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.