The Pentagon is trying to convince the Afghan government to withdraw troops from sparsely populated districts, which is tantamount to abandoning vast swaths of land to the Taliban. What’s more, the White House is for the first time prepared to take a seat at the negotiating table across from the Taliban.
The New York Times notes that Trump’s new strategy is to a large extent building on the groundwork of his predecessors, George Bush and Barack Obama, who were planning to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, handing over to the Taliban and other armed gangs those territories that were actually already under their control. The Americans are advising the Afghan authorities to focus their efforts on defending major population centers, with a natural priority on Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jalalabad.
This new-old strategy is a gratuitous acknowledgement of the fact — no longer contested by even the most desperate optimists— that the US-supported central government in Kabul is not able to protect the country’s rural population. The war in Afghanistan has now been underway for 17 years. And during all these years, as the waves of American and NATO troops rolled into Afghanistan and then rolled out, the government was slowly relinquishing one position after another, ceding more and more districts and land to the Taliban.
The inability of the government forces to fight the insurgents was once again confirmed after the Obama administration announced the end of military operations in Afghanistan in 2014 and withdrew most of the US troops, providing security forces trained by American and other Western instructors to protect the remote areas and military bases. In the months that followed, the overwhelming majority of those outposts fell into in the hands of the Taliban.
At a press conference in Brussels in June, General John Nicholson, the commander of the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged that most of the remote outposts and military bases had been captured by the Taliban.
Now much depends on the government of Ashraf Ghani and on his desire and readiness to draw down his troops. But the truth is, not all Afghan leaders agree with such a defeatist position. Some Afghan commanders have no wish to quit their fortified outposts, for fear that the local residents will understandably believe they have been betrayed and throw in their lot with the rebels.
More than a quarter of the approximately 35 million people who live in Afghanistan make their homes in rural areas, while the population of the country’s largest city— the capital of Kabul— exceeds four million. Of the 407 Afghan districts, the government either controls or wields significant authority in 229, while 59 districts are run by the Taliban. Rule over the remaining 119 districts is seen as contested.
Every week hundreds of soldiers and policemen fall victim to Taliban attacks at remote outposts. The government troops, as well as the law-enforcement and security services, lost almost 5% of their members— 18,000 people— just last year alone.
Obviously the situation cannot go on this way forever, and a political solution must be found. The Washington strategists and Pentagon generals feel that this answer lies in retreating into the cities and then defending the approaches to these urban areas. We were starting to see such moves in Afghanistan even during the Obama administration, when he began to withdraw the American troops.
But during Obama’s first term, the Pentagon continued to pursue the George Bush-era plan to create dozens of outposts throughout Afghanistan, thereby sending the message that the Western coalition would fight for every village and pasture, no matter how remote.
General Nicholson, who was at that time still a colonel, began to establish the first such outposts in 2006 in the Korengal Valley. However, three years later, the Pentagon realized the error of such a strategy, and by 2010 was already pulling troops out of that valley, having suffered heavy losses.
By 2015 the White House had already begun to try to talk the government of Afghanistan into abandoning those remote outposts and military bases, in order to concentrate its forces on the protection of cities and the more densely populated areas. If the army withdraws, the protection of remote bases will be entrusted to the local police, who are far more poorly armed and trained than the army, in addition to being much more vulnerable to the Taliban’s ideological influence. There is virtually no hope that the police would be able to hang on to the positions they still hold.
Of course, the entire American contingent in Afghanistan, which numbers about 14,000 troops, is not stationed solely in cities. Some of the American servicemen are training their Afghan colleagues in small towns and on remote military bases.
Donald Trump has long advocated for ending the war in Afghanistan. Only very reluctantly did he bow to pressure from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and order the deployment of an additional 4,000 boots on the ground.
Nor has the White House forgotten about diplomatic methods for resolving the crisis. For the first time ever, after 17 years of war, Washington has agreed to take a seat at the negotiating table across from the Taliban, one on one. The Americans had previously always restricted themselves to the role of observers in the negotiation process between the Taliban and government of Afghanistan. Officials from the US State Department and high-level Taliban representatives had their first contact last week in Qatar. If they really put their minds and backs into such negotiations, then this will be a major change in the US strategy for this war in Afghanistan that is almost 20 years old.