Donald Trump considers sending thousands more US troops to Afghanistan
New York // Senior US military and White House figures are recommending sending more troops to Afghanistan as part of a strategy to support the embattled Kabul government and force the Taliban into negotiations, according to current and former officials.
They believe some 3,000-5,000 additional troops — with a matching commitment from Nato nations — are needed to wrest the initiative from insurgents. At the same time they want to give commanders more authority to launch air strikes or mount special operations.
The plans mark a major reversal of Barack Obama’s efforts to drawn down US troops and avoid getting bogged down in Afghanistan’s multi-faceted conflict.
The review comes after the Taliban have made significant advances. By the end of 2016 they controlled more than 8.4 million Afghans, about a third of the population, and an increase of five million a year earlier, according to a United Nations report obtained by the Wall Street Journal.
The proposals for a mini-surge are expected to be delivered to Donald Trump this week.
The strategy, first reported by The Washington Post, also recommends that troop numbers and aid be conditional on the Afghan government doing more to tackle rampant corruption and improve the effectiveness of its own troops.
Last week General Raymond Thomas, Commander of the United States Special Operations Command, told senators that the review included a number of steps to break the military deadlock.
“Additional troops are being considered, changes to the rules of engagement,” he said during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, echoing moves made in the Middle East and Somalia to empower commanders on the ground to take more decisions without seeking Washington’s approval.
It is more than 15 years since US-led forces invaded Afghanistan to oust a Taliban government that harboured Osama bin Laden as he plotted the 9/11 attacks.
Today the country seems no closer to peace.
The issue barely registered during the presidential election campaigns that focused more on the Middle East and the threat from ISIL. War fatigue set in long ago in the US, where a third president must now grapple with a seemingly intractable problem.
Kabul controls about 60 per cent of the country, down from more than 70 per cent at the start of 2016.
At the same time, American taxpayers have been asked to spend more than US$117 billion on reconstruction, according to a recent report by the US watchdog on spending in Afghanistan. It also noted that 807 Afghan troops had been killed in the first two months of this year in a sign of widespread insecurity.
Nato ended its combat mission in 2014, handing responsibility for security to local security forces, who have been struggling to resist Taliban advances ever since.
The US currently has about 8,400 troops in the country to train and assist the Afghan National Army and Police, along with a further 5,000 supplied by Nato members.
Analysts say the moves risk sucking the US further into a war without end.
“I believe that it is not only a danger, it is a virtual certainty,” said Barnett Rubin, who served as senior adviser to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Barack Obama.
A strategy of forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table, he added, was doomed when the insurgents knew they could outlast foreign troops.
The only answer was to pursue regional diplomacy in an effort to broker a political settlement.
“Pakistan, Russia, Iran don’t want us there so they aren’t going to let us stabilise Afghanistan with our troops without consulting them,” he said.
“Then it comes down to who can out-escalate whom and of course we lose that. No matter how much we say we’re committed to Afghanistan, we are never going to convince the Taliban we’re going to be in Afghanistan longer than they will.”
He added that the plan also contradicted Mr Trump’s message of America First and may face opposition inside the White House.
Much of America’s recent focus has been directed at a small branch of ISIL. In March, the US dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on a network of caves used by the group.
However, analysts believe the Taliban remains a far greater threat.
Last month, the group carried out an attack on an Afghan National Army base in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing more than 150 recruits.
Nato is already considering whether to dispatch more troops.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary general, said last month the “challenging” security situation meant the alliance was weighing a plan to increase the number of personnel in its Resolute Support mission beyond the current level of 13,000.
In an interview with Welt am Sonntag newspaper, he said a decision would be made by June.
Sean Spicer, Mr Trump’s spokesman, said on Monday that he could not comment on whether the president had taken any decision.
By he added: “I think he wants to make sure that we do what we can to win. And that’s why he charged the generals and other military advisers and national security team to come up with a plan that can get us there.