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18 February 2018 00:00:00 AM Breaking News


What an Afghanistan Victory Looks Like Under the Trump Plan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Shortly after President Trump’s speech, a retired Afghan general recalled a Taliban fighter who had taken up arms after six of his sons were killed, one by one. The same AK-47 was handed down to each.

Then the father was killed.

“You don’t make peace with people like that,” said the retired general, Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a combat veteran and Parliament member who comes from Helmand Province, the heart of the Taliban insurgency. “You also don’t win by killing them, there are always more.”

After nearly 16 years of war, America’s longest, the Taliban are not only far from defeated, they are gaining ground. They also have evolved into a more tenacious foe than the one routed in 2001, making a United States military triumph seem more remote.

Ever since 2008, when Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “we can’t kill our way to victory,” the cornerstone of American policy in Afghanistan has been not about obliterating the Taliban but pummeling them toward peace talks. President Barack Obama’s Afghan surge of 100,000 American troops failed to do this.

In his speech Monday night, President Trump asserted that the United States would yet achieve peace through victory. Despite that assertion, and far more modest troop commitments this time, the hope of tiring the Taliban remains the mantra repeated by American diplomats and the generals whom the president has empowered to execute his policy.

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They have quietly repeated that hope even in the absence of any visible peace process since the latest serious effort at talks collapsed last year. Within hours of President Trump’s speech, the American military commander in Kabul made that clear.

“This new strategy means the Taliban cannot win militarily,” said the commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson. “Now is the time to renounce violence and reconcile. A peaceful, stable Afghanistan is victory for the Afghan people and the goal of the Coalition.”

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An Afghan policeman stood watch at his unit’s small hilltop outpost overlooking the districts north of the provincial capital of Farah. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

As might be expected, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, scoffed at President Trump’s speech as “nothing new.” But many Afghans on the government side had a similar take.

“That’s the same strategy going on the last two decades,” said Jamaluddin Badr, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council. “He said we’re going to win, but he didn’t make it clear how we’re going to win.”

The vision of victory laid out by American generals, then and now, has been to help a friendly Afghan government hold Kabul and other crucial cities and convince the Taliban that they cannot again rise to national power, as they did in the ’90s.

But the ground has shifted. Even if the new American troop commitment limits the Taliban to the territory they have seized in the past two years, the pressure of that advance and old political rivalries have brought the Afghan government to the brink of collapse.

Further, the Taliban whom the Americans hope to bring to the table are not the same.

The Taliban position against peace talks has rarely been more hard-line than now. As the Taliban have regained territory, they have killed government soldiers and policemen at the highest rate of the war. General Qahraman, who until last year was the president’s military envoy to Helmand, said the insurgents control 60 percent of the country. Even the government’s own figures concede the Taliban contest or control 35 percent, a substantial gain over last year.

What once was a marginal, militant faction, the Haqqani Network, is now in the Taliban’s top leadership, including the No. 2 figure, who is in charge of military operations. The Haqqanis have been responsible for many of the deadliest attacks on the capital, and are known for running a virtual factory in Pakistan that has steadily supplied suicide bombers since 2005. The last Taliban leader to espouse peace talks, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, was killed in an American drone strike last year.

The rise in Afghanistan of the Islamic State in Khorasan, an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may be worrying Taliban leaders who see it as a potential rival. But the more extreme violence and ideology promoted by the Islamic State may also have forced the Taliban to adopt harsher methods themselves and made participation in peace talks even more unlikely.

President Trump mentioned “victory” four times and “defeat” of the enemy seven times in his speech. But it remains unclear what victory would even look like.

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Police officers by the crater caused by a truck bombing in Kabul in May. Credit Andrew Quilty for The New York Times

His speech hinted at one possible outcome: denying the insurgents safe havens in Pakistan, possibly by severing that country’s billions in American military aid.

American policy makers have repeatedly considered and rejected that possibility before. Pakistan has proved immune to sanctions, even severe ones when it was developing nuclear weapons. Pakistan also has a powerful ally in China, which is likely to step into any breach in American assistance. Alienating Pakistan could make the situation in Afghanistan far worse.

More likely, victory will resemble Afghanistan now: “a stalemate where the equilibrium favors the government,” in General Nicholson’s words to Congress in February.

That assumes that the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani can survive, an assumption sorely tested this year. Troubled with political divisions, and sometimes deadly infighting among pro-government warlords, Mr. Ghani’s government has faced debilitating street protests from citizens angry about terrorist attacks and insecurity.

Long-delayed parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year, but whether a credible vote can be held remains unclear. The 2014 presidential election was a disputed debacle of vote-stealing and other fraud.

President Trump’s speech on Afghanistan was conspicuously devoid of details: no timetable or numbers of new troops, though it is believed to be about 4,000. A timetable has been long opposed by American generals and Afghan officials who see it as a valuable piece of information for Taliban planners.

Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union ambassador to Kabul, said Mr. Trump’s vagueness was strategically shrewd. “It is an important signal to the Taliban that they can no longer wait us out,” he said.

But it also signaled that, 16 years on, many years of American entanglement may remain.

Even before the president’s speech, the American military and Afghan leaders were laying long-term plans. President Ghani has a new four-year plan for the war, extending through the 2020 fighting season, and includes doubling his army’s special forces. The American military has a $6.5-billion plan to make the Afghan air force self-sufficient and end its overreliance on American air power by 2023.

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A funeral near Kabul, after two suicide bombers tied to the Islamic State attacked a peaceful protest. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

The Taliban have long-range plans, too. While their attempts to actually hold seized provincial capitals have failed — often because of massive intervention by American air power, aided by special operations troops — many provincial centers remain little more than islands, surrounded by hostile countryside.

Taliban fighters can create roadblocks and ambushes in almost any part of the country, disrupting commerce and exacting an ever-growing human toll. Most of the 3,000 civilians killed annually are victims of the insurgents. And with Taliban control of most of Helmand Province, where 80 percent of Afghanistan’s opium is produced, Taliban coffers are full, both from taxing the drug and trafficking in it.

The insurgents, too, suffer high casualties; one senior American military official put their losses at 10,000 a year. Only five years ago, American military intelligence officials put the Taliban’s entire strength at 20,000 men, yet they seem to have no trouble replenishing their numbers.

Ask the Taliban about that, and they have a ready answer.

Hajji Naqibullah, an insurgent commander from Sangin District, cited Hajji Amanullah, who had 13 members of his family killed in battle, all replaced by his nephews. And Mullah Abdul Salam had four sons killed but his fifth volunteered, and is now a local commander.

Hajji Naqibullah said three of his own cousins were killed during the fight in Sangin, where more American and British soldiers died than anywhere else in Afghanistan, and which fell to the insurgents in March after a yearlong campaign. The three were brothers, and their widowed mother had one son left, who joined after they died. “His mother is now living with widows and orphans,” Hajji Naqibullah said.

Somewhere in Kandahar Province Monday morning, the Taliban’s military commander for the south, a member of the group’s ruling Quetta Shura, tuned in at 5:30 a.m. to the BBC’s Pashto service to hear a translation of Mr. Trump’s speech. Like many Taliban leaders, he said, he had hoped to hear Mr. Trump make good on early vows to quit Afghanistan.

“This is not good for the people of Afghanistan,” said the commander, who did not want his name or even precise location identified for security reasons.

“He should realize Afghanistan is not like it was during the Bush and Obama administrations,” he said. “And we are not going to surrender, we are not going to give up, we’ll fight this war for another 16 years.”



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