Set­backs cloud Afghan strat­egy

U.S. NEARS DE­CI­SION ON TROOP IN­CREASE Pak­istan’s role de­bated amid Tal­iban ad­vances


islamabad — As Amer­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cials com­plete plans that are likely to send sev­eral thou­sand ad­di­tional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a flurry of set­backs in the war have un­der­scored both the im­per­a­tive of ac­tion and the pit­falls of var­i­ous ap­proaches.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the pic­ture are ques­tions about how to deal with neigh­bor­ing Pak­istan and bal­ance sep­a­rate fights against Afghan and for­eign­based in­sur­gents.

In the lat­est at­tack Sun­day morn­ing, Tal­iban fight­ers stormed a po­lice base in south­east­ern Pak­tia prov­ince af­ter det­o­nat­ing a sui­cide car bomb out­side. At least five mem­bers of se­cu­rity forces and sev­eral civil­ians were killed, of­fi­cials said. The at­tack came one day af­ter an Afghan army com­mando shot and wounded seven U.S. troops in­side an army base in north­ern Balkh prov­ince.

Al­most ev­ery week seems to bring alarm­ing and em­bar­rass­ing de­vel­op­ments that cast doubt on the abil­ity of Afghan se­cu­rity forces to pro­tect the pub­lic and make head­way against the do­mes­tic Tal­iban in­sur­gency and the more ruth­less Is­lamic State.

From the pow­er­ful truck bomb that dec­i­mated a high-se­cu­rity district of Kabul on May 31, killing more than 150 peo­ple and spark­ing days of protests, to the

Satur­day shoot­ing at the same base in Balkh where Tal­iban in­fil­tra­tors killed more than 140 Afghan sol­diers April 21, a spate of at­tacks from var­i­ous sources is in­flict­ing blow af­ter blow on the na­tion’s bat­tered psy­che.

The Satur­day shoot­ing was one of sev­eral re­cent in­sider at­tacks that are rais­ing new con­cerns about poor vet­ting and con­flict­ing loy­al­ties, even among the elite Afghan spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces that the U.S. mil­i­tary sees as cru­cial to boost­ing the war ef­fort. Ex­perts said such at­tacks would be likely to in­crease if more U.S. troops ar­rive.

In eastern Nan­ga­har prov­ince, where Afghan and U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces have been wag­ing a joint cam­paign against Is­lamic State fight­ers, another Afghan army com­mando — re­port­edly a Tal­iban sym­pa­thizer or mem­ber — fa­tally shot three U.S. troops June 10.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have claimed to be mak­ing steady progress in that fight. In April, the United States dropped its largest non-nu­clear bomb on a com­plex of caves and tun­nels used by Is­lamic State fight­ers, re­port­edly killing 92.

But last week, in an equally dra­matic re­sponse, hun­dreds of Is­lamic State fight­ers cap­tured Tora Bora, the un­der­ground labyrinth that was once the re­doubt of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Un­der­scor­ing the con­fused bat­tle­field sit­u­a­tion, it was the Tal­iban that Is­lamic State forces fought and drove out of the area.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have ex­pressed grow­ing con­cern about the war and urged that sev­eral thou­sand more U.S. troops be sent to shore up Afghan forces. Fewer than half of the coun­try’s 407 dis­tricts are un­der full gov­ern­ment con­trol, and Tal­iban forces have come close to oc­cu­py­ing sev­eral pro­vin­cial cap­i­tals.

But no new U.S. pol­icy or troop num­bers have yet been an­nounced, re­port­edly be­cause of dis­agree­ments within the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. They in­clude ar­gu­ments over whether send­ing more troops would make a de­ci­sive dif­fer­ence, how much NATO al­lies should con­trib­ute and whether the United States should pres­sure Pak­istan to rein in Tal­iban in­sur­gents be­lieved to be op­er­at­ing from safe havens there.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, who was re­cently given au­thor­ity by Pres­i­dent Trump to set troop lev­els in the Afghan con­flict, said last week that the United States is “not win­ning” in Afghanistan and that the Pen­tagon will present its strat­egy plan next month. “We will cor­rect this as soon as pos­si­ble,” he told the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

Both Afghan and Amer­i­can an­a­lysts, how­ever, doubt that adding sev­eral thou­sand more troops to the 8,400 cur­rently here will make much dif­fer­ence in a war that at one point in­volved 140,000 U.S. and NATO forces. They stress that U.S. pol­icy also needs a strong po­lit­i­cal com­po­nent to strengthen the gov­ern- ment and push for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

“It’s clear that the U.S. can­not win this war mil­i­tar­ily,” said Michael Kugel­man at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars in Wash­ing­ton. “The Tal­iban in­sur­gency seems to strengthen by the day, the Is­lamic State re­mains re­silient, pub­lic anger is build­ing” and “Afghan troops are turning on their Amer­i­can train­ers.”

