extremist organizations, and continue to undermine the Afghan Government’s credibility by attacking innocent civilians. Finally, Afghan reforms have not yet eradicated systemic corruption that limits the combat effectiveness of fighting units and undermines governmental legitimacy.
Militarily, the US must continue to improve the capability and capacity of Afghan Security Forces to achieve an overmatch that (1) convinces the Taliban that they cannot win militarily; and (2) enables the Government to secure a critical mass of the population. The US increase the offensive capability of Afghan security forces by continuing to grow their Air Force and Special Forces, while maintaining an increased advisory role that enables the Afghan Army to gain and hold terrain. The US will improve the “hold” capability through fielding of the Afghan National Army Territorial Force; and improved training and leadership. The US will continue to employ airstrikes, Special Operations Forces, and partnered operations to destroy the leadership, finance, and logistics that allow terrorist and insurgent networks to function.
The US cannot address foreign enablement of the Taliban using military means alone. It requires close partnership with the US State Department and the NATO alliance to gain the necessary international support to challenge the behavior of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran. Finally, the US must hold Afghan partners accountable for implementing programs that identify and prosecute corrupt officials, retire ineffective leaders, promote capable military leadership, and ensure good stewardship of international resources.
The U.S. South Asia Strategy provides a conditions-based approach for regional and national change using the “R4+S” framework. “R4+S,” stands for regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile, and sustain. The first R, regionalize, recognizes that challenges exist beyond Afghanistan. The approach takes a holistic view of the region to address problems within Afghanistan. The second R is for Realign, and signifies that the US was shifting the advisory effort to the point of greatest military need. The third R is Reinforce. This represents the additional troops and enablers authorized by the President in August 2017. The last R is Reconciliation, which is the desired outcome of the military operations. This strategy will be carried out by, with, and through Afghan partners in a manner that is politically, fiscally, and militarily sustainable. Further, the U.S. military is part of a 39 nation NATO-led coalition dedicated to developing Afghan security forces and institutions. As Afghan defense capability increases, so too does the ability to employ resources in support of counter-terrorism efforts, and to protect the homeland.
Along with protecting local Afghans and reducing violence, efforts focused on cutting off the funding of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents. US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke spoke of a new thinking on the issue during a June 2009 visit to Pakistan. Holbrooke said the long-held notion that Afghanistan's illicit opium trade is the main source of funding for the insurgency is simply not true. And, he said US policy is going to reflect that reality. "If the drugs ended tomorrow, it would not have a major effect on the Taliban source of funding," said Holbrooke. "And, that's one of the reasons the United States is going to downgrade crop eradication as part of its policies in Afghanistan. We're going to upgrade interdiction. We're going to upgrade our efforts to go after the main drug traffickers. But we want to focus on where the money really comes from."
One of Donald Trump’s campaign pledges was withdrawal from the war. After months of vacillation, he chose instead to scale up military operations. The new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, announced in August 2017, is intended to break a stalemate with the insurgents and push them to the negotiating table. The United States has since deployed 3,000 more troops to the country to train, advise, and assist and to conduct counterterrorism missions, and increased air strikes against the militants. The United States currently has about 14,000 uniformed personnel in Afghanistan. In February 2018 Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, in describing the new way forward said, “The South Asia Strategy reaffirms the U.S. government's enduring commitment to Afghanistan by reinforcing the two complementary military missions: the NATO-led train, advise and assist mission; and the U.S. counterterrorism mission. We are making sure that, with our support, the Afghan national defense and security forces are well postured to begin operations to seize the initiative, expand population control and secure credible elections.” This new strategy involved the increase of troop levels in the country, including about 800 military advisers charged with training, advising and assisting Afghan forces to assume military and security operations from U.S. and coalition forces. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan described the composition and mission of these advisors who are set to arrive this spring, “Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) are advisors – in this case provided by the United States Army. We get advisors from at least seven different sources and our NATO colleagues. We have advisors from across the U.S. military, the Marine Corps, Navy, and the Air Force. For example, the Air Force train Afghan pilots in the United States then deploy to Afghanistan to advise them in the conduct of their duties here. The SFAB is a specially formed unit trained in advising skills and they will be employed around the country. They will be advising from the corps level, the brigade level, and in some cases the Kandak (Afghan National Army battalion) level.” The strategy Obama adopted in March 2009 concluded that to defeat Al Qaeda, the United States needed to keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and making it a haven once again for Osama bin Laden’s network. The administration then fired the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, and replaced him with General McChrystal, empowering him to carry out the new strategy.
