In a reversal of his previous campaign pledges, President Donald Trump plans to entrench US military involvement. His “new regional approach,” which has strong elements of continuity with Barack Obama’s strategy, is aimed at “getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.”
The Trump team has made clear that Pakistan is central to this approach, with India playing an upgraded role too. The president also said last week that, within Afghanistan, combat limits on US soldiers “have been removed” and they have new authorities on the battlefield.
This reflects the fact that the biggest challenge facing the Afghan government is internal security because of the Taliban insurgency. Since 2009, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has recorded about 23,000 conflict-related deaths and 41,000 injuries, and about 70 per cent of people in major cities live in makeshift camps, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Amid this chaos, many Afghans are leaving. In 2015, more than a quarter of a million refugees and migrants arriving in Europe were from Afghanistan, second only to Syria.
US military officials say the balance between the Taliban and Afghan government-led forces is a stalemate, despite coalition military casualties of more than 3,500 killed and 33,000 wounded since 2001. As the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Taliban: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”
There are about 8,500 US troops in Afghanistan and Trump’s plans may add about 4,000. Washington has also asked NATO to contribute a further 1,000. This foreign footprint is vital to ensure training and cohesion for the 350,000-strong Afghan police and army – who have day-to-day responsibility for security – which may otherwise disintegrate.
Fears have been repeatedly raised that the foreign force, a fraction of the previous 150,000, is not big enough. US Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said the international drawdown leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to a Taliban upsurge.
That is why another priority of the Afghan government has been advancing reconciliation and peace talks with the militant group, a process in which the influence of neighboring powers, especially Pakistan, could be vital.
On the economic front, the news is not good either, despite massive foreign aid. Reconstruction has been slow, unemployment is above 4 percent, well over a million Afghans are internally displaced and more than three million refugees are believed to be in Pakistan and Iran.
While Washington has spent well over $130bn on Afghan reconstruction since 2001, more than the cost of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, much of the money has not been well spent; about 80 percent of it has been given to US organizations in military/security and maintenance contracts and consultancy projects.
It is also clear that, since 2001, the economy has not been diversified enough from drug exports such as opium and heroin, although Afghanistan has abundant natural resources – gas, minerals and oil – with an estimated value of $3 trillion dollars. A related problem is corruption, with Transparency International ranking Afghanistan the third most corrupt state in the world.
In this difficult picture, there is cause for optimism, not least because numerous fragile gains remain in place from the unseating of the Taliban regime in 2001. One, qualified, success is the fledgling democracy. The national unity government has survived after a landmark power-sharing agreement in 2014 between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister.
This followed a tense, disputed presidential ballot between Ghani and Abdullah when up to a million votes were thrown out for fraud.
The creation of the national unity government, and the election of Ghani, was the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. While there have been significant tensions between him and Abdullah, which could yet explode, the fact that the national unity government has not collapsed has consolidated the legitimacy of the new post-Taliban political system.
Other gains include Afghanistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization and wider moves to revive economic links with the outside world, including the modern Silk Road, a new rail route connecting the country to China and Central Asia, and an electricity grid project across Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. There are more children, especially girls, at school – an estimated 10 million; greater recognition of women’s rights, and the spread of technologies such as the internet and mobile phones.
Taken overall, while fragile gains have been secured since 2001, there remains a prospect of significantly greater political and economic instability if the reconciliation process with the Taliban cannot now be advanced through the efforts of the Afghan government, neighboring countries, and other powers.