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Deadly Kabul bombing heralds a new Western surge in Afghanistan

An attack on a NATO convoy in Kabul on May 3 killed eight civilians and wounded at least 25 other people, including three Americans in the convoy. That this attack happened in a high security area close to the US Embassy is a measure of just how powerful the anti-government paramilitaries are – and it comes just a week after the Taliban announced the start of its spring offensive, Operation Mansouri, which will focus on foreign troops.

The operation is named after Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, the Taliban leader killed in a US drone attack last year, and it marks the start of the so-called “fighting season” for 2017, although there was very little let-up during the winter months. At the end of April, ten Taliban paramilitaries disguised as Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel infiltrated a military camp in Mazar-e Sharif and killed at least 135 soldiers.

This was an early indicator of what has since become clear: that the war in Afghanistan is evolving into a conflict even more intense than in recent years, one that will inevitably demand far more of Donald Trump’s attention than he would like.

The parlous state of Afghan security is laid out in the latest quarterly report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko. The Afghan government has no control over 40% of the country, civilian casualties last year were 11,418, and army losses have increased – 807 security personnel killed in the first six weeks of 2017 alone. Many people are leaving their homes for safety because of the sheer level of violence – a record 660,000 in 2016, and a 40% increase over 2015.

As SIGAR puts it:

A dangerous and stubborn insurgency controls or exerts influence over areas holding about a third of the Afghan population. Heavy casualties and capability gaps limit the effectiveness of Afghan soldiers and police. Opium production stands at near record levels.

Of particular concern, both to the US and also the UK, is the extent of Taliban control over Helmand province, scene of some of the worst fighting of the 15-year war and responsible for the deaths of around a thousand British and US troops. When the last of the UK forces left Helmand, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, described it as “mission accomplished”, a very hollow phrase given what is now happening, and made worse by Helmand being the leading source of opium production.

The Afghan security services line up in Helmand province. EPA/Watan Yar

Signs of concern among the US military are shown by two unannounced visits from senior US military leaders in the past fortnight, first from Trump’s National Security Advisor, General H R McMaster, and then from the Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis. An early indication of the likely response came when the US deployed 300 US marines to Helmand to bolster the ANA as it struggles to hang on to part of the province.

Whatever comes next will almost certainly involve thousands more US troops. The early indications are that 3,000 to 5,000 will be deployed, as well as an unspecified number of Special Forces. The latter will be tasked mainly with trying to curb the power of the so-called Islamic State, whose paramilitaries have recently further encroached on Afghan security – most notably with an recent attack on a well-protected military hospital in the heart of Kabul.

Will it work? The signs are not good. While many analysts regard the current president, Ashraf Ghani, as far more competent than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, corruption and maladministration are nonetheless deeply entrenched. Ghani has struggled to restore faith in the future after years of dire insecurity.

The clearest indication of problems ahead, though, comes from the previous experience of the US military.

Surge and retreat

Barack Obama fought the 2008 presidential election on the policy of withdrawing from the “bad war” Iraq while supporting the “good war” in Afghanistan, which was clearly linked to the 9/11 attacks. He beat John McCain, who supported both wars and proposed sending 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, which would have brought the total there to 100,000.

Once elected, Obama took more than a year to decide his policy. He eventually went with McCain’s view, but with a crucial distinction: while he backed a 30,000 troop surge, the mission was not to defeat the Taliban, but to put it under so much pressure that it could only negotiate a settlement.

The surge went ahead, with numbers peaking at 140,000 foreign troops by 2011, 100,000 of them American. But even that number failed to control the Taliban, and during his second term, Obama decided to withdraw, refocusing the US’s efforts on training and equipping the ANA.

Judging by the situation today, this strategy is failing. The Trump team has some very awkward decisions to make. Given the president’s clear liking for decisive military solutions and his willingness to hand over decision-making to the Pentagon, as well as his military’s concern at Russian and Iranian influence in the country, the US’s mooted expansion in troop numbers may turn out to be just the start of a much more intense war. After all, even with 5,000 more American troops in the mix, the total American force won’t even top 20,000, a small fraction of the peak deployment.

NATO is talking the same language, laying the groundwork for a scaled-up mission that will quite probably include British troops. After 15 years of failure, more troops will be seen as the answer, with little chance of any other approach being tried. That makes three regimes toppled in the War on Terror era (the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Gaddafi), and three countries wrecked – but still no fundamental reflection on a strategy that’s clearly failed.

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