According to a senior White House official, President Donald Trump is deciding between two U.S. strategies in Afghanistan, one “more kinetic” and the other “less kinetic.”
The more kinetic plan envisions an increase of at least 3,000 U.S. troops to the existing levels of about 8,400, a matching increase in NATO forces and a loosening of the rules of engagement to allow more aggressive action against the Taliban in order to pressure them to negotiate.
The less kinetic option would maintain current troop levels, conduct counterterrorism operations against high value targets, assist local partners in fighting extremist ideology and continue a minimal train-and-advise mission for the Afghan military, but expect the Afghan government and the Taliban to resolve the conflict among themselves.
Those more or less kinetic strategies will produce a more or less stalemate and the more or less instability that Pakistan, Russia and Iran more or less want.
They certainly don’t want a U.S. – NATO victory and a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, which might benefit from exploiting its estimated $3 trillion in untapped, mineral resources.
On April 27, Pakistani Minister of Defense Khawaja Asif met in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to endorse Russia’s expanded role in Afghanistan because their countries’ geopolitical influence over Afghanistan is maximized by a strengthened Taliban.
Russia does not want another U.S. – NATO outpost on its doorstep, where Afghanistan could be a launchpad for building influence over Central Asia’s former Soviet republics. The Kremlin also wants to retaliate for the U.S. support of Sunni rebels in Syria and exact revenge on the U.S. for arming the Mujahedeen, who drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is just a recent iteration of a long-held policy to destabilize Afghanistan, as Islamabad fears that a stable Afghanistan could forge a strategic partnership with India. Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) once told his generals: “Afghanistan must be made to boil at the right temperature.”
Russia is arming the Taliban according to: Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of U.S. Central Command and Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
Over the past 18 months, the Russians have increased their supply of equipment and small arms to the Taliban including medium and heavy machine guns, particularly in Afghanistan’s southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, likely with the assistance of Pakistan.
Gen. Mohammad Katawazai of the Afghan Ministry of Defense accused Russia of providing arms to the Taliban in the northern part of the country, where Taliban leader Mullah Salam, who had been receiving arms from Tajikistan, was recently killed.
That comment was corroborated by Nasruddin Saeedi, district governor of Dasht-e Archi in northern Kunduz province, which shares a porous border with the former Soviet republic. He said the Taliban receives small arms, rocket launchers, cash and ammunition from Russia via Tajikistan.
The Voice of America reported that the provincial police chief in central Uruzgan province told Afghan media that visiting Russian generals were providing Taliban militants with weapons and training:
“Eleven Russians, including two women, dressed in doctor’s uniforms and guarded by four armed Taliban, along with an Afghan translator, have been spotted in various parts of the province,” Ghulam Farooq Sangari, Uruzgan police chief, told VOA’s Afghan service. “They have been enticing people against the government, providing training and teaching how to assemble land mines.”
It is not just the free flow of arms to the Taliban, but the free moment of fighting-age men, who, according to Fox News, not only routinely cross the Pakistan border, but travel in broad daylight on Afghan highways.
“How does terrorism spread? Terrorists just get on a bus and go where they need to. It is that easy,” said Gen. Jawid Kohistani, a former official at Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security.
Neither a more nor less kinetic strategy can succeed under such conditions.
It should be clear by now that simply tweaking our 16-year-old top-down Afghanistan strategy will likely not produce a desirable outcome. In addition, relying heavily on an Iraq-like troop surge approach may be misplaced, because Afghanistan is not Iraq.
Afghanistan has its own unique tribal, ethnic and religious fault lines and any long-term strategy should take that into consideration.
After all, it was the Northern Alliance composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras that kept the predominantly Pashtun Taliban at bay before September 11, 2001 and the Northern Alliance was also our base of support to defeat of the Taliban afterwards.
Even if we are not completely successful, and Russia, Pakistan and Iran want instability, we will be prepared to give it to them in spades.
Make instability their problem, not ours.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of “Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution “. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.