Monday, July 24, 2017

Afghanistan is Past Its Tipping Point

UPDATE: This morning's Situation Report is chock full of bad news regarding Afghanistan:
Afghan grind fragmenting Trump’s cabinet. There’s little good news coming out of Afghanistan these days, and in Washington, the wheels keep turning on the long-awaited Trump strategy. But two national security officials told Politico’s Susan Glasser that a recent National Security Council Principals Committee meeting about Afghanistan descended into a “shitshow” of disagreements and complaints.
According to Glasser,
[T]he session of the National Security Council Principals Committee, described by two sources briefed on it as a “s*** show” that featured what a third source, a senior White House official, confirmed was a heated debate where “words were exchanged,” proved no more successful than months’ worth of previous Afghan policy debates.
Trump refused to sign off on the plan they approved, the sources said, instead sending it back to his national security team demanding more work. And on Tuesday, the president made clear just how dissatisfied he was. In what were pretty much his first public comments on Afghanistan during his six months in office, he told reporters before a White House lunch, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.” On Thursday, headed into a Pentagon meeting, he was similarly cagey. Asked about more troops for Afghanistan, he replied only, “We’ll see.”
Trump’s equivocation reflects the difficulty of figuring out what to do about an unceasing war that is once again at an impasse without an influx of new troops. “We are not winning in Afghanistan,” Defense Secretary James Mattis testified last month.
But the president’s hesitation is also, according to multiple current and former senior U.S. officials I’ve spoken with in recent days, a striking vote of no-confidence in his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who has been trying and failing for months to sell the president on a new plan for Afghanistan.
McMaster has made a major policy review of America’s long, failed war there his personal mission, according to the sources, and he pushed hard to get a new strategy that would include the relatively modest troop increases and a commitment to at least another four-year timeline approved in advance of Trump’s May summit with NATO allies.

With ceasefires in effect in much of Syria and Mosul conquered, the most active war theater is likely Afghanistan. Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar write in "Taliban Seize Two More Afghan Districts in Sustained Fighting" of ongoing battles in the country's south, north, east and west.
With the Taliban’s annual offensive in full swing, after the opium harvest and the fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, Afghan forces have been engaged with the Taliban in 21 of the country’s 34 provinces, according to the country’s minister of defense, Gen. Tariq Shah Bahrami. The frequency of attacks across several provinces in recent days and the casualty rate among the security forces, particularly the police and government militiamen, have raised alarms.
The uptick in violence comes as the Trump administration is considering sending a few thousand more troops, adding to the force of about 8,700 Americans already in the country to bolster the Afghan security forces.
In the meantime, the United States military has intensified airstrikes in support of the Afghan forces. In the first six months of 2017, American aircraft released more than 1,600 weapons, according to the United States Central Command, nearly 20 percent more than the number for all of 2016. In Helmand Province alone last week, American forces carried out an average of 10 strikes a day.
Even before the fall of the two recent districts, the insurgents controlled 11 districts from the country’s roughly 400 districts, and influenced another 34, according to United States military data released by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. In comparison, the Afghan government controlled 97 districts and influenced 146. More than 100 districts were contested by both sides.
My guess is that the above U.S. assessment is rose-colored. When was the last time you read about the Afghan government clearing districts of Taliban? If anything, the Taliban abandon territory because they have to attend to other matters. This doesn't mean that Afghan security forces, particularly the police, can hold turf, calling into question the "More than 100 districts were contested by both sides" sentence above. If these 100 districts are placed in the Taliban column, you have a country that's past the tipping point.

Kabul is not going to fall soon. But the terror bombings like the one Mujib Mashal reports this morning, "Taliban Claim Kabul Explosion That Killed Dozens," will continue to create chaos.

Mattis has been reticent about his plans for a troop deployment, a taciturnity that coincided with stories about Bannon and Kushner wanting to outsource the Taliban fight to mercenaries.

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan is at an end. The question is how long before an administration can muster the political courage to acknowledge reality. With a bellicose Congress like the one we have, it is going to be a while.

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