New American strategy in Afghanistan

As United States President Donald Trump’s Administration is carving out a new strategy in Afghanistan, the bad news is that the Islamic State (IS) terrorists in the country have captured the strategic mountains of Tora Bora on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. According to the new American strategy in Afghanistan there is going to be an increase in the number of United States as well as NATO troops there. Although there is no mention of the level of the troop increase, but it is going to be significant in terms of what Washington already has in the war-ravaged country. Presently, the US has around 8,000 troops who are mainly providing crucial support to over 300, 000 Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) to fight the Taliban.

Whether the new American strategy in Afghanistan, focusing on raising the troop level there, would work or not, is a question that only time will tell. However, if the past is any guide, then this strategy will not achieve the desired results—defeating the Taliban. What is of more concern is that President Trump has given carte blanche to his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to come up with a new strategy for Afghanistan. This is quite dangerous because, historically, the Defense Department of the US, whenever given the authority to deal with a crisis and conflict in a country has mostly failed. Because the department’s strategy mainly has been to focus on defeating the enemy militarily. In Afghanistan the US and its allies along with hundreds of thousand of ill-disciplined and poorly-trained ANSF personnel have failed to defeat a few thousands of the Taliban because they could not understand the dynamics of the conflict. The Taliban insurgency has sustained itself in Afghanistan, because the Taliban have had the strong support of the people, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated regions of the country in the central, south and west of Afghanistan. The International Security and Assistance Forces in Afghanistan (ISAF) since their deployment in the country in 2001 reaching a peak of 140,000 men after the Taliban regime was defeated and ousted from power in Kabul by the Washington-led blitzkrieg, could not trounce the Taliban, primarily because they could not put in place a viable political system in the country.

Another very important factor which has prevented the US-led Western forces to establish a viable presence in Afghanistan has been the failure of the successive Afghan presidents and their administrations to deliver the much-needed social services and social requirements. For instance, both the former president, Hamid Karzai and incumbent head of state, Ashraf Ghani, could not lay down the foundation of a modern and sustainable economic system and institutions in Afghanistan let alone giving economic stability to Afghanistan. This is despite the fact that Ashraf Ghani is an economist by profession, whereas Hamid Karzai’s family has a chain of restaurants in the US besides other numerous businesses.

While US Defense Secretary Mattis has announced that the new Afghanistan strategy would be delivered by mid-July, a very disturbing development has taken place in Afghanistan. Of late, IS has captured the strategic heights of the Tora Bora mountains on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These are the same mountain heights in which Al Qaeda founder, Osama bin Laden, took cover after the dislodging of the Taliban regime by the US-led NATO forces in 2001. The Tora Bora heights are extremely inaccessible and remote and cannot be reached through normal logistic operations. It is important to note that IS had made first the Achin district of Nangarhar province as their operational base in Afghanistan. After the base was obliterated by the dropping of the mother-of-all-bombs or the biggest non-nuclear bomb of the world by the US forces on the bases of IS in Achin, it has made Tora Bora its new base. It means that the dropping of even such a huge bomb by the US could not neutralize the IS threat in Afghanistan. This raises serious question on the capacity and capability of the ANSF and the strategy of the US. Here there seems something fishy. The reports of Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) support to IS have been making the rounds and there seems a lot of substance in these reports. The NDS has been desirous of pitting IS against the Afghan Taliban and there have been bloody clashes between the two groups resulting in killing of dozens of militants from both side. The NDS has also been wishing to use IS to create trouble in Pakistan in the manner in which it and the rest of the Afghan government alleges Islamabad has been using the Taliban to foment trouble in Afghanistan. By doing so, the NDS has been playing with fire and it could not count the cost of its misadventure as, in the final analysis, the support to IS would create disasterous blowback.

On its part, the moving of IS in Afghanistan to Tora Bora is disturbing for Pakistan, as from there the next destination for it would be the Khyber Agency of FATA. The Tora Bora heights adjoins the remote Tirah Valley in the Khyber Agency of FATA in Pakistan. Now if there would be more pressure from US forces on IS in Afghanistan, they would infiltrate into Pakistan. Although Pakistan security forces have tried to make foolproof arrangements to stop the cross-border infiltration of terrorists and militants, nevertheless keeping in view the porous nature of the border the IS terrorists could always sneak into Pakistan and create trouble. Here it must be mentioned that Pakistan security forces, although, have cleansed the entire FATA including North Waziristan, once the biggest terrorist redoubt, of Taliban, Al Qaeda and their local and foreign affiliates. However, there is only one area, Rajgal valley, in remote Khyber Agency near Tora Bora where the remnants of these groups have acquired new sanctuaries. Operations are ongoing against the terrorists. But if somehow the IS militants in Tora Bora are able to join hands with the TTP in Rajgal it could be disastrous.

Pakistani security forces must keep this in perspective while launching operations against the militants in the Khyber Agency and also carrying out border management over the Durand Line. This whole situation once again reinforces the importance of the border management on the Durand Line. The US must also take into consideration, the support, rather the connivance, of the Afghan NDS with IS while preparing their new strategy in Afghanistan. Because, Afghan Taliban, according to even the NATO allies of the US, are a political force and there must be a dialogue with the group. But the more serious threat in Afghanistan is the rising IS, perhaps it is due to the fact that the US forces used the mother of all bombs which has not been used against the Taliban ever. With President Trump in the saddle it could be a possibility now.

The new US strategy in Afghanistan would be of critical importance and hopefully it would be formulated keeping in view the lesson learnt from the longest-ever US engagement in a foreign conflict.