A renewed commitment to Afghanistan requires a reinvigorated approach

So, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPolitical reporter says Russia probe could galvanize Dems ahead of 2020 Giuliani calls latest Cohen allegations 'categorically false' Lawmaker invites Trump to give State of the Union from Michigan statehouse MORE seems to have paid heed to what the “experts” have been saying, as he no longer appears ready to cut and run in Afghanistan. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. Now that the operation in Ghazni is intensifying and the insurgents will likely have to regroup after heavy casualties, Trump’s policy initiatives could set the tone for America’s strategic future in Afghanistan.

With the likes of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. on board, there’s no dearth of voices that, perhaps, know more about Afghanistan than most out there. But, the question remains: Will Trump be willing to listen and alter, if need be, his Afghanistan policy?

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Before delving into the finer points, let’s just crunch two numbers: Casualties and Bombs. The number of U.S. soldiers who’ve died in Afghanistan in 2018 has reached 12; the casualties this year have already outnumbered the previous two years. As of October 31, 5,982 bombs have been dropped on Afghanistan in 2018; the number for 2017 was 4,361, and it was 1,337 and 947 for the years 2016 and 2015, respectively. Although the number of bombs dropped on Afghanistan increased this year, there’s also been an increase in U.S. soldiers killed in action (KIA) and wounded in action (WIA) in Afghanistan.

One thing’s for sure: Something, somewhere, is out of place.

If Trump doesn’t fix it, waging and sustaining the war in Afghanistan, let alone winning it, will become even more arduous.

The clock’s ticking, and I offer the following policy recommendations to substantiate Trump’s renewed commitment towards Afghanistan.

First, large-scale conventional military strikes haven’t worked in Afghanistan, and they won’t in the future, either. When it comes to tackling an insurgency-hit area, the first thing the counter-insurgents need to do is try and de-link the majority of the population from the insurgents. Dropping bombs when you haven’t catered to the population only aggravates the situation.

The greater the collateral damage, the higher the chances the civilian population will turn against you. While fighting insurgents and terrorists, why anger a fair chunk of civilian population? Once the general populace is alienated from the militants, it becomes easier for counter-insurgents to engage in the F3 process: which involves finding, fixing, and finishing the intended targets.

However, without cogent intelligence analysis, decimating and eliminating the terrorists and insurgents from within becomes quite difficult. This is where the EAD strategy – exploit, analyze, and disseminate (intelligence information) – comes into play. This F3EAD warfare strategy was first introduced by General Stanley McChrystal in Iraq in 2003. It’s intriguing that this option hasn’t been explored, to a large extent, in Afghanistan.

If Trump doesn’t want the casualty numbers to shoot up next year, then a slight shift from conventional strikes to a mix of offense-defense attacks and psy-ops could work well in Afghanistan.

Second, in a constantly evolving geopolitical environment where states are deciding to align and realign with the Taliban, the United States needs to re-access its policy decisions as well. Here’s the thing: Being honest about matters pertaining to national security and foreign policy is one thing, being too open is altogether different. If you babble out most of your moves before you make the call, you’re left with little room to maneuver.

Those days have gone when the Taliban relied solely on Pakistan. It needs to be understood that the Taliban would only need sanctuaries from Pakistan. And even if that were denied, it wouldn’t be a huge setback. The support the insurgent group garners from Russia and Iran is enough to oil its wheels. Both those countries’ support for Taliban – covert or overt, as the case may be – stems not only from the fear of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) making further inroads into the region, but also to keep the United States in check.

If the Taliban are constantly diversifying their relationship with other actors, why can’t the United States come up with shrewd geopolitical calculations to counter them? Renewed commitment towards Afghanistan requires a reinvigorated approach.

Let's see what Khalilzad can muster in his latest trip to Islamabad.

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst who teaches at National Defence University in Islamabad, Pakistan. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times, RealClearDefense, and The Defense Post, the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. You may reach him at shazar.shafqat786@gmail.com