He said the new U.S. pol­icy “can’t come soon enough, but de­ploy­ing a few thou­sand new troops will do lit­tle to shift the cal­cu­lus on the ground.”

Afghan an­a­lysts and of­fi­cials ar­gue that the top U.S. pri­or­ity should be press­ing Pak­istan to cease har­bor­ing anti-Afghan mil­i­tants. A spokesman for the de­fense ministry said Sun­day that the U.S. gov­ern­ment needs to put “real pres­sure on Pak­istan to make it drop its sup­port for ter­ror­ists.”

Atiqul­lah Amarkhel, a re­tired Afghan army gen­eral, said that the gov­ern­ment is fac­ing an ag­ile guer­rilla en­emy and that United States needs to fo­cus on cut­ting its “lines of sup­ply and sup­port and train­ing” in Pak­istan. Send­ing more U.S. troops, he added, will “give more am­mu­ni­tion” for in­sur­gents to at­tract re­cruits among young and job­less Afghans.

Mat­tis said the Pen­tagon plans to take a “re­gional ap­proach” to the war and ad­dress “where this en­emy is fight­ing from,” which is “not just Afghanistan.” Afghan of­fi­cials have been more blunt, ac­cus­ing Pak­istan of har­bor­ing a vi­o­lent Tal­iban branch called the Haqqani Net­work.

At a con­fer­ence this month, Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani charged that Pak­istan is wag­ing an “un­de­clared war of ag­gres­sion” on Afghanistan. Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary com­man­ders bris­tled at the “un­war­ranted ac­cu­sa­tions” and said Afghans should “look in­ward” to solve their in­sur­gent prob­lems.

Some mem­bers of Congress and U.S. think tanks have urged the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to crack down heav­ily on Pak­istan, a for­mer Cold War ally and a ma­jor re­cip­i­ent of U.S. aid. Clearly wor­ried, Pak­istani of­fi­cials have de­nounced re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Afghanistan and have strongly de­nied back­ing the Haqqani Net­work.

But other voices have ar­gued against putting ex­cess pres­sure on Pak­istan, say­ing it could risk po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and re­li­gious un­rest. Pak­istan has suf­fered from years of mil­i­tant at­tacks, most re­cently a spate of sui­cide bomb­ings at Sufi shrines and other civil­ian tar­gets in Fe­bru­ary.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son told a con­gres­sional hear­ing last week that the United States has “very com­plex re­la­tions” with Pak­istan, but Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in­sisted that “if we don’t suc­ceed in Afghanistan,” it is be­cause of Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary-run in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

On the prob­lem of in­sider at­tacks, Amarkhel said it is easy for anti-gov­ern­ment sym­pa­thiz­ers to “pen­e­trate the ranks” of the se­cu­rity forces, be­cause poor se­cu­rity and vet­ting make it dif­fi­cult to as­sess re­cruits.

“It is hard to find the en­emy within your­self,” he said, adding that the Afghan mil­i­tary lead­er­ship is weak and politi­cized. “The re­cent in­sider at­tacks are not the first ones and will not be the last.”

U.S. watchdog agen­cies have noted that cor­rup­tion and nepo­tism within the Afghan mil­i­tary lead­er­ship have un­der­mined the ca­pac­ity of its forces, but changes in top of­fi­cials ap­pear to have made lit­tle dif­fer­ence. Af­ter the April 21 at­tack on the base in Balkh, Ghani dis­missed both the de­fense and in­te­rior min­is­ters.

The new U.S. pol­icy on Afghanistan “can’t come soon enough, but de­ploy­ing a few thou­sand new troops will do lit­tle to shift the cal­cu­lus on the ground.” Michael Kugel­man of the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars


U.S. sol­diers ma­neu­ver an M777 how­itzer so it can be towed into po­si­tion at Bost air­field in south­ern Hel­mand prov­ince in Afghanistan. On Satur­day, an Afghan army com­mando shot and wounded seven U.S. troops in­side an army base in north­ern Balkh prov­ince.

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