US troops deployment in Afghanistan beyond 2015

Spearhead Analysis – 31.12.2015

By Abdulla Wasti
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

120229-A-8536E-817There is talk of another round of peace talks being held between the Taliban and the Ghani administration with the US, China and Pakistan acting as facilitators. Despite the possibility of talks commencing within the next couple of weeks, the Taliban offensive continues in full swing. The current situation is awfully similar to what it was earlier this summer when the talks broke down; the only difference being that the Taliban now control more of the country, about 30%, than any time since 2001.

In 2015, the Taliban have launched more attacks in Helmand than in any other province of Afghanistan, safeguarding their territory while making in-roads into government enclaves. Over the past decade, the control of Helmand was won with the help of foreign fighters; however, the insurgents were quick to capitalize as significant numbers of troops were withdrawn in 2014.  According to a report on the Guardian, Kabul can only claim full control of three of Helmand’s 14 districts, including the provincial capital.

Taliban’s fixation with Helmand can be partly explained in economic terms as the province is the biggest single centre for opium production in the country. However, there is more to the province than its opium economy. Helmand fits into the Taliban’s long term strategy of expanding into the South. According to Taliban sources, they hope to make Helmand the first province they liberate with the dream of turning it into a safe haven for leaders based in Pakistan.

Beyond 2015?

In 2015, Taliban violence resulted in more Afghan civilian, police, and military casualties than in any year since U.S. and NATO forces began fighting in Afghanistan. There is no denying that the security situation in Afghanistan has grown more precarious over the last year. Emboldened by their remarkable progress, it is almost certain that the Taliban will aim to take provincial cities as part of its spring offensive next year. While the United States still has 10,000 troops stationed in the country, the Commander of US forces in Afghanistan is of the opinion that the scheduled reduction to 5,500 troops by Jan 1, 2017 should be put-off for as long as possible.

General Campbell has stated that maintaining the current force of 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan was vital to train Afghan forces and to conduct counter-terrorism operations. Moreover, he may even request President Obama to send more American troops to assist the struggling Afghan forces. Increasing the number of troops or even maintaining the current levels would come at a significant political cost to the Obama administration; however, the situation demands the continued presence of foreign troops for the foreseeable future.

The attrition rate with the Afghan army is high due to soldiers overstaying leaves, desertion, and Taliban threats to soldiers’ families. Furthermore, strong ground forces cannot fill the void left by inadequate air support, modern intelligence capabilities, and assistance for Afghanistan’s still nascent security institutions. It is imperative for the US to fill these critical gaps while keeping its promises to complete these crucial, but unfinished, programs. Furthermore, the US must also the revise the restrictive rules of engagement that currently limit air support capabilities, and restore intelligence assets that have been withdrawn.

The Taliban is not the only threat to stability in Afghanistan as the influence of the Islamic State continues to grow in the country. It has succeeded in recruiting extremist Taliban members and fighters from non-afghan communities, including Uzbeks and Pakistanis. Fragmentation within the Taliban and competition from ISIS, specifically in the provinces of Zabul and Nangarhar, has resulted in increased violence, especially the recent beheadings of minority Hazaras.

Struggling coalition government:

The use of brute force alone cannot solve all of the country’s woes, as the elected officials’ ability to govern is as critical to a stable state as a strong security setup. At a time when the Taliban continues to consolidate its position, internal wrangling needs to stop within the government. Statements from members belonging to the Karzai government continue to undermine the government in a desperate attempt to spur its collapse. Such attempts could prove disastrous at a time when insurgent attacks need a strong response and the government needs to start delivering services. The United States and other coalition nations must voice strong opposition to all efforts to change the constitution through a Loya Jirga or the scheduling of early elections. Without first reforming the electoral system, another massively fraudulent election will surely follow.

While a meeting is scheduled to take place in Islamabad in January 2016 between the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan with regards to the next round of talks, it is imperative that the stakeholders also discuss the continued international support that Afghanistan shall require for the years to come. With parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in 2016, the coalition government shall need the support of the US in these testing times. The results of a hasty withdrawal from Iraq are there for everyone to see, therefore, the decision regarding troop levels in country should be based on the on-ground realities rather than on the political costs the Obama administration might incur if it makes a u-turn on its promise to completely withdraw the troops from Afghanistan.