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reflections

Oct 7, 2017 | 14:43 GMT

4 mins read

Sixteen Years and Counting: The Afghan War Grinds On

As the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan War neared in 2011, a U.S. soldier readies his weapon at a forward operating base.
(JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The United States has reached another grim milestone in its war in Afghanistan. On Oct. 7, U.S. forces marked their 16th year of involvement in the conflict. What began as retaliation against al Qaeda, which had plotted the 9/11 attacks under the sanctuary of Afghanistan's erstwhile Taliban government, turned into a fight to prevent the country's ungoverned spaces from becoming a future haven for militancy. This year's anniversary marks a change in Washington's approach to the long-running conflict, however. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently unveiled a revitalized plan to break the ongoing stalemate between the Taliban-led insurgency and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The plan Mattis outlined Oct. 3 during a hearing of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee would reshape both the tactical and strategic approaches to the war by the United States. This marks the latest attempt by Washington to reach for a fresh solution to resolve the Afghan quagmire, the longest-running war in the country's history. 

Some elements of Mattis's plan have already been set in motion. The United States has begun deploying the more than 3,000 additional troops it intends to send in support of its two operations in the country: the NATO-led advisory and training effort Resolute Support and the counterterrorism-focused Freedom's Sentinel. The reinforcements, aimed at tipping the scales in favor of the Afghan forces, are intended to largely serve in training, advisory and support capacities. They will also operate under recently expanded authorizations approved by Mattis, which include the ability to engage the Taliban without first being fired upon. These measures are part of a larger effort to rectify the inadequacies of the Afghan National Army's conventional forces by providing advisory services closer to the ground, including at the brigade level. This approach is modeled after one that succeeded with the country's most effective units, its elite special forces, which have benefitted from tactical-level advice from U.S. troops.

A chart showing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan

The reinforcements, coupled with an uplift in ground-level advising, will likely make a positive, if gradual, impact on the battlefield. But that still fails to address one of the most significant complications inhibiting the war's resolution: The India-Pakistan rivalry. Mattis wants to root his Afghan strategy in a regional approach, enlisting the support of India, Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran. Yet while asking India and Pakistan to cooperate on any measure is difficult, getting them to work together in Afghanistan is almost certainly a doomed prospect. The nuclear-armed archrivals have fought three wars and remain steadfast enemies. Indeed, the overarching objective of Pakistan's military-dominated foreign policy is to thwart any Afghan-Indian alliance and prevent Pakistan's encirclement by its rival. Islamabad recalls how New Delhi aided the 1971 independence movement in East Pakistan, leading to a civil war that culminated in the independence of its former territory and the formation of Bangladesh. As it seeks to avoid a similar dynamic with Afghanistan, Pakistan has thrown its support behind the Taliban in the hope of shaping a post-conflict government in Kabul friendly to its interests while hostile to India's.

This, of course, is unacceptable to India. An Afghanistan that bends to the whims of Islamabad would give New Delhi's principal adversary a regional client state. To boot, that development would better position Pakistan to tap into the Central Asian natural gas sector. In turn, New Delhi fears that in Afghanistan, its nemesis would gain a staging ground from which to recruit and train jihadist proxies to deploy against India in the disputed state of Kashmir. So India — careful to avoid crossing the line and further antagonizing Pakistan — has used money to gain influence in Afghanistan, doling out some $3 billion in aid to the country since the war began in 2001. (In an Aug. 21 speech, U.S. President Donald Trump called on India to fill a heightened economic role in Afghanistan, a move that Pakistan firmly opposes.)

Because the Trump administration has proved willing to assertively push U.S. allies to help it achieve policy goals, there is a higher likelihood that the United States will turn its threats against Pakistan into action, including revoking its non-NATO major ally status and further reducing military aid. But since gaining influence in Afghanistan is fundamental to Pakistan's foreign policy, this also means that punitive measures are unlikely to compel Islamabad to change its behavior toward the Taliban in a way that pleases Washington. All of this suggests that in the long term, the competing imperatives will threaten to breach the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. In the meantime, the strategy put forth by Mattis — increase the Taliban's pain on the battlefield to the point that negotiations become more attractive than continuing to fight — means that in Afghanistan, combat will continue, the insurgency will resist, and the war will continue to grind on.

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