The International Security Assistance Force Commander, General McChrystal, shifted the Afghan strategy in 2009 from a focus on killing insurgents to one that seeks to protect the population. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. McChrystal’s new strategy of changing the mission in Afghanistan from pursuing the Taliban to focusing on protecting the Afghan’s has an underlying tone of soft power. This new plan, to be overseen by General McChrystal, introduced the COIN strategy to Afghanistan. The military objective was to shape, clear, hold, build/transfer - a paradigm that emerged from the Iraq War. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.
The U.S. strategic goal for Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and prevent its return to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Specific objectives in Afghanistan in support of this goal are to (1) deny safe haven to al Qaeda and (2) deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government.
The U.S. strategic goals for Afghanistan were changed from those that appeared in the October 2012 U.S. Civil-Military Strategic Framework for Afghanistan. The goals as they appeared in October 2012 were to (1) disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates and prevent their return to Afghanistan; and (2) build a partnership with the Afghan people that ensures that the United States will be able to continue to target terrorists and support a sovereign Afghan government.
The Pakistani military asked for help in counterinsurgency training and different equipment, but it is going to take time to reorient the military. The Pakistanis also realize the fight they are in against the Taliban in the northwestern provinces and the federally administered tribal areas doesn't have a "military only" solution.
A counterinsurgency strategy in the region would focus on improving these social indicators and getting jobs to the young men for whom an extremist ideology is attractive. As it is now, the area is the hideout of the Taliban and al Qaeda. In March 2006, President Bush committed the United States to supporting development in FATA. In response, USAID designed a comprehensive program to support the short-, medium- and long-term objectives of the Government of Pakistan's (GoP) FATA Sustainable Development Plan (FSDP) 2006-2015. Aligned with FSDP, USAID's FATA Development Program (FDP) works in all seven FATA Agencies and the six adjacent Frontier Regions.
USAID's objectives include enhancing GoP's legitimacy and writ in FATA, improving economic and social conditions for local communities, and supporting sustainable development. To achieve these objectives, USAID has expanded existing programs and initiated new activities that: build the capacity of FATA institutions to deliver services to citizens; improve livelihoods; strengthen health and education services; and develop FATA's infrastructure. USAID has partnered with the FATA Secretariat and the FATA Development Authority to implement these programs.
President Barack Obama's new March 2009 strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan treats the area as an integrated theater of operations. According to a White House policy paper: "For the first time the President will treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as two countries but one challenge. Our strategy focuses more intensively on Pakistan than in the past, calling for more significant increases in U.S. and international support, both economic and military, linked to Pakistani performance against terror. We will pursue intensive regional diplomacy involving all key players in South Asia and engage both countries in a new trilateral framework at the highest levels. Together in this trilateral format, we will work to enhance intelligence sharing and military cooperation along the border and address common issues like trade, energy, and economic development."
Michele Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, said May 20, 2009 "We have to regard Pakistan and Afghanistan together, because each affects the other so profoundly. That said, the strategy calls for different but integrated approaches in either country. In Afghanistan, we are pursuing -- really for the first time -- a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy with military on the ground and civilian experts as well." In Pakistan, she said, the strategy has to be different, because the institutions are different. The Pakistani military is functioning and is going after the Taliban, and Pakistan has government institutions that Afghanistan lacks. Part of the problem in Pakistan, Flournoy said, is that the country still is too focused on a perceived threat from India.
After reviewing options and weighing advice from his national security team, President Obama announced post-2014 U.S. force levels in Afghanistan on May 27, 2014. The United States intends to maintain a military presence of approximately 9,800 personnel in Afghanistan beginning January 1, 2015, to pursue two separate but linked missions.
