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A change of course

Masood SaifullahJuly 15, 2016

The US has given more powers to its commanders in Afghanistan to better deal with a protracted Islamist insurgency. Experts, however, say the decision might not yield the desired results in the war-torn country.

US army and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers walk as a NATO helicopter flies overhead at coalition force Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar (Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/W. Kohsar

On Tuesday, July 12, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the new powers given to General John Nicholson, who commands both the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and a separate US counterterrorism mission, would allow "much more efficient and effective use of the forces we have here as well as the Afghan forces."

"It obviously, to me, makes a lot more sense to be doing it the way we're doing it now," Carter said at a joint news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the capital Kabul.

On July 6, US President Barack Obama shelved plans to cut the US forces in Afghanistan to 5,000 by the end of 2016, opting instead to keep 8,400 troops there through the close of his presidency in January next year.

Earlier in Warsaw, NATO member countries renewed their commitment to Afghanistan by extending their training and advisory mission for the local security forces to 2017. NATO members also agreed to continue funding the Afghan army until 2020.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, left, speaks as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, right, listens during press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, July 12, 2016 (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
In Kabul, Carter also praised the 'courageous' Afghan troops and expressed his country's confidence in themImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/R. Gul

The Afghan authorities have commended the decisions, asserting that the international community has shown faith in their efforts.

Both the US and Afghan officials claim that a greater authority to US commanders in the South Asian country will yield better results in the fight against the Taliban and other jihadist groups.

Challenges ahead

Experts say that an increased role for the US troops in Afghanistan not only signals Washington's willingness to support the Afghan government for a longer period of time, but also highlights growing concerns about a surge in violence in the country.

Siegfried O. Wolf, a South Asia expert at the University of Heidelberg, believes the new US plans prove that Washington is worried about the security situation in the conflict-ridden country.

"The situation in Afghanistan is sharply deteriorating. The Taliban are launching bigger attacks, and the IS activities are also expanding," Wolf told DW.

Afghan officials acknowledge the jihadist threat.

"This year has been a pretty tough year for us," Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah told DW on the sidelines of a NATO Summit in Warsaw on July 9.

The Afghan security forces took charge of their country's security after the NATO's military mission ended in 2014, but they have been struggling to quell the Taliban insurgency. Also, the IS activities in the eastern Nangarhar province have posed another challenge to them.

Surge in violence

Last month, a deadly Taliban attack in Kabul killed more than 20 police cadets. The militant group has sustained its violent momentum since losing its leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, in May.

Meanwhile, terror group "Islamic State" (IS) is also expanding its activities in Afghanistan. According to media reports, hundreds of people in the eastern province of Nangarhar have been displaced after days of heavy fighting between IS affiliates and government troops earlier this month.

In their meeting in Kabul, both Carter and Ghani also discussed the role of neighboring Pakistan in the battle against Islamic terrorists. Islamabad has long been accused of supporting militants, including some factions of the Taliban.

President Ghani was unequivocal in his criticism of Islamabad during the NATO summit, alleging that Pakistan was the only country in the region that hadn't supported the Afghan peace process whole-heartedly. Pakistani officials deny these claims.

"Pakistan has a fundamental decision to make," said Ghani. "There is no difference between good and bad terrorists."

US Defense Secretary Carter said the US would work with Pakistan "wherever it can" on extremism, but warned that Washington would "continue to target and strike terrorist leaders everywhere in the world."

The Pakistan conundrum

Ties between Kabul and Islamabad have further deteriorated in recent months.

Afghanistan insists that Pakistan is playing a "double game" with Kabul and the international community by lending support to the Taliban and the militant Haqqani Network.

Gul Dali (R) the district leader of Islamic State (IS) sitting with colleagues and his family at an undisclosed location in Kunar province, Afghanistan, 30 July 2015 (Photo: EPA/GHULAMULLAH HABIBI +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Analysts say that Taliban factionalism could lead to more defections of frustrated militants to ISImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi

"Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are based on deep mistrust, suspicion and resentment, which contribute to a political deadlock and conflict in the region," Wolf said, adding that Islamabad's alleged support to the Taliban was another reason why the US decided to keep more troops in Afghanistan.

Experts say that Kabul's open criticism of Islamabad is likely to anger the Pakistani establishment, which might not augur well for the stalled peace process.