Spearhead Analysis – 11.04.2017
By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
As the Trump administration recovers from transitional lags; the world waits for a clear direction on its Afghan policy. The US Secretary of State recently offered an insight on the possible US objectives; – an eventual political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban forces and reaffirmed US support for the train, support and advise mission in Afghanistan.
Last year, General Nicholson had stated that a significant troop surge would be required to end –what he termed as– a stalemate with the Taliban; mirroring a similar line of thought General Votel’s stance during a senate hearing also called for an enhanced commitment to the Afghan region— in assessing the region’s strategic importance for the US he went as far as expressing that ‘he would rather see the Russians distracted with anything else but the central zone’. While on the other hand– some are of the view that either a political settlement or a complete walk out are the only ways left.
With several reports suggesting that the Afghan forces–plagued with corruption– are rapidly losing territorial control to insurgents the internal voices there too are divided between either a sterner push for political reforms or enhanced military action. According to the Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar; expanded air combat support is likely to change the war dynamics but Davood Moradian of Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies states he would rather see a government commitment to internal reforms than even 200,000 more US troops.
In its commitment to the objectives in Afghanistan the new US administration would have to tackle a wide range of issues including countering terrorism, subduing insurgency, bringing about political stability, setting the right path for socio economic development, dealing with external pressures while ensuring that the US is able to retain its core regional interests and harmonise its military strategies with its political commitments. Thus possibly translating to adopting ‘a mixed strategy’ capable of tackling the multiple challenges simultaneously.
A recent paper called ‘Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen: Is decisive force an option’’ written by Anthony H Cordesman— outlines possible approaches for US war engagements.
His suggestion appears to call for a cumulative review of all war zones, an assessment of the strategic value coupled with probability of a lasting victory in each zone and assigning the size and cost of force required accordingly.
In what seems specifically relevant to Afghanistan some of the key highlighted concerns included:
The glitches faced in transition from waging a conventional war to countering irregular warfare– he identifies 3 key reasons; shortcomings in US counterinsurgency strategies–which he believes have significantly improved over the years–.Failure in devising a cohesive political setup, (he believes that poor governance amplified various forms of insurgencies) and failure to prohibit cross border sanctuaries.
He highlights the challenges in combating episodic terror groups such as IS and others; he warns against engaging in attrition warfare and suggests focusing on defeating the overall rise of terrorism—- he states that containing the scale of conflict and instability could be an alternative to ‘decisive’ victory.
He calls for finding a level of force suited to the environment– combined with broader efforts to bring stability; he notes several discontinuities in policies owing to political pressures as reasons for setbacks causing the US to maintain a ‘reactionary’ posture to sporadic threats.
For starters; he makes his choice of an enhanced focus on the stability of GCC region and Iraq instead– amply clear. A stance which was recently presented by Gen. Thomas Waldhauser– which highlighted that a significant portion of MENA region is an enduring American interest. Nonetheless, stating that a ‘complete walkout’ also may not be possible, He offered his version of a decisive force as a remedy for the challenges:
Possibly enhance combat air power either by using manned aircrafts or UCAV’s against insurgent hideouts.
Broaden the scope of train and assist missions; increasing training at the forward end of major combat units to enhance the host’s capabilities and alongside counter the issues stemming from corruption. He stated that significant changes in this regard are already underway.
Wary of the ‘anxious big powers’– he seems to signal combined development efforts via multilateral organisations.
Repulsed by internal discord of sorts; he seems to suggest a transactional and sterner aid conditions for the host government–in order to expedite internal political reforms and push the leaders to formulate a workable political solution with all factions. Closely aligned to ‘pushing for internal reforms’ is also a mention of either a reliance on regional partners to contain the burgeoning crisis; or his last case scenario— if perhaps all else fails– seems to be a walkout and letting regional players deal with the crises.
Cordesman’s paper seems to suggest somewhat of an evolution of the decisive force concept which instead of abiding by the traditional American way of war calls for a calculated use of various forms of force in accordance with the strategic value of objectives. Under Trump such an approach could find its realisation.
Further, despite only an outline offered officially; — the US Afghan policy appears— to be shaping itself in accordance with this ‘mixed approach’ which would try to harmonize conventional warfare advantages with effective counterinsurgency. As part of the freedom Sentinel 300 US marines are to be positioned in key areas such as Helmand; 1500 soldiers of 4th Brigade Combat Team(airborne) are due to be sent to Afghanistan later this year. The probability of increased air combat support is also high. It also appears likely that Afghan strategies would be devised keeping in sight the panoramic view of the chessboard.
The precise application of the various suggestions is yet to be seen; similarly, the successes and challenges of the new strategies are yet to be witnessed; but as the US prepares to fight back mending Afghanistan’s various internal fault lines could be an area which would require immense patience.
Furthermore; the shaping of the Afghan policy is also of significance to Pakistan; therefore it too needs to evaluate the opportunities and challenges of possible changes ahead and position itself accordingly.