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Afghanistan waiting for new US strategy under Trump

Reports of delays from President Donald Trump's administration in presenting a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan indicate dissonance in the White House on how to resolve the conflict.

In June 2017, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was able to sum up the status of the United States' longest war in one straightforward sentence given to the Senate Armed Services Committee, "We are not winning right now in Afghanistan." He then vowed to "correct this as soon as possible." It has been more than a month and this correction has yet to take place.

And recent media reports indicate that there are going to be more delays from the Trump administration in announcing a new US strategy for Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters at a lunch meeting on July 18 with four US service members who served on the ground in Afghanistan, President Trump said, "We've been there for now close to 17 years and I want to find out why we've been there for 17 years, how it's going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas."

Trump added that he had "heard plenty of ideas from a lot of people" but wanted to "hear it from people on the ground." He is the third US president after George W. Bush and Barack Obama to oversee operations in Afghanistan.

According to a report released on August 2 by the NBC news network, one day after this July lunch meeting, Trump gathered his top security advisors in the White House "situation room," where he reportedly expressed his frustration at the "lack of progress" in Afghanistan.

At the meeting, Trump also reportedly suggested firing the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, saying that he was receiving "bad advice" from him.

Bitter progress

USA Washington - Donald Trump, Mike Pence, H.R. McMaster (picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. M. Monsivais)

US President Trump at a meeting with US military service members in July

It is clear from the NBC report that the meeting did not address the political situation in Afghanistan. According to Almut Wieland-Karimi, an Afghanistan expert at the Berlin-based Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF), this is a critical issue.

"In my opinion, what has gone wrong is that the development of Afghanistan has been dominated by a military perspective and the political process has fallen by the wayside," Wieland-Karimi told DW.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed into Afghanistan over the past 16 years, most of it coming from the US. This has brought advances in infrastructure, education and health care, and helped remove the country from isolation. There is also a lively Afghan media landscape evolving with widespread development of internet and mobile technologies. There is a young, dedicated elite that are committed to the reconstruction of their country.

But all of these advances are reversible. The Afghan state that emerged after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 cannot survive without foreign military and financial support. Young Afghans are the second-largest refugee group in Europe. This is a dilemma that even a new US commander in Afghanistan would not be able to resolve. What is essentially lacking is a political strategy. 

The resurgence of the Taliban

On May 31, 2017, the Taliban carried out their deadliest attack in Kabul since 2001. In the direct vicinity of the German embassy a suicide bomber detonated explosives placed in a water tanker. More than 150 people were killed.

The German embassy was then vacated - as was the case in Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2016 after the German consulate was destroyed in a bombing. International missions are hidden behind ever higher protective barriers and diplomacy takes place in isolation and far removed from the general population.

Afghan security forces are suffering heavy losses and currently control less than 60 percent of the country. The US and its partners, the most powerful military alliance in the world, have no exit strategy.

"This war cannot be won with bombs," Sima Samar, the chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul, told DW. "It can be won by winning public support through the promotion of accountability and justice. Corruption is another factor for the growing distance between the people and state institutions. And so is the friendship of the international community with corrupt warlords."

Afghanistan deutsche Botschaft in Kabul (Reuters/M. Ismail)

Afghan workers clean up after the May attack on the German embassy in Kabul

No exit strategy

There are currently many indicators that the US and NATO want to send more troops to Afghanistan to again turn the tide. The current number has been reported to be 4,000 soldiers. But according to Wieland-Karimi from ZIF, more soldiers cannot rectify what politicians have neglected.

"Pacification can only be achieved when international, regional and national actors develop a collective strategy and objective," said Wieland-Karimi. "They must sit at one table and then make their respective positions transparent."

The expert added that the political will of all parties was key along with the support of international institutions like the United Nations (UN). "It is a complex and lengthy negotiation process, but without it there will never be a peaceful solution," said Wieland-Karimi.

Read: Trump gives Pentagon freedom to set troop numbers in Afghanistan

There are currently 13,000 foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan involved in two missions. The NATO-coordinated forces formerly known as ISAF are now responsible for training and advising Afghan security forces under the mission "Resolute Support".

