President Donald Trump has so far failed to come up with a coherent policy on Afghanistan. He is frustrated with advisers and military commanders, including Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in the war-torn country. With too many cooks in the kitchen, some are advocating for a very limited US role in the war, while others are pushing for a surge deploying several thousand additional troops. Trump is the third Supreme Commander-in-Chief trying to win the longest war in American history to no avail. After sixteen years of constant effort, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. A new strategy was expected to appear in July. It didn’t, while endless debates over what it should be like keep on going.
The US has spent well over $800 billion fighting in the conflict, though some analysts say the true cost is in trillions. During the pre-election campaign, candidate Trump described the war in Afghanistan as «a complete waste». There have been more than 2, 400 US military fatalities and over 20 thousand servicemen wounded. Opium production increased 43% from 2015 to 2016 and has been on an upward trend since 2001. The UN believes that Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous and most violent crisis-ridden countries in the world.
According to data from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as of February 2017 «the Afghan government controls or influences just 52 percent of the nation’s districts compared to 72 percent in November 2015». The Taliban has made steady gains, handing Afghan security forces embarrassing defeats in Kandahar Province, which was its former stronghold, as well as places like Helmand Province and Kunduz Province. The Taliban-led insurgency has grown at double-digit rates annually since 2005.
The Afghan national government is simply not in a position to provide effective governance in a country and to subdue the various militant groups and warlords. The Taliban is unlikely to want to negotiate with the government while gaining ground. The Islamic State presence is another problem. Defense Secretary James Mattis testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, saying the US was «not winning in Afghanistan». US intelligence agencies have assessed that the conditions in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through the next year.
A New York Times article says that Iran is making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor. The neighboring Pakistan is blamed for its support of the Taliban. Saudi Arabia is involved as well as some other states. But other countries’ involvement is not something new. It has always been a factor to be taken into account ever since 2001. Evidently, the policy planning has not been flawless.
A decision on an Afghanistan strategy has been constantly delayed with the president still looking for right options. According to The New York Times, Donald Trump is so dissatisfied with the military options that he’s exploring plans to extract Afghanistan’s mineral resources as an alternative justification for remaining in the country. The US Defense Secretary has been given authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, but he needs a presidential strategy before any decision is taken. Army General John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, requested the troops back in February.
Military commanders on spot have been given broad authority to make key decisions. So far, this freedom of action has not resulted in any gains despite the intimidation of the Taliban with the «mother of all bombs» or massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) – the largest non-nuclear weapon with a 21,000lb warhead used in April to strike the Achin area in the Nangarhar province on the border with Pakistan.
President Trump even said that the option of firing Army General John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, is being considered. Getting rid of such a highly respected veteran with 35 years’ experience will hardly help. Nicholson assumed command more than a year ago. The Pentagon was reportedly considering extending his term.
The US currently has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. The international Resolute Support mission numbers around 15,000 soldiers. Laurel Miller, a senior expert at RAND Corporation and a former senior State Department official with responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2017, believes that a military victory is not achievable and diplomacy is the only hope. But there are people who think otherwise.
According to media reports, the president might hand private contractors the day-to-day task of advising the flagging Afghan security forces. Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, is calling to replace US troops in Afghanistan with private military companies (PMCs). Prince’s idea isn’t new — he first laid out this plan in a Wall Street Journal article in May, calling for the United States to delegate decision-making responsibilities to a «viceroy» and military efforts to private contractors, who would remain in Afghanistan for an indeterminate amount of time.
Eric Prince says East India Company, which played such a large role in British colonization, is a good example. According to him, outsourcing Afghanistan to private contractors will save the US a considerable amount of money – from $45 billion down to $10 billion.
According to The New York Times, Prince and DynCorp International’s owner Stephen Feinberg have been in talks with the White House about using private contractors instead of US troops in Afghanistan. Steve Bannon, Trump’s key adviser, supports the idea. The wrongdoings of private contractors in Iraq appear to be forgotten.
Obviously, sending private contractors instead of regular military could be presented as a business-like approach typical of President Trump. As a result, the buck will be passed to mercenaries. Obviously, it will also be a desperate gesture. After all, a drowning man will clutch at a straw.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed concern over the situation in Afghanistan and called for taking urgent steps to tackle the problem. The instability in that country spreads to Central Asia posing a direct threat to Russia’s security. Roughly, 2,000 militants operating in the Afghan northern provinces come from the countries of the post-Soviet space. Fighters with combat experience received in Syria have already been spotted in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley. The infiltration of IS militants into Afghanistan threatens the Russian North Caucasus and the Volga region.
It shows that the countries of Central Asia and Russia face a grave problem aggravated by absence of interaction between the United States and Russia. Formally, private contractors are not under the US government control, they play by their own rules. There will be no channel of communications between the Russian government and the PMCs. One can hardly imagine Russia and other pertinent actors maintaining contacts with a «viceroy» of any kind.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), including Afghanistan, which has observer status of the alliance, can take additional measures to strengthen the border. Talks could be organized to include Russia, Afghanistan, China, Iran, India and Pakistan. Russia and China are working to expand the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) regional anti-terrorist structure into Afghanistan by bringing on board all regional countries and SCO member states.
The SCO has already established a database of terrorist groups while, under the umbrella of Russia, all Central Asian countries have agreed to formulate a single list of terrorist groups on the platform of the CSTO, which counts as a sister organization of SCO. Both organizations are working to prevent the filtration of terrorists from Syria and Afghanistan to Xinjiang, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and other regional countries. Russia, as the leading CSTO member, and the United States could do a lot together. The organization proposed cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan under the flagship of Russia.
In April, Russia hosted discussions on Afghanistan aimed at encouraging the Taliban to negotiate with the government in Kabul. Eleven countries took part the Moscow conference, including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. Former Soviet Central Asian states were invited to attend for the first time. But the US rejected the invitation.
Afghanistan is a burning international problem that only an international effort can solve. This is an issue of common interest for Russia and the United States. The war in Afghanistan and its aftermath are likely to have far-reaching consequences for both nations.
It’s really sad that under the circumstances there is no dialogue between the United States and Russia on the situation in Afghanistan. True, the bilateral relationship is at a low ebb but the de-escalation zones in Syria are discussed and agreements are reached. It’s not important if the contacts are conducted behind the curtain or openly. Afghanistan is an issue of common interest to unite, not divide, the two countries. Moscow has tried to launch a dialogue, the US refused. Washington seems to believe that dodging the responsibility by outsourcing Afghanistan to soldiers of fortune is better than cooperating with other pertinent actors in an international effort to find a way out of the situation.