First, the United States will provide the bulk of forces for the NATO-led train, advise, and assist (TAA) mission, known as Resolute Support, to develop further Afghan security institutions (ASI) and their capabilities, enabling them to conduct the various national-level functions that are crucial to generating, resourcing, and sustaining fielded forces.
Second, as Operation Enduring Freedom comes to an end on December 31, 2014, the remainder of U.S. forces will continue to put pressure on the remnants of core al Qaeda and its affiliates in the U.S. counterterrorism (CT) mission. By the end of 2015, the United States will reduce its overall force by roughly half and will transition to a Kabul-based mission by the end of 2016 with a robust security assistance component to focus on managing and overseeing continued Department of Defense (DoD) funding for sustainment support of the ANSF.
On 10 June 2016 President Obama approved a wider role for the US military in Afghanistan to help local forces combat the Taliban. The new plan, which followed months of debate, allowed for increased airstrikes against the Taliban when necessary, and, more generally, give US forces more flexibility in how they partner with Afghan forces. An administration official said the plan will provide "greater opportunities for U.S. forces top accompany and enable Afghan conventional forces — both on the ground and in the air." The official said US forces would also be able to provide close air support to Afghan ground forces and accompany and advise them on the ground. The plan did not involve US ground troops.
The decision once again redefined the US military's role in Afghanistan more than a year after international combat troops finished their missions, leaving Afghan troops to fight the Taliban. It also came six months before the 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan would be reduced to 5,500 — a move Obama had called to happen by 2017.
Three former US envoys to Afghanistan called on the Obama administration 25 June 2016 not to cut US troop levels in that country next year, even as the White House indicated that it remains committed to doing just that. Dan Feldman, James Dobbins and Marc Grossman all served as U.S. special representatives to Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2011 and 2015 and remain influential voices in Washington foreign policy circles. Along with 10 other former senior diplomats and military commanders who served in Afghanistan, they sent an open letter to President Barack Obama urging him to drop plans to halve the number of American troops in Afghanistan. Currently there were 9,800 American troops serving on Afghanistan, but their number was due to be reduced to 5,500 in 2017.
The number of US troops was due to drop to 5,500 from its current level of 9,800 by the end of 2016; but, President Obama said 06 July 2016 that Afghanistan's security situation remains precarious. He decided to slow its troop drawdown in Afghanistan and leave a contingent of 8,400 personnel there when he leaves office in January 2017. He said his decision "sends a message to the Taliban and all those who have opposed Afghanistan's progress. You have now been waging war against the Afghan people for many years. You have been unable to prevail. Afghan security forces continue to grow stronger. And the commitment of the international community, including the United States, to Afghanistan and its people will endure."
The United States and the Taliban held a new round of direct talks 12 October 2018 in Qatar, where the two sides agreed to continue the dialogue process to promote a negotiated settlement to the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan. A Taliban spokesman said that U.S. special envoy for Afghan peace Zalmay Khalilzad led his delegation and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who heads the Taliban’s “political office” in the Gulf state, led his six-member team in the talks.
Taliban representatives told the American delegation the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan is a “major” obstacle to a way of finding the “real” peace, said Zabihullah Mujahid. “Afghanistan is an Islamic nation, having its own Islamic values and culture. It is imperative to keep those in mind for finding a genuine and inclusive Afghan solution,” he quoted Taliban chief negotiator Stanikzai as emphasizing to American interlocutors.
Reactions are mixed to reports in the U.S. media that U.S. President Donald Trump is mulling over withdrawing within weeks roughly half of the more than 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The news of the potential withdrawal from Afghanistan comes a day after Trump announced that the U.S. had defeated the Islamic State in Syria and that U.S. military personnel would withdraw from the war-torn country. If the U.S. proceeded with its plans, roughly 7,000 U.S. troops would withdraw from the region in 2019.
Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, however, said the U.S. decision would have major consequences. “It will embolden the Taliban, which has gotten what it’s long wanted without having to give up anything in return,” Kugelman said. “It will demoralize the Afghan government and security forces, and it could well damage Washington’s relationship with Kabul. In the absence of any type of cease-fire or peace deal, it will also give the Taliban a tremendous battlefield advantage that could result in stepped-up offensives and even more violence,” he added.
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