Open-ended stay?

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - S. Mu­das­sir Ali Shah

TRIAL bal­loons from top mil­i­tary com­man­ders sug­gest an en­dur­ing US pres­ence in Afghanistan - a trou­bled mis­sion that has failed to meet time­lines or pro­duce the de­sired re­sults. It has also be­lied Pres­i­dent Barack Obama's oft-re­peated pledge to bring the con­flict to a re­spon­si­ble end. With Amer­ica's long­est war get­ting longer, the lat­est in­di­ca­tion of an open-ended com­mit­ment came from LtGen John Ni­chol­son, Obama's pick for com­man­der of US op­er­a­tions in the wardev­as­tated coun­try. No stranger to Afghanistan, he has called for a re­think on Amer­ica's mil­i­tary strat­egy.

At his Se­nate Armed

Ser­vices Com­mit­tee con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, the in­com­ing com­man­der called the re­vised plan for a long-term US mil­i­tary com­mit­ment an in­te­gral part of Obama's pol­icy shift that al­lowed 5,500 troops to stay in Afghanistan be­yond his pres­i­dency.

Obama had orig­i­nally pro­posed to bring home all troops save a small em­bassy pres­ence by the end of 2015. But in Oc­to­ber, he re­vised the timetable, leav­ing thou­sands of sol­diers into 2017. Cur­rently, the 9,800 Amer­i­can ser­vice­mem­bers in Afghanistan are split be­tween the Nato-led train­ing mis­sion and coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions.

The change of heart has seem­ingly been brought about by threats from transna­tional mil­i­tant groups like Al Qaeda and the Is­lamic State, plot­ting to set up safe havens in­side Afghanistan. The top US gen­er­als claimed un­til re­cent- ly to be break­ing the back of Al Qaeda and that there were no buy­ers for IS's ide­ol­ogy in the coun­try.

Amer­ica's long­est war ap­pears to be get­ting longer. More than any­thing else, the lat­est uptick in in­sur­gent-linked vi­o­lence in the restive south, east and north seems to have forced the US to swing its strat­egy yet again. Es­ca­lat­ing clashes in Hel­mand, where Bri­tish forces have bribed mil­i­tant com­man­ders over the years, have ex­posed the un­palat­able re­al­ity that the Afghan Tal­iban's fight­ing prow­ess largely re­mains in­tact.

The sit­u­a­tion in Bagh­lan, Kun­duz and Badakhshan provinces is a nerve-wrack­ing poin­ter to chinks in the coali­tion's game plan and re­silience of the in­sur­gency. It also lays bare a pro­nounced short­fall in Afghan air power and fal­la­cious claims of an end to in­ter­na­tional com­bat op­er­a­tions a year ago. A ma­jor­ity of Afghans ac­knowl­edge the rebels are in con­trol of more ter­ri­tory than at any time since 2001. This ex­as­per­at­ing loss of 30pc of ter­ri­tory, show­ing Amer­ica's slack­en­ing grip on the war, has also been ver­i­fied by the Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanistan Re­con­struc­tion (SI­GAR).

As a con­se­quence of the grow­ing in­se­cu­rity, Amer­i­can and Afghan of­fi­cials have been un­able to su­per­vise on­go­ing re­con­struc­tion projects worth bil­lions of dol­lars. Vi­cious at­tacks bang in the heart of Kabul this last quar­ter has shat­tered pub­lic con­fi­dence in the govern­ment of Ashraf Ghani. Mean­while, scep­ti­cism is grow­ing about the wis­dom of Obama's plans to be­queath a force of 5,500 troops in Afghanistan to his suc­ces­sor. In­tend­ing to re­view the num­ber of troop in three months from now, Ni­chol­son will ob­vi­ously adopt a more ag­gres­sive pos­ture to con­tain the Tal­iban on­slaught.

He is sup­posed to be acutely aware of US Spe­cial Forces' heavy re­liance on coun­tert­er­ror­ism raids through­out 2015. More of­ten than not, th­ese raids were con­ducted in the garb of train­ing the Afghan forces. How­ever, they did not yield any tan­gi­ble out­come in terms of con­tain­ing the widen­ing in­sur­gency.

In 2015, both in­ter­na­tional and Afghan forces suf­fered more tac­ti­cal set­backs than an­tic­i­pated. The Afghan se­cu­rity per­son­nel - hailed by their men­tors as born fight­ers - con­tinue to stum­ble. With the US hav­ing pro­vided $65 bil­lion for re­build­ing the lo­cal forces, their strength has de­creased by 10,000 since May 2015.

Now that the war price tag is con­stantly ris­ing, mil­lions of dol­lars have been skimmed in the name of pay­ments to ghost sol­diers, schools, teach­ers and stu­dents. Un­cer­tainty over the course of the war re­in­forces the sense that Obama's suc­ces­sor will in­herit an un­en­vi­able legacy. US forces have failed to achieve the self-im­posed goal of mak­ing the Afghan army's Na­tional En­gi­neer Brigade (NEB) - imag­ined as a nat­u­ral disas­ter emer­gency re­sponse unit - par­tially ca­pa­ble by the end of 2014. Some of the en­gi­neer­ing equip­ment and ve­hi­cles for the brigade, cost­ing the Pen­tagon at least $29 mil­lion, is still miss­ing. On the sur­face, the shift in mind­set is also driven by the Afghan govern­ment's in­abil­ity to give mil­i­tants a be­fit­ting re­sponse. The lo­cal se­cu­rity forces still need bil­lions of dol­lars an­nu­ally in for­eign aid and per­sis­tent sup­port from in­ter­na­tional ad­vi­sors.

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