Spearhead Analysis – 25.04.2017
By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
At a time when the congressional discourse on an Afghanistan policy is still under review; the recent massive bombing in Nangarhar appears to be creating more doubts regarding the likely path ahead. No doubt, bombing IS off the face of the earth was Trump’s promise. But, the magnitude and various costs of the recent air strike against –what the US military very recently opined as an ‘exaggerated threat’– appears unfathomable.
Various apprehensions suggest that the recent attack could further exacerbate the security crises, primarily owing to lack of clarity on US strategy for the Afghan reconciliation and peace process that was envisioned as the ultimate goal not so long ago by the US Secretary of State. In fact, uncertainty about the US end game in Afghanistan and the final result sought has been a constant problem as each successive US military commander has asked for a surge and when that failed blamed Pakistan for not cooperating fully. Full cooperation can only come if there is no uncertainty.
Trump’s initial inclinations towards an isolationist approach appears to have taken a backseat for now. Post-strike, he shifted his position from former disapprovals of the Afghan war and now claims to have supported the Afghan invasion all along. However, staying true to another promise, he claims to have broken the US military out of the so called shackles created by the Obama administration and has given his military full authority to get the job done. This acclaimed freehand is likely to serve as an important precursor to how conjunctive policies shape up.
Statements issued– following the attack– by the White House Press Secretary and the State Department spokesperson, also resonated with Trump’s likely new vision. According to the White House briefing, the attack was aimed at destroying a complex of underground tunnels in order to deny operational space to the IS and its associates.
Questions regarding the sort of precedence such an attack sets for other threats and the president’s take on the credibility of intelligence gathered prior to this action– were responded to by saying that such such queries should be addressed to the DoD. Questioners were assured that Trump ‘relies on his credible National Security team consisting of Mattis, Kelly, McMaster & Pompeo on how to best position the US’.
The State department spokesperson, despite earlier in the briefing clearly acknowledging that the attack was a continuing effort aimed to take the fight to a basket of various groups, later on, refrained from providing specifics, once questioned on the magnitude of the attack in relation to the supposed strength of the claimed targeted group. He too stated that such questions should be referred to the DoD.
The DoD, on the other hand, has refused to share details of this action for now as it claims to be undergoing an assessment process. However, they issued a brief statement, which –to a certain extent—appears aligned with the stance of the State Department spokesperson, claiming that the attack was aimed at a tunnel complex used by the ISIS-K which is a group comprised primarily of members of TTP and Afghan Taliban.
The statements issued so far do not indicate the likelihood of reconciliation gaining traction. But, keeping in view that a militaristic mind-set appears to hold a dominant voice in Trump’s policy making; certain formerly devised strategies, constrained by a political realm could now come into play. Such a possibility tends to make itself evident from one of the recent statements issued by General Nicholson claiming that the attack had been under preparation for months. Similarly, his stance during the February senate hearing affirmed the need for expanded aerial warfare to change ground dynamics; a view which appears to be supported by some other key Generals. However, additional troop redeployment though likely, is yet to be seen is yet to be seen.
Once again, one is left with the unanswered question as to how any such changes could result in peaceful negotiations. The answer to that– is perhaps reflected in a recent article co-authored by General Petraeus which suggests that peace settlements cannot be attained till opponents understand that the battlefield momentum has shifted against them. Essentially translating to a US refusal to enter any negotiations from a position of weakness—the US has repeatedly stated that the Afghan security forces had problems and were barely holding their own and even losing ground to the Taliban.
To create favourable conditions, the US and Afghan forces appear to have initiated this process of ‘creeping incrementalism’ once more. The debut of the MOAB has to be seen in this context– besides its timing that sent signals to North Korea and others. A record of the past two months indicates a growth in airstrikes and counterinsurgency operations alongside claimed successes against various insurgents in Kunduz, Pajhwok, Laghman and Nangarhar; and a recent one against the Taliban in the Baghlan area– and steps to recover key zones in Helmand are said to underway.
In line with these developments– the State Department spokesperson when questioned on the US stance on the Russia initiated reconciliation effort clearly stated that while the US encourages regional efforts to reach a unified view on a political solution to the Afghan problem, and ultimately sees direct Taliban and government talks as the end goal. It does not welcome Russia’s ‘unilateral efforts to exert influence in the region at such a time’. The Moscow conference has not made much headway beyond agreeing to hold the next conference in Afghanistan and inviting EU and NATO participation.
The challenges and successes of the recent multi-faceted deterrence tactic and possibly enhanced military approach are yet to be seen. But, the devastating social, political and economic setbacks of such actions cannot be ignored. The recent MOAB attack– despite the government’s attempts to assure that such actions would lead to peace—led to a major backlash from opposition groups along with several other local voices from within Afghanistan.
Because of the current secrecy which seems to surround the MOAB incident it becomes difficult to say whether the recent attack was a proportionate response to the threat– because presently, the exact nature and size of the threat lacks clarity.
Despite this massive attack against the so called IS their communication lines not only remain unaffected but they have supposedly utilized this incident to enhance their propaganda. The statements issued by the Taliban also condemned the attack. Many appear fearful that counter to the notion of peace — this attack could enhance resentment and radicalization.
Learning from previous military surges the US needs to closely coordinate its actions in the border area with Pakistan. Pakistan, in its own interest, is fencing and hardening the border and could go further by deploying additional forces in support of US operations. This could happen if there is total convergence on the end result to be achieved. General McMaster’s reference to the use of proxies by Pakistan during a press event in Afghanistan has not helped because Pakistan could well be considering a cooperative and coordinated approach based on a convergence of interests with the US and Afghanistan.