It’s December. The new year is just around the corner. And that it means that the war in Afghanistan will enter its 18th year. What began as an attempt to obliterate al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts, has evolved throughout the years in a protracted conflict with no end in sight. Apparently, the Afghan government isn’t capable of defeating the Taliban despite the billions of dollars — and the too many lives — that has been poured into the country and the American-led coalition that advises, trains, and supports the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
In November, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) announced that the Taliban are for the first time controlling more territory since 2001. He stated that the Afghan government controls or influences only 55.5 percent of the country’s districts. Around 1/3 of Afghan territory is contested ground.
It is reasonable, therefore, to be pondering a withdrawal of American troops. Clearly, no breakthrough is imminent. And indeed, counterinsurgency campaigns are won in decades not years. They require patience and clear objectives. In Afghanistan, however, both are frustrated by the Afghan government, which often seeks its own ends. Lately, U.S. government officials have been talking directly with Taliban representatives in an attempt to bypass the Afghan government’s political limitations.
Take for example Defence Secretary James Mattis’ recent statement about the conflict. The SecDef was somewhat ambiguous about the future of the American military’s involvement in Afghanistan. He said that this is the “largest coalition in modern history to fight a war [41 nations are participating in stabilisation and rebuilding of the war-torn country].” He added that the coalition is devoted to end the conflict and protect the Afghan population. With regard to the ongoing peace efforts, he stated that “It would be nice if the Taliban would get aligned with the reconciliation efforts and stop murdering their own people. But yeah, we’ll keep at it.”
His statements allow for some speculation about the American involvement. By emphasising the coalition efforts, he attempts to divert attention from the American portion, thus endeavouring to create a picture where U.S. presence wouldn’t be large: It’s impossible to think an Afghanistan without some sort of American support, whether it’s financial or military. And the military is planning for these. For example, the Army has been working on a new concept of advise and train operations with the establishment of the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB). There are currently two SFABs, and the Army plans for at least six. SFABs, Special Forces, and MARSOC teams training the Afghan military could be what the future of the U.S. involvement might look like.
General David Petraeus appears to believe that should be the strategy in Afghanistan. In a recent interview, he said that it is paramount to remember why the U.S. went into Afghanistan and why it has remained there. “We went to Afghanistan to eliminate the sanctuary in which the 9/11 attacks were planned,” he said, “and we have stayed to ensure that sanctuary cannot be reestablished by al Qaeda or, now, by the Islamic State or other extremist groups, and also to ensure we have a platform for our regional counterterrorism campaign.”
A Department of Defence spokesperson, however, was more assertive in the Pentagon’s support for the Afghan government. Army Lt. Colonel Koné Faulkner said, “We remain committed to a conditions-based strategy and we stand by the Afghan government as it seeks a political settlement to ending the war. Any follow-on questions on the president’s future intentions need to be directed to the White House.”
As of now, there are close to 15,000 U.S. and NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan.