Frustrated with “not winning” in Afghanistan, and a month past his initial deadline, President Donald Trump is set to unveil his new Afghanistan strategy in a televised speech in Fort Myer, Virginia, on Monday night.
The key takeaway from Trump’s first major national security address is expected to be an increase of 3,000-5,000 additional U.S. troops to join the 8,400 currently stationed there. While military chiefs regard the extra deployment as a much-needed boost, security analysts say it probably won’t do much to change the deteriorating trajectory of America’s longest war, which claimed nearly 3,500 civilian lives in 2016 alone.
The U.S.’s Afghanistan campaign has been in a state of limbo since Trump took office, as his national security team have sought to strike on a new strategy that would earn the president’s approval. Meanwhile, security in the devastated country has continued to unravel at a dramatic clip in 2017. A resurgent Taliban now controls or contests more than 40 percent of Afghanistan — a 15 percent increase from the previous year — while other groups such ISIS’ local affiliate, Islamic State in Khorasan, have gained a foothold amid the chaos.
“The U.S. was unable to defeat the Taliban when it had ten times more troops in Afghanistan.”
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, called earlier this year for an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to help break what he called a “stalemate” in the conflict. In June, Trump gave Defense Secretary James Mattis authority to fulfill that request, but the move was delayed until the administration developed a broader regional policy that addressed other critical concerns — like what to do about Pakistan, which, despite being a U.S. ally, is widely believed to provide support and sanctuary to the Taliban and the affiliated Haqqani Network insurgent group.
Analysts expect Trump to announce new measures to rein in Pakistan and tackle rampant Afghan government corruption when he announces the boosted troop deployment Monday night. But they warn such moves are ultimately unlikely to change the outcome in a conflict which Trump has castigated military chiefs for “not winning.”
“None of this will make much difference,” said Professor Theo Farrell, dean of Arts and Social Sciences at City, University of London and author of “Unwinnable,” a history of the British military campaign in Afghanistan.
“The U.S. was unable to defeat the Taliban when it had 10 times more troops in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the peak deployment in 2010-11 when there were 100,000 American soldiers in the country. “The U.S. has limited leverage over Pakistan. And Afghan corruption has been supercharged by over a decade of Western aid inflows and is not easily reversed.”
Emily Winterbotham, an Afghanistan expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said sending additional troops was “a sticking plaster and will just prolong what is a negatively deteriorating stalemate.”
Winterbotham added that the additional troop deployment, expected to focus on boosting special operations and air-power capacities, would increase the U.S. military’s ability to carry out different operations simultaneously. But ultimately, any increase in troops was likely to be met with pushback from insurgents.
Despite this, Winterbotham said she would welcome efforts to tackle the Afghan government’s legitimacy crisis, or to force external actors, such as Pakistan, into “stopping their passive or indeed active support for militant groups,” saying such moves “could be a positive step.”
“Afghan corruption has been supercharged by over a decade of Western aid inflows and is not easily reversed.”
In July, it was announced that the U.S. was withholding $50 million in funding to Pakistan for failing to take sufficient action against the Haqqani Network, a widely feared, clan-based Taliban offshoot responsible for a string of devastating attacks in Kabul. It was the second time such funds had been withheld. Some saw the move as a potential sign of a more hardline approach from Washington, although the amount held back represents a drop in a bucket for Pakistan, which has received more than $14 billion since 2002 in Coalition Support Fund reimbursements, paid to foreign governments for the cost of military operations against terror groups.
Afghanistan has proved a perplexing problem for the Trump administration. During Trump’s election campaign, he repeatedly questioned the U.S.’ presence in the country, and called for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan immediately, as well as demanding an end to U.S. nation-building efforts generally.
Since taking office, his advisers have presented him with a number of vastly different proposals for the war, as he has sought to arrive at an approach to the conflict that differs from the policies of his predecessor.
While some top officials, like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, reportedly supported Nicholson’s request for more troops, others — most notably recently ousted chief strategist Steve Bannon — have instead lobbied for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, favoring the use of private contractors instead.
As with members of Trump’s Cabinet, the generals leading the war have not been safe from the president’s fickle management style. At a meeting in July, Trump suggested U.S. defense officials should consider firing Nicholson for failing to turn the conflict around, according to reports. Trump also reportedly asked about extracting Afghanistan’s mineral deposits, reflecting his concern that China was exploiting the country’s natural resources while the U.S. footed the bill for keeping the country from collapsing altogether.