While US efforts in Iraq and Syria to combat the Islamic State wear on, Washington’s other major war in the region is showing signs of deepening. US President Barack Obama granted expanded military authority to the 9,800 US troops stationed in Afghanistan on June 9. Under the new authorisation, US troops serving in a training and counterterrorism capacity can now join conventional Afghan security forces on the battlefield if their presence is deemed to have ‘strategic effect’. (Previously, US troops assisted only in high-value target missions, carried out more often by Afghan elite fighting forces.) In addition, US forces now have an expanded capacity to conduct limited airstrikes in support of US operations.
In requesting expanded US troop capabilities, Gen. John Nicholson, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan who assumed the post in March, was channelling longstanding frustrations of the US military, which has felt unable to act effectively in an increasingly precarious theatre of war. Still, the Pentagon made a second request that Obama did not satisfy: maintaining the current US troop level at 9,800. Obama has pledged to reduce US troop levels to 5,500 by the end of the year, even while the Taliban now control or contest a greater part of the country’s territory than at any time since the war began.
Obama’s decision is a matter of politics, not policy. It is an election year in the US, and the President does not want news of a troop redeployment to become a liability for his preferred successor and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. It is more likely that he will avoid making any such announcements until after the election is over.
Washington’s worries in Afghanistan also extend to the costs it has sunk into the war. According to a report released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, much of the $113 billion the United States has spent in Afghanistan on development since 2001 has been squandered by corruption, waste and mismanagement. Specifically, the report warns that a troop drawdown would have real consequences on the battlefield, threatening the few development gains that have been made.
Even after replacing its recently killed leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, with Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the organisation has sustained its insurgency. It has launched damaging attacks not only in its southern bastion of Helmand province but also in the north and other parts of the country. And though Afghan security forces are making incremental gains, it is not enough to win the conflict militarily or force the Taliban to halt fighting and come to the negotiating table.
The complexities surrounding the United States’ relationship with Pakistan are also intensifying, with direct repercussions on the Afghan war. Washington needs Pakistan – which shares a porous mountainous border with Afghanistan that has often been used as a haven for the Taliban and other militant groups – to co-operate in ending the conflict. Understandably, ties between the countries are paramount, but relations have often been far from steady.
Tensions were on full display when a US delegation visited Islamabad on June 10, indicating that while US ties with Pakistan remain important for Washington, those ties are strained. Obama adviser Richard Olson and National Security Council member Peter Lavoy led the delegation, meeting Pakistani foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz. During the meeting, Aziz reiterated the message that the drone strike that killed Mansoor – in Pakistan’s sensitive Balochistan province, no less – violated the country’s sovereignty. Moreover, he said the act had been and will continue to be detrimental to relations.
The timing of the visit is important as well. The delegation visited the same week that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint session of the US Congress. During his speech, Modi made a veiled reference to Pakistan, discussing the continued threat of militancy facing Washington and New Delhi. In response, Aziz repeated Pakistan’s concerns over strengthening US-India ties to Olson and Lavoy.
Of course, Pakistan has limited means to make clear its displeasure with US leaders and policies, other than formally condemning them. But Pakistan is still home to 1.5 million documented Afghan refugees, one of the largest such populations in the world. Islamabad has threatened to expel refugees in the past and could do so again, using a potential wave of destabilising refugees to pressure Afghanistan, and thus US officials, to concede on topics in discussions on ending Afghanistan’s conflict.
The politics of the war in Afghanistan will remain divided, hampering efforts at a negotiated peace settlement any time soon. Despite disagreements, Washington is forced to deal with Islamabad since any negotiated settlement to the war will involve Pakistan, which shares in the fate of Afghan stability. The intransigence of the insurgency and the futility of peace talks are compelling Washington to consider its military options once again, though not seriously until after the 2016 elections.
Meanwhile, the United States cannot ignore Pakistan or its potential threats, and will continue engaging with the country diplomatically. The battle against Islamic State has taught Washington the dangers of withdrawing too early from combat. The Pentagon will reconsider its options, all while the war continues.