What Is the US Doing in Afghanistan?
Nikolai BOBKIN | 09.08.2016 | OPINION

What Is the US Doing in Afghanistan?

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has claimed that the efforts of the US-led international coalition stationed in his country have been in vain. Fourteen years of military intervention by America and its allies have brought Afghanistan nothing but harm. The territory controlled by the government is shrinking. Kabul now controls less than 65% of the nation. The government is almost completely absent from northern districts such as Musa Qala, Sangin, and Kajaki, which border the countries of the CIS. «Something is wrong», says Karzai.

The former president thinks the foreign forces should leave Afghanistan. But Barack Obama has backed away from his plans to cut the number of US troops in the country to 5,500 by the end of the year.

There are currently about 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan, the vast majority of whom (6,950) are charged with supporting the Afghan army – only 2,000 soldiers and officers are directly involved in combat operations. Abandoning the drawdown, Obama has asked his NATO allies to support his initiative, but even US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is unable to explain the details of his president’s new game plan on Afghanistan. The financing for this year’s operations looks a bit murky. Nor is it clear how the Pentagon will pay for the increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan next year. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has already warned the Obama administration to immediately put in a request for additional funding.

Afghanistan is taking a big bite out of the US federal budget. Afghan security forces are being reduced, numbering just 319,595 in April 2016. That is a significant drop from February 2014. There has been a notable decline in combat operations by Afghanistan’s army and security agencies. The Afghans are not crazy about the idea of fighting for their pro-American government, but the US Congress isn’t troubled by that – what they can’t understand is what happened to the $17 billion that was shelled out to support Afghanistan’s security forces. As of May 31, 2016 the United States had spent nearly $13 billion on the Afghan army and another $4.2 billion to arm the Afghan police. And those outlays do not include the purchase of modern heavy weaponry – the Afghan army possesses no military aircraft, missile forces, or modern combat helicopters. All that cash evaporated without providing any meaningful assistance to those combatting the opponents of the government in Kabul.

Who are the Americans battling in Afghanistan today? The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, indicated that the fight against terrorism, particularly against Islamic State militants, is a top priority. The Americans have not only postponed their drawdown, in recent weeks they have expanded the capabilities of their contingent, sending additional reconnaissance equipment to Afghanistan, as well as aircraft and helicopters from the Army Aviation Branch. All this is being done with little media attention: President Obama doesn’t need to advertise yet another of his broken promises.

Afghanistan, like Syria and Iran, is becoming an unenviable legacy that will be passed down from the current Democratic administration to the next US president.

And what if that turns out to be Hillary Clinton? In the past Clinton has automatically defaulted toward the use of force. She supported the bombing of Serbia in 1999, voted for war against Saddam in 2003, criticized Obama for refusing to bomb Syria, and insisted on arming the Syrian rebels. And as for Afghanistan, it was Secretary Clinton herself who in 2009 proposed the sending of additional troops (a step that President Obama took, but later referred to as a mistake). To this day Clinton is still not trusted on her Afghan policy.

To what extent could a Republican president alter the US policy on Afghanistan? That remains an open question. In 2013, Donald Trump called for the withdrawal of US troops and criticized the «waste» of billions of dollars on the intervention in Afghanistan, proposing that those funds instead be used to «rebuild the United States». In his current role as a presidential candidate, Trump is, on one hand, not suggesting that US troops be withdrawn or reduced, but on the other – he believes that their goals need to be revised to include more autonomous combat activity in the fight against terrorism instead of simply supporting the Afghan army’s local operations. Trump has also underscored the danger of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands and suggests strengthening Afghanistan’s alliance with India as a counterweight to Pakistani influence on Afghan affairs.

In any event, under a Trump presidency the US will be offering less support to Afghanistan in the form of loans, financing for the Afghan security forces will be reduced, and as a result, relations between Kabul and Washington are likely to sour. And that relationship might become quite confrontational if Trump is able to push through Congress his campaign promise to ban Afghan immigration to the United States (this was the Republican candidate’s reaction to the tie between the Afghan public and terrorism). Trump is open about the fact that the Afghans might very well have to finish their civil war without American involvement. That would really make one wonder about the whole point of the 15-year occupation of Afghanistan by US and NATO forces.

Tags: NATO  Afghanistan 

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