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Aug 2, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

In Washington, War Fatigue Is Setting In

Weary Afghan and American soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division return from a long patrol to Combat Outpost Asheque Oct. 16, 2010 in Zhari district west of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
(CHRIS HONDROS/Getty Images)

As the newest administration in Washington hammers out a strategy for the war in Afghanistan, a rift has opened among U.S. policymakers about how to proceed. On one side is the Pentagon, which has proposed sending up to 3,900 troops to the conflict-ridden country. If approved, the move would escalate the United States' involvement in the war, which began over 15 years ago. On the other side of the debate is the White House, where reports have emerged of calls to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. War fatigue, spurred by an unwillingness to wade deeper into a feud whose resolution eluded the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is clearly setting in.

Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asia Alice Wells will lead a delegation to the capitals of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on Aug. 2 to discuss U.S. President Donald Trump's South Asia strategy. It will be the second American delegation to visit these areas in the past month, after U.S. Sen. John McCain led a congressional delegation to Islamabad and Kabul in early July. Despite expectations that its Afghanistan strategy would be revealed in mid-July, it appears that the Trump administration is still mulling its options.

A troop increase would help the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which currently number 352,000 troops, break their ongoing stalemate with the resilient Taliban. If deployed, the U.S. forces would support Washington's two ongoing missions in Afghanistan: Operation Resolute Support, which is led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and focuses on training, advising and assisting the Afghan military, and Operation Freedom's Sentinel, a counterterrorism mission targeting al Qaeda and the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter. By contrast, a troop decrease would satisfy U.S. lawmakers eager to pull out of the conflict. But with the Afghan army already straining to keep the Taliban in check on its own, withdrawing U.S. troops without compensating for their removal in some way would tip the scales in the Taliban's favor.

Regardless of which path the Trump administration takes, one thing is clear: The Taliban are winning. The militant organization continues to control or contest up to 40 percent of the territory in Afghanistan — a level of dominance that has spurred the Pentagon's request for more troops in hopes of inflicting enough damage to force the insurgents to lay down their arms and negotiate.

How Did We Get Here?

In December 2014, Obama ordered the end of Operation Enduring Freedom — the mission Bush launched in October 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and with it formal combat operations in Afghanistan. The decision moved the United States, along with its NATO and coalition allies, into a smaller supporting role for the Afghan military, which became responsible for fighting the war. But in the year following the drawdown, the diminished international troop presence had serious consequences on the battlefield. The Taliban conquered 24 district centers in 2015, compared with only four in 2014. Moreover, casualties (defined as deaths and injuries) saw a 37 percent increase in 2015 over 2014 — an uptick that particularly affected civilian women. 2015 was also the year that the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter formed in Afghanistan, injecting a new and destabilizing element of transnational jihadism into the conflict. Finally, September 2015 saw the Taliban briefly overrun Kunduz, marking the first time since 2001 that the group had taken control of a city.

These clear signs of trouble factored into Obama's decision in October 2015 to keep 9,800 troops in the Resolute Support and Freedom's Sentinel operations through January 2017. (This number was later modified to 8,400 troops.) In doing so, the president reneged on his promise to end the war before leaving office, passing the conflict on to his successor instead. So while Trump said little about Afghanistan on the campaign trail, his new administration has been paying attention to the moves of Gen. John Nicholson, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. And during a congressional testimony in February, Nicholson requested a few thousand more troops, hoping to break the ongoing stalemate.

Washington is now weighing its options to determine whether it will fulfill that request. If it does, most of the U.S. troops deployed would join Operation Resolute Support to train, advise and assist the Afghan military. But they would do so at the brigade level rather than the higher corps level, meaning they would be closer to ground-level operations in Afghanistan. This move takes its cue from the Afghan Special Security Forces, which boast only 12,000 personnel and yet are considered the most effective of Afghanistan's combat forces. (They take advice from NATO down to the tactical level.) Fresh U.S. troops would also help to advance Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's military road map. His four-year plan, which includes strengthening the Afghan air force, calls for nearly doubling the number of Afghan special operations forces and placing them at the center of offensive operations, supported by conventional forces. The new U.S. troops would likely arrive during the summer fighting season that commenced on April 28 under the name Operation Mansouri, named for the slain Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

At its highest, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan reached over 100,000.

The Pakistan Problem

The Pentagon's most recent six-month review of the war in Afghanistan revealed that Pakistan is yet another complicating factor in Washington's efforts to make real progress in the conflict. The report cited Nicholson as saying that the sanctuary Pakistan has given to the Taliban and Haqqani network presents the greatest external threat to NATO's counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. Washington and Kabul have accused Islamabad of playing both sides in the conflict: While Pakistani forces continue to attack militant outposts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan, Islamabad also has a reputation for hosting insurgents. In fact, Pakistan has admitted to harboring Taliban leaders before, and in 1994 the country was instrumental in nurturing the jihadist group during its infancy, supporting its eventual conquest of Kabul in September 1996.

Pakistan's rationale for helping the Taliban highlights its fundamental divergence from the United States on the matter of Afghanistan. Washington, for its part, remains committed to its goal of stabilizing the country so that extremist organizations cannot use it as a base for launching attacks against the United States or its allies. The White House supports an Afghan-led peace process, which would end the war by forging a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Islamabad, however, views Afghanistan through the prism of its relationship with Pakistan's archrival, India. Islamabad's support for the Taliban rests on the expectation that if the group enters a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government, it will serve Pakistan's interests by limiting India's presence in the country.

Of course, Pakistan is aware that India could respond by encouraging Pakistani secessionists in the borderland province of Balochistan, which would jeopardize the construction of Islamabad's flagship economic project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. But Islamabad also believes that an Afghan government including the Taliban would naturally prioritize religious motivations and would not be interested in spurring the unification of the ethnic Pashtun regions on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (In the 1970s, Kabul floated the idea of merging these regions into one state called Pashtunistan, an initiative that would carve a sizable chunk out of Pakistan's western territories.)

Aware of Pakistan's motives in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is pushing a strategy that would pressure Islamabad, by withholding aid and launching more drone strikes in and beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, to take a more serious stance against jihadist sanctuaries. But there are limits to how much the United States can afford to alienate Pakistan, since it cannot resolve the Afghan conflict without Islamabad's help. Indeed, Washington's ultimate goal is to use Islamabad's cooperation to bring Taliban leaders to the table. But Pakistan, whose strategic imperative is to limit India's influence in Afghanistan, will keep supporting the Taliban and frustrating the United States' plans. As a result, an eventual end to the insurgency will largely depend on the Afghan military's ability to rein in the Taliban on its own. 

A Murky Future

In the wake of more pressing foreign policy challenges, including North Korea's missile program and the Syrian civil war, the war in Afghanistan has become a lower priority for the United States. Should Washington give in to its war fatigue and pull its troops out of Afghanistan, it's unclear just how big the drawdown would be. Either way, the presence of fewer troops will force the United States to turn to other measures, such as a greater emphasis on special operations forces and drone strikes, to maintain in its missions in Afghanistan. If, on the other hand, the Pentagon succeeds in sending more troops, the increase will still be only modest, suggesting the United States is interested in conflict management rather than conflict resolution. Regardless of the path the Trump administration chooses, none seem designed to successfully end the war as it rapidly approaches its 16th year.

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