Home >Opinion >Afghan mini-surge has a strategy deficit

After prolonged internal debate, the Donald Trump administration seems to be nearing a decision on how to proceed in America’s long war in Afghanistan. Trump’s military advisers are said to be pushing a plan to send several thousand additional troops into that conflict.

Can this “mini-surge" succeed? It all depends on how success is defined. If the goal is to decisively turn the tide of the war and force the Taliban to make peace, then the answer will almost certainly be “no". Yet if the administration seeks more modest but still meaningful goals in Afghanistan, a mini-surge may do the trick.

Trump is reportedly considering dispatching 3,000-5,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan. These reinforcements would supplement the roughly 8,400 US troops and 4,600 coalition troops in the country, and likely be accompanied by additional contributions from mainly North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) countries.

The apparent strategic rationale for these deployments—as stated by General John Nicolson, the top US commander in Afghanistan—is to “break the stalemate" with the Taliban. A strengthened US and Nato presence, so the thinking goes, will enable Washington and its partners to support Afghan forces more effectively, regain the initiative against the insurgency, and thereby force the Taliban to enter into negotiations and acquiesce in an enduring peace.

This seems like wishful thinking. The US was incapable of breaking the back of the insurgency in 2010-11, when it had roughly 100,000 troops in the country, complemented by tens of thousands of Nato forces. Nor was it capable of convincing Pakistan to jettison its Afghan proxies or give them the crucial push toward a negotiated peace. There is little reason to believe that the mini-surge will deliver better results today.

With a total force of perhaps 18,000-20,000 foreign troops, the US and its partners will still lack a sustained presence in all but a few select locations around Afghanistan. They will still be acting in support of an Afghan government that is corrupt and deeply divided, and an Afghan military that is overstretched, demoralized, absorbing heavy casualties, and only intermittently capable of operating on its own.

Although the Pakistani government has become somewhat more attuned to the need for an eventual peace settlement than it was in 2011, it is far from clear that a few thousand new US and Nato troops will be enough to end the strategic hedging that has led Islamabad to support the Taliban for so long.

Finally, given that the Taliban has been steadily gaining ground in recent years, it seems unlikely that a mini-surge will increase the military pressure so drastically as to force its leaders to give up their dreams of a battlefield victory and agree to a peace plan.

In other words, the mini-surge advocates are suffering from a strategy deficit. The minimal additions that the US will be committing to the fight are almost certainly insufficient to accomplish the ambitious desired ends.

So does this mean that sending in a few thousand troops would be pointless? Not necessarily. There are two strategic logics that might justify such an approach, even if they are not the ones being publicly articulated by Nicolson and others.

The first would hold that a mini-surge is required not to win the war in Afghanistan, but simply to avoid losing it. Many feel the situation on the ground is not really a “stalemate", but a deteriorating one in which Afghan forces are slowly but steadily losing ground. If so, an infusion of several thousand US and European troops might be sufficient to halt the bleeding and stave off collapse.

A mini-surge would enable greater support for Afghan forces; it would, if paired with more aggressive rules of engagement, also give US commanders greater ability to take the fight to the Taliban. And preventing a collapse of the Afghan military, or even the gradual loss of significantly more territory, remains an important US security interest. It is essential to avoiding a situation in which large swathes of the country again become safe havens and training grounds for terrorists.

The second logic, related to the first, would be if the true purpose of the mini-surge were not so much to defeat the insurgency as to enable more aggressive counter-terrorism operations. The primary US interest in Afghanistan has always been counter-terrorism, and today there are worrying signs that the country is again turning into a terrorist playground.

Islamic State (IS) and its ally the Khorasan Group, made up primarily of former al-Qaeda fighters, are carrying out larger and more audacious attacks in Afghanistan. US forces have begun targeting IS-Khorasan more aggressively, even using the Pentagon’s most powerful non-nuclear weapon against an IS tunnel complex.

If a few thousand more troops enabled the US and its partners to prevent such dangerous organizations from regaining a greater foothold in Afghanistan, then a mini-surge would seem strategically justifiable.

In other words, an Afghan mini-surge is not necessarily doomed to failure. Yet whether such an initiative can succeed—and whether it is even strategically defensible—hinges critically on what, and how precisely defined, its objectives are. Bloomberg

Hal Brands is distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies

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