President Trump is expected to make a decision on a proposal to strengthen US military presence in Afghanistan and send between 3,000 to 5,000 additional American troops to the country. Under the new plan, US forces will also step up air strikes against the Taliban.
Washington is again beating the war drum, but failing to tackle terrorism. Whatever the real motive behind the surge may be, it is not to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Afghanistan and its neighbours, near and far, must work towards building cooperative diplomatic and political solutions to maintain security and peace in the region.
Terrorism is increasing in Afghanistan
Just weeks ago, a force of 300 US Marines returned to Afghanistan's Helmand province, a hotbed of poppy cultivation and conflict. US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis warned recently that “2017 is going to be another tough year” for Afghanistan, with regards to terrorism.
Like many Afghans, I am tired of the bleak annual security forecasts from US military officials. They only serve to add to the existing misgivings and suspicions about Washington's war, and its role in Afghanistan.
In 2014, Washington’s strongest argument for signing a bilateral security and defence pact with Kabul was that if it was not signed, and if the US was unable to commit personnel and resources beyond 2014, Kabul would not be able to prevent the return of al Qaeda to some parts of Afghanistan – and that the Taliban’s control over the country would grow.
Yet, almost two and half years after the signing of the pact, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson expressed his concerns about the presence of terrorists groups, including al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIL-K), in Afghanistan.
According to Gen. Nicholson, the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world is in the “Afghanistan – Pakistan region”. Nicholson believes that from the 98 US-designated terrorist organisations globally, 20 are located in this region. In addition to al Qaeda and Daesh, enabled by foreign countries, the Taliban now have “a significant footprint” and control more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since the US-led invasion in 2001.
The human cost of the ongoing war is getting more painful. A recent UNAMA report shows “a substantial increase” in civilian casualties from aerial operations in the first quarter of 2017 compared to this time in last year. According to UNAMA, 2,181 civilian casualties have been documented since the beginning of the year in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the death rate among Afghan security forces is also at an all-time high over the last two years. More than 160 Afghan soldiers were killed in a single terrorist attack in the north of the country last month. According to a US government report, the Afghan security and defence forces suffered “around 15,000 casualties in the first 8 months of 2016”.
Afghans question Washington's failure to implement the provisions of its security and defence cooperation agreement with Afghanistan on fighting terrorism. The agreement intends to “strengthen security and stability in Afghanistan, contribute to regional and international peace and stability, combat terrorism, achieve a region which is no longer a safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliates”. A failure on each count.
So what are the benefits of having a security and defence pact with the US if it does not translate into peace and stability in Afghanistan?
A sixteen-year war of contradictions
American military leadership in Afghanistan affirms that the “Taliban and Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan” and their leaderships “remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistani safe havens”.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Nicholson accepted that “insurgents cannot be defeated while they enjoy external sanctuary and support”. He also emphasised that the “primary factor that will enable our success [in Afghanistan] is the elimination of external sanctuary and support to the insurgents.”
However, American military officials do not answer a fundamental question: how can sending more troops and bombing Afghanistan address external sanctuaries and support?
The US watched ISIL grow
After testing the biggest non-nuclear bomb (MOAB) in Afghanistan last month, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country declared that he would “destroy ISIL-K in 2017”. In January 2016, I wrote that there was a questionable reluctance by the US vis-a-vis the presence and activities of ISIL-K in Afghanistan.
In 2015, the Pentagon acknowledged that ISIL was seeking “the establishment of a safe haven” in Afghanistan. In February, the same year, US General John F Campbell stated that “we are keeping our eye on the potential emergence of the Islamic State” in Afghanistan. ISIL was a “priority intelligence requirements” for the US, though its threat was seen as “nascent”, according to the Pentagon.
In June 2015, the Pentagon asserted that it “closely watches ISIL” in Afghanistan and described ISIL’s activities as “limited recruiting efforts” and in its “exploratory phase”. ISIL-K's affiliates were first named “rebranded” Taliban. A month later, in July 2015, the General John F Campbell announced: “We said the ISIL threat was nascent, but now I would say it is probably operationally emergent”.
Afghans saw foreign terrorists coming into Afghanistan, making their hideouts, recruiting fighters, and forcing people to leave their homes. From summer 2015 onward, the so called ISIL-K massacred hundreds of innocent Afghans.
In 2016, US forces reportedly conducted anti-Daesh operations, mainly air strikes. Supported by the Americans, the Afghan forces also dropped “over 430 bombs” and carried out operations to counter ISIL-K as late as mid-July the same year.
How did a foreign terrorist group, ISIL-K make headway in the country, in the presence of thousands of US troops? Afghans blame the US and President Ghani.
In Afghanistan, the US “war on terror” is generating more terrorism. The sharp rise in terrorism and the emergence of new “violent extremists groups”, which the American military officials call “VEOs”, make the ongoing war more questionable than ever before.
Before it's too late, a peaceful solution to the foreign imposed war in Afghanistan must become a key policy goal for all major players in the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation should be proactive and play a crucial role in preventing the rapidly growing threat of terrorism in the region. Regional powers must give a greater emphasis to regional cooperation and result-oriented peace-making initiatives. Neglecting the situation in Afghanistan will have far reaching consequences for the region.