Trump battles a sense of inertia in Afghanistan

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A year after reversing course on a key campaign pledge and announcing that U.S. troops would stay in Afghanistan with a tweaked strategy, President Trump is faced with a war that has seen little progress since.

Pentagon officials insist the strategy adopted by the Trump administration last summer is working, pointing to a three-day ceasefire earlier this year and backchannel talks with elements of the Taliban.

But insurgents continue to be able to stage high-profile attacks, territorial control has remained largely unchanged and civilian deaths are hitting all-time highs 17 years into what has sometimes been called the “forever war” or “forgotten war.”{mosads}

“I think it’s been a difficult slog with mixed prioritization from the top national security leadership, frankly, including Congress,” Andy Keiser, a principal at the lobbying firm Navigators Global who worked on the Trump transition team’s national security section, said of the past year.

“The strategy was to move the needle on the battlefield so that when we got to negotiation we were in a strong position, and that result has been mixed.”

Trump announced his strategy for the war in Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2017, following months of deliberation with his national security team. The president said that he would stick with the national security establishment’s wisdom and not withdraw from the country, something he had campaigned on.

But Trump also announced some changes to what the United States would be doing in Afghanistan: He took away a timeline for withdrawal, saying leaving Afghanistan would instead be based on conditions on the ground; he added thousands more troops and loosened some rules of engagement so they would be close to the front line; and he pledged to put more pressure on regional players such as Pakistan.

Today, the United States has about 16,000 troops in Afghanistan on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban as well as conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In a Reuters interview last week, Trump said he is “constantly reviewing” the situation in Afghanistan.

“I’m constantly reviewing Afghanistan and the whole Middle East,” Trump said. “We never should have been in the Middle East. It was the single greatest mistake in the history of our country.”

In the year since Trump’s speech outlining his strategy in the country, the picture on the ground has seen little improvement.

The battle for Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month exemplifies the struggle. Reports from the ground depicted a grim scene in the city, with a Taliban assault taking Afghan soldiers by surprise, leaving them overrun before U.S. forces and Afghan commandos could arrive.

More than 100 Afghan forces were killed, and the city was littered with bomb craters. Time magazine, whose reporter was embedded with U.S. forces, reported that nine Americans were evacuated by helicopter for injuries suffered in the fighting.

But the U.S. military has cast the Taliban’s assault as a failure and praised Afghan and U.S. forces for their success, given that the insurgents were ultimately driven from the city.

“This was not a military victory by any stretch,” outgoing commander Gen. John Nicholson said at his final briefing to Pentagon reporters Tuesday. “They were driven out of the city, and it was done in about four days. So can they launch an attack for four days? Yes. Do those attacks succeed in gaining and holding new ground? No.”

Other metrics also paint a dismal picture. A recent inspector general report said territorial control remains largely unchanged at 65 percent of Afghans living in areas under government control, 12 percent under the Taliban and 23 percent in contested areas.

The same report, citing United Nations figures, said civilian deaths in the first six months of the year were the highest they’ve been for that period since the war began.

Keiser said that while he thinks Trump made the right decision a year ago, the realities of Afghanistan have made progress halting.

“Of course the realities on the ground always bump into the best laid plans that the smartest military minds can come up with, and that’s kind of where we are today,” he said.

Top U.S. officials maintain that the Taliban’s high-profile attacks are nothing more than headline grabbing. The real measure of progress, they argue, is the Taliban’s increasing willingness to talk.

Earlier this year, there was a three-day ceasefire to mark Eid al-Fitr, the first ceasefire the Taliban has accepted since the war started in 2001. But the Taliban did not accept the Afghan government’s offer to extend the ceasefire beyond the holiday and did not respond to an offer for another ceasefire during last week’s Eid al-Adha.

Shortly after the Eid al-Fitr ceasefire earlier this year, U.S. officials reportedly met in secret with Taliban officials in Qatar.

In what’s being interpreted as a sign the Trump administration is serious about making progress on talks with the Taliban, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reportedly poised to tap veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as a special envoy for Afghanistan.

“The progress towards reconciliation, which ultimately is what we want — a political end to the war — which will enable a political end to the war, is perhaps one of the greatest successes of the strategy so far,” Nicholson said at his briefing last week.

“Now, there will be ups and downs, there will be leap-aheads, there’ll be frustrations, there’ll be, you know, two steps forward, one step back from time to time, but the process is started.”

Some lawmakers agree there has been progress over the past year.

“I think we’ve put a real dent in the Taliban leadership,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said last week. “The only reason people are talking about a ceasefire is [Trump] changed the rules of engagement to really put military pressure on the Taliban.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he thinks the strategy is “working very well” and the Taliban is responding to Trump’s “strong statements.”

Still, others acknowledge that Afghanistan remains messy, while not necessarily blaming Trump for not being able to clean up the mess.

“Afghanistan’s a tough place,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, noting he supported Trump’s strategy there. “Negotiations have been off and on with the Taliban, and that’s sort of the condition it’s been in for years.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said finding a political solution to the war has been a challenge “for a long time.”

“I think we’ve maintained the same kind of complicated balance that we’ve had previously,” Reed said of the past year. “Militarily, [the Afghans have] been taking significant casualties that accumulate over years. We’re still trying to build up their air power, which would be a critical advantage for them. But it’s still a long way to go.”

James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who worked on Trump’s transition team, argued the strategy has been successful even if reconciliation hasn’t be achieved because the U.S. interest of making sure Afghanistan does not collapse and become a terrorist safe heaven has been protected.

As to whether Trump is frustrated at the progress over the last year, Carafano was doubtful.

“I haven’t seen any real indications” of frustration, Carafano said. “I think he’s perfectly capable of strategic patience.”

After 17 years, though, some think it’s time for Trump to cut America’s losses.

“I was shocked when Trump a year ago reversed course on his campaign pledge to get out of Afghanistan, and he went deeper into it,” said Sean McFate, a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University. “I just don’t understand it. Is Afghanistan some POTUS crack that they can’t get off of?”

Tags Bob Corker Donald Trump Jack Reed Lindsey Graham Mike Pompeo

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