Afghan fu­ture is cloudy – at best

Amer­ica’s long­est war will soon be Trump’s re­spon­si­bil­ity

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Robert Burns

kabul » The war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year and show­ing lit­tle sign of end­ing, is now Amer­ica’s long­est war.

And it will soon be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Don­ald Trump, two pres­i­dents re­moved from the Oc­to­ber 2001 in­va­sion. Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, nei­ther Trump nor Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton of­fered new ideas for break­ing the bat­tle­field stale­mate. They hardly men­tioned the coun­try, let alone a strat­egy.

And yet, the war that be­gan as Amer­ica’s re­sponse to 9/11 grinds on as nearly 10,000 U.S. troops train and ad­vise the Afghan army and po­lice, hope­ful that at some point the Afghans can stand on their own against the Tal­iban — or bet­ter, that peace talks will end the in­sur­gency.

Here’s a look at the war Trump in­her­its from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, what U.S. troops are do­ing and why the out­look is so clouded.

The mis­sion:

While Obama was a long­time critic of the Iraq war, he al­ways cast the Afghanistan fight as vi­tal. Shortly af­ter tak­ing of­fice in 2009, Obama looked to fix what he saw as U.S. fail­ures in Afghanistan and Pak­istan. He tripled troop lev­els in Afghanistan, but the surge did not force the Tal­iban to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. Pak­istan re­mains a sanc­tu­ary for the Tal­iban.

In De­cem­ber 2014, the U.S. ended its com­bat role in Afghanistan, but there will be at least 8,400 troops there when Trump takes of­fice.

Amer­i­can troops and their coali­tion part­ners per­form two tasks: The first, Op­er­a­tion Res­o­lute Sup­port, is to train and ad­vise Afghan forces fight­ing the Tal­iban. The sec­ond, Op­er­a­tion Free­dom’s Sen­tinel, is to hunt down and kill al-Qaeda mil­i­tants, as well as those af­fil­i­ated with the Is­lamic State and other groups us­ing the coun­try as a hide­out and po­ten­tial launch­ing pad for at­tacks.

The U.S. per­forms its coun­tert­er­ror work in Afghanistan in two ways. First, it goes af­ter al-Qaeda and Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives as a U.S.-only mis­sion. Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the top U.S. com­man­der in the coun­try, said last week that U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces have con­ducted 350 such mis­sions in 2016 — an av­er­age of nearly one per day. These killed or cap­tured nearly 50 lead­ers and other mem­bers of alQaeda, he said.

Sec­ondly, U.S. forces op­er­ate with Afghan spe­cial forces in hunt­ing Is­lamic State fight­ers; these op­er­a­tions have killed the top 12 lead­ers in Afghanistan, Ni­chol­son said.

He said that of the 98 mil­i­tant groups des­ig­nated by the U.S. as ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, 20 are in Afghanistan, the world’s high­est con­cen­tra­tion. That alone says much about the in­con­clu­sive — some would say failed — out­come of Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts.

Ni­chol­son said Fri­day the rem­nants of al-Qaeda, the group whose 9/11 at­tacks were the rea­son the U.S. in­vaded, still “has the in­tent” to at­tack Amer­ica.

The out­look:

Ni­chol­son and many U.S. gen­er­als who pre­ceded him see rea­son for hope. They point to mod­est progress against cor­rup­tion and ex­panded op­por­tu­ni­ties for women. He is con­fi­dent the Afghan army, which suf­fered heavy losses in 2016, will con­tinue to im­prove.

Some an­a­lysts worry that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove se­cu­rity and strengthen the gov­ern­ment.

Fred­er­ick W. Ka­gan, a mil­i­tary his­to­rian and di­rec­tor of the Crit­i­cal Threats Project at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, says se­cu­rity has de­te­ri­o­rated de­spite U.S. ef­forts to build up the army and po­lice.

Ka­gan says Obama is leav­ing his suc­ces­sor a wor­ri­some sit­u­a­tion. “We’re slid­ing to­ward the col­lapse of this gov­ern­ment and po­ten­tially a re­newal of the civil war,” he said.

The fu­ture:

Trump will not have an easy time dis­en­tan­gling the U.S. mil­i­tary from Afghanistan, short of an un­likely de­ci­sion to sim­ply walk away. He has said lit­tle about the coun­try but has called broadly for an end to “na­tion-build­ing” ef­forts.

Michael Flynn, the re­tired Army lieu­tenant gen­eral who will be Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, sees Afghanistan as part of a broader war the U.S. must fight for gen­er­a­tions. “We de­feated al-Qaeda and the Ira­ni­ans in Iraq, and the Tal­iban and their al­lies in Afghanistan. Nonethe­less, they kept fight­ing and we went away,” he wrote in his 2016 book, “Field of Fight.” “Let’s face it: Right now we’re los­ing, and I’m talk­ing about a very big war, not just Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re in a world war against a mes­sianic mass move­ment of evil peo­ple, most of them in­spired by a to­tal­i­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy: rad­i­cal Is­lam.”

Trump’s choice to lead the Pen­tagon, re­tired Ma­rine Gen. James Mat­tis, is a vet­eran of com­bat in Afghanistan. He has writ­ten that the U.S. de­votes too few re­sources, guided by too lit­tle strate­gic clar­ity, to Afghanistan. But how that trans­lates into ac­tion by the next White House is un­clear.

News­pa­pers an­nounc­ing the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as Amer­ica’s next pres­i­dent are dis­played in Kabul on Nov. 10.

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