The anti-terror mission "Enduring Freedom" is now known as "Freedom's Sentinel," and involves primarily US special forces supported by armed drones and air forces. Although the missions are separated on paper, there is the potential they could blend together - as did ISAF and "Enduring Freedom".

The UN has been keeping track of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since 2009, and the numbers are continually increasing. In the first six months of 2017, 1,662 civilians were killed. A resurgent Taliban and other terror outfits like the so-called "Islamic State" have been putting urban centers in their crosshairs. According to the UN, 19 percent of civilian victims this year have been killed in the capital Kabul.

Watch video 00:50

Mattis: The US is 'not winning' in Afghanistan

The arrival of NATO troops in Afghanistan after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, was the first time NATO's doctrine of "an attack on one is an attack on all" was put into action. The war was initially focused on capturing Osama bin Laden, the then leader of al-Qaeda, and destroying his terror organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The other strategic goal was eliminating the Taliban and its support networks.

When he inherited the war from President Bush, Obama tried to stabilize the situation with a massive troop increase and in 2011 there were nearly 140,000 international forces stationed in Afghanistan. At the same time the Obama administration outlined a strategy of ending the US combat mission by the end of 2014. To this day, that has only succeeded on paper. 

Civilians have many enemies

Afghanistan Kabul US-Verteidigungsminister Mattis (Reuters/J. Ernst)

US Army General John Nicholson and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meet in Kabul

A peaceful solution seems to be years away. Fighting and terrorist attacks are reported from almost all provinces, turning an increasing number of people into refugees in their own country.  

Afghanistan has constantly been in a state of war for almost four decades. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union occupied the country with over 100,000 troops. The long period of conflict has socially and politically splintered the multiethnic Afghan society.

The current national unity government in Kabul, led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, has been paralyzed by acute internal power struggles. There is increasing opposition from within.  

In a bid to stabilize the situation, the international military mission continues to work closely with local and regional leaders, many of whom are involved in drug trafficking, human rights abuses, sexual crimes and other criminal activities.

Some, like Vice President Rashid Dostum, have their own private militias. Dostum is currently facing accusations that he ordered a political rival to be raped and tortured. The vice president has been in Turkey since May this year. 

This culture of impunity "provides a great legitimacy gap that allows the Taliban and other militant groups to exploit people's grievances", stresses the Afghan political scientist Niamatullah Ibrahimi.

He considers the power vacuum to be a dangerous breeding ground for jihadists. Ibrahimi strongly urges the international community to "work closely with President Ghani and the political opposition groups to develop a common political consensus."

The proxy wars

Although Afghanistan seized to be al-Qaeda's headquarters following the US invasion, about 20 terror outfits are currently active in the war-ravaged desolate nation. Alliances are fluid. Fighters move from one group to the other. Moreover, many other nations such as Pakistan, India, Iran, China and Russia see Afghanistan as vital to their strategic, economic and security interests. As a result, they, too, have tried to influence developments in the country. 

Pakistan desperately wants to prevent the formation of a government in Kabul that supports Islamabad's archrival India. That's why the Taliban have received massive support from Pakistan from the outset, although Islamabad officially joined hands with the US in its war on terror after the 9/11 attacks. In Pakistan's border areas, Taliban fighters continue to find safe harbor.

India, meanwhile, wants to shrink Pakistani influence and expand its regional power. Iran wants to prevent the US to set up permanent military bases in its neighboring country. Tehran also aims to support the Shiite minority in Afghanistan – a community that has faced many attacks.

Russia wants to prevent a jihadist wave from spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia. China is striving to build an economic corridor that also passes through Afghanistan. Both Russia and China are irked by the US presence in the region.

In addition to these factors, there is also the massive flow of money to the Taliban, as well as the self-styled "Islamic State," emanating from the Gulf Arab countries. There is an active struggle for allies on the Afghan battlefield. "The actors destabilize each other," says Almut Wieland-Karimi, underlining the "tectonic shifts in power politics of the global order."

Watch video 25:59

Quadriga - Afghanistan - No way forward?

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