By Alistair Lyon
Afghanistan is likely to frustrate President Donald Trump, whose “new” strategy to achieve the victory that has eluded the United States and its NATO allies for the past 16 years sounds all too familiar.
America went to war in 2001 to uproot al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities by Arab militants hosted by the Taliban movement then ruling Afghanistan.
Other NATO members joined the fray in line with the collective defense principle enshrined in Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty, the only occasion on which this has been invoked.
Osama bin Laden’s men lost their Afghan bases, and U.S.-backed Afghan forces drove the Taliban from power in the capital Kabul.
Then came the hard part.
The United States set itself the task of installing a strong, stable and democratically legitimate Afghan government that would promote economic development and human rights.
This declared agenda ran up against fierce Taliban hostility, rivalry among Afghan regional and tribal factions and deep-seated corruption corroding the new government and institutions supported by Washington and its allies.
Jockeying for influence by Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly U.S. ally Pakistan, its arch-rival India and Iran, has further complicated the search for stability.
Trump, addressing troops at Fort Myer in Virginia this week, emphasized military power. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” he declared.
A precarious military deadlock now prevails in the mountainous land where the resurgent Taliban, an Islamist movement whose power base lies among Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, has clawed back control in many areas since most U.S. and allied troops left in 2014.
In March this year, the Taliban asserted that it controlled or contested 211 of Afghanistan’s 400 districts. A month earlier, a report by a U.S. government agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said the Taliban controlled, contested or influenced 171 districts.
Hard-pressed Afghan troops and police face attacks from the Taliban and its Pakistan-based allies in the Haqqani network, blamed by the Afghan government for many of the worst attacks on foreign and local targets in Kabul and elsewhere.
The longest war in America’s history has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans, along with those of 2,400 U.S. soldiers. U.S. taxpayers have forked out $841 billion, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Other estimates put the total much higher.
A hopeless mess? Perhaps, but it is worth recalling past U.S. policy blunders that aggravated Afghanistan’s inherent instability – and came back to maul America.
During the Cold War, Washington backed the Afghan mujahideen fighting the decade-long Soviet occupation, doling out cash and weaponry with the help of Pakistan to fractious bands of Islamist guerrillas, including bin Laden’s al Qaeda militants.
After the Red Army withdrew in 1989, Washington lost interest. Left to their own devices, Afghan warlords turned their guns first on the Russian-backed Afghan president, Najibullah, and then on each other in a chaotic civil war.
In the mid-1990s, Pakistan promoted the rise of the Taliban, which had burst onto the scene promising to clean out the feuding militias and install Islamic government.
Powerful voices in Washington hoped the Taliban, who captured Kabul in 1996, could impose security across the country and enable UNOCAL, a U.S. company, to build twin oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
That project died when then-U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile assault on al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan after bin Laden’s men bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Pipeline cooperation with the Taliban, who were giving sanctuary to al Qaeda, became unthinkable.
Trump, who once asked when America would “stop wasting money rebuilding Afghanistan,” this week unveiled what he portrayed as a clean break from the errors of his predecessors.
A few tweaks aside, his policy promises more of the same. Past experience suggests it will make no more headway than before.
Trump said he would send more U.S. troops – perhaps 4,000 – to beef up the small force of 8,400 already deployed to nurture Afghan security forces until they can face the Taliban unaided.
It is not clear how such numbers can sway the military equation when even 100,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan by former President Barack Obama in 2010 and 2011 failed to crush the insurgency.
The United States, Trump promised, would exert more pressure on the Kabul government to enact reforms and would intensify demands on Pakistan to deny militants a safe haven near the Afghan border.
He asked India to “help us more” – a jarring note for Pakistan, whose military effectively runs policy on Afghanistan and India. Its obsession with the perceived threat from India has long colored its often ambiguous relationship with the Taliban, seen as a strategic asset on its western border.
“From now on, victory will have a clear definition,” Trump said. “Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS (Islamic State), crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”
Islamic State is a relative newcomer with a limited foothold in Afghanistan, but it has carried out several suicide attacks in Kabul, including a bombing in late May that killed around 150 people, making it the deadliest since the U.S.-led war began.
Al Qaeda, still under the Taliban’s wing and with close links to the Haqqani network, retains a stubborn presence, even if it has masterminded no mass attacks on the United States since 2001.
Trump’s “clear definition” of victory, with no political underpinning or vision for an eventual peace settlement, looks like a recipe for war without end.
Pity the generals grappling to connect Trump’s sweeping ambitions with the messy realities on the ground, where soldiers are still asked to risk their lives. Spare a thought for the diplomats who must flesh out U.S. policy in Kabul and in the interested capitals of Pakistan, India, Russia and China.
But save most of your sympathy for Afghans seeking survival and a decent life in a country savaged by the last four decades of conflict, invasion and war.
Small wonder that some despair, swelling the tide of migrants betting on refuge in Europe.
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.