Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Monday, December 17th, 2018

The Changing US Engagement in War in Afghanistan


The Changing US Engagement in War in Afghanistan

US President Barack Obama has approved playing greater role by US forces in Afghanistan to support the Afghan forces battling the Taliban. Based on the policy change, US troops in Afghanistan would have broader cooperation with Afghan security forces in the fight against the Taliban including providing air support to Afghan units in the battle field. The decision is aimed at helping the anti-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan and preventing the Taliban from posing major threats and taking grounds in their offensive against the government forces. The decision is coming more than a year after NATO forces concluded its combat missions and maintained limited forces to assist in training Afghan security forces. The approval for playing a more robust role by US forces in the ongoing war in Afghanistan is coming as a crucially important development for the efforts to contain the Taliban insurgency and foil the group’s attempts to take more grounds across the country.
The redefinition of rules of engagement for the American troops is expected to boost the ongoing anti-insurgency campaign by providing air support to the Afghan forces. Since the conclusion of the combat mission of NATO in 2014, the role of the remaining US forces was confined to providing support in forms of advising and training to Afghan security forces. They were only allowed to directly engage in fighting with the Taliban only in cases of self-defense and in particular circumstances with direct permission from the military leadership. This had complicated the support role of US forces in cases when Afghan forces needed help from the coalition. The limited role even resulted to confusions among US forces over the limits of their role. American soldiers in Afghanistan complained of confusions about how far troops were allowed to go to help Afghan forces in the fight against the Taliban while senior commanders failed to provide clear guidelines on limits of engagement.
The restrictions on the engagement of the US forces with the militants have had broad impacts on the ability of the Afghan forces fighting the Taliban and repelling the group’s offensive last year. During the war in 2015, the limitations led to poor support by US forces to Afghan security forces struggling to contain the Taliban’s spring offensive. The Taliban managed to heighten their offensive and pose higher security risks across the country. The militants came to resurgence and expanded their influence across Afghanistan. The Taliban had their best prize since 2001 when the group momentarily captured the strategic Kunduz city in the north. It was the first time since 2001 for the group to seize a major urban area like Kunduz, and it took months for the Afghan forces to secure the city and its surroundings. It was in the Kunduz battle that the US forces found it inevitable to engage more directly to prevent Taliban militants from taking major grounds.
With the peace efforts virtually ended by the recent developments in the leadership of the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States have no viable option but to draw and long-term plan for fighting the Taliban and other militant groups. The current challenges facing Afghanistan and the broad political and economic uncertainty make it imperative for the US and the Afghan government to rewrite the anti-insurgency campaign plans for the upcoming decade. Afghanistan continues to face enormous challenges like political instability, weak economy and pervasive corruption that make it harder for the Afghan government to win the war against the Taliban. These challenges further compound the security risks and undermine the government’s efforts to win the war against the Taliban.
To ensure sustainability of the campaign against the Taliban, Afghanistan needs to lead successful political and economic developments, and on the other hand, further extend military cooperation with the US-led international forces. The ongoing war in Afghanistan may remain unresolved for an unforeseen period of time. It could take years and even decades to weaken the Taliban by military means and then persuade the ground into peace negotiations. Since it reemerged as an insurgency around 2006, the Taliban have kept fighting a war of attrition against the Afghan government while the government have failed to develop the anti-insurgency campaign into a sustainable and long-term battle with the aim to gradually weaken the militants. Former president Hamid Karzai and the national unity government tried to appease the Taliban by being lenient to them and promising concessions for them if they come to the table peace negotiations. However, none of the policies of appeasement worked and the Taliban persistently escalated the war.
However, the recent toughening of stance by the national unity government towards the Taliban should have sent a clear message to the Taliban: that they will be suppressed militarily if they refuse to join peace talks. The government of Afghanistan needs to make it clear that the ongoing war is a long-term one and that the militants would be persuaded into peace talks through defeating them on the battleground. The national unity government has been praised for its U-turn on some policies of the former government of Afghanistan. It has improved relations with international supporters and has persuaded the international community to increase support to the Afghan security and defense forces. It has outlined clearer policies on engaging in peace talks with the militant groups and suppressing them in case they refuse to join peace talks.
But more importantly, the national unity government managed to broaden security cooperation with the US and secure the country’s long-term security partnership. The latest decision to broaden engagement of US troops in the military efforts against the Taliban is coming as another step forward in insuring a robust US support to the ongoing anti-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. With the US President set to reveal his plan on further reduction of troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan government needs to urge Washington to postpone the reduction plan and keep its forces in Afghanistan at its current level.

Abdul Ahad Bahrami is the permanent writer of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at ahad.bahrami@gmail.com

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