More U.S. soldiers may be heading to Afghanistan. That might not solve the problem.
KABUL — The emerging signs that the Trump administration may send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan are generating a variety of reactions here, including relief at a signal of strong commitment from the new administration in Washington, and worry that it may not be enough to turn around a long, expensive war that the Taliban has fought to a draw.
But many Afghan observers agree on one thing: Without a complementary political policy aimed at bolstering the weak Kabul government, pressing fractious leaders to get along and fending off the country’s meddlesome neighbors, no U.S. military surge alone can solve the broader problems that have made peace and stability so elusive.
“There is more fighting and more ground held by Taliban now than ever before, and increasing the troops can help reverse that,” said Abdul Bari Barakzai, a member of the government’s High Peace Council. “But people have lost their trust in the government. No matter how many troops you bring now, it will have no lasting impact unless there is real reform and good governance.”
Earlier this week, after a lengthy review, top Trump administration advisers were reported to be urging an ambitious new military role in Afghanistan, led by the Pentagon, with at least 3,000 troops added to the current 8,400, to halt the country’s deteriorating security and push the Taliban back to the negotiating table. President Trump is expected to make a final decision this month.
Such a policy would dramatically ramp up American involvement in the war, which was systematically cut back under President Barack Obama. By the end of 2014, most U.S. and NATO forces had left the country, leaving Afghan troops struggling to hold off a determined Taliban insurgency, at a loss of life that a U.S. watchdog group recently called “shockingly high.”
Today, Afghan officials and experts agree that the defense forces are desperately in need of both short- and long-term U.S. assistance — more equipment, air support and Special Operations partnerships as the summer fighting season intensifies, and more troop training and leadership reforms so that the defense forces can become self-sufficient.
“Our biggest challenge is the Taliban. We need help to keep up the pressure and force them to negotiate,” said Sediq Siddiqi, a spokesman for the government of President Ashraf Ghani. “We’re not waiting for the U.S. to go in and take over, but we need help with the transition,” he said. “We need the Taliban to feel the pressure, and we can’t do it alone.”
No one in Afghanistan, though, sees the insurgents as operating in a vacuum. Rather, the insurgents are viewed as capitalizing on widespread perceptions that the state is weak, corrupt, consumed with internal and external rivalries, and unable to deliver services, jobs, reforms and modernization.
A wide variety of Afghans, asked this week whether the United States should step up its military presence, almost immediately raised the issues of poor government performance and political quarreling as significant deterrents to peace. One civic activist described the government as being in a state of “continuous crisis.”
Some said it was more important for foreign allies and donors, especially the United States, to help resolve these problems than to immerse themselves again in a bloody civil conflict. And many said that it was equally crucial for the United States to press next-door Pakistan to stop harboring anti-Afghan insurgents, a charge Pakistan has denied.
“A U.S. troop increase can be effective, but you need to put maximum pressure on Pakistan to stop training and sheltering terrorists,” said Gen. Mirza Mohammed Yarmand, a former deputy interior minister. “The challenge of leaders bickering in the government is far more serious,” he added. “Without sorting out these two issues, there will be no peace in Afghanistan, whatever amount of money you spend here and whatever number of troops you send.”
The Trump administration has said little about Afghanistan’s government problems and has not yet announced any policy decisions on Pakistan, although it has hinted at using both economic and diplomatic sanctions against its former Cold War ally if the Islamabad government does not do more to rein in violent Islamist groups.
Afghans are also worried about the designs of other aggressive neighbors and regional powers, especially Iran and Russia, on their economically weakened and war-torn country. Several said a U.S. decision to send more troops would also send an important “hands-off” message to those powers.
“We know Pakistan, Iran and the Russians do not want to see peace in Afghanistan, but decisive action by President Trump will plant a seed of hope in people,” said Ismael Hashimi, director of the private Citizens’ Foundation here. “If he sends more troops, people will feel they have a strong partner on their side.”
With no U.S. ambassador in Kabul since December, U.S. military officials, especially Gen. John W. Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and H.R. McMaster, a former military adviser in Kabul who is now Trump’s national security adviser, have played especially high-profile roles, and both have urged more military involvement.
But Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, said the U.S. administration needs to develop “complementary” military and political policies, especially with the Afghan government embroiled in ethnic disputes and losing public support, while the Taliban is already using the international military presence as an excuse to continue fighting the state.
“President Obama overly idealized political and diplomatic solutions. The danger now is that President Trump will see everything as a military problem with a military solution,” he said. “The challenge is to combine them both, and be smart about it.”
Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Walid contributed to this report.