Afghan war faces flurry of setbacks as new US military policy nears
By PAMELA CONSTABLE AND SAYED SALAHUDDIN | The Washington Post | Published: June 18, 2017
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As American military officials complete plans that are likely to send several thousand additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a flurry of setbacks in the war have underscored both the imperative of action and the pitfalls of various approaches.
Further complicating the picture are questions about how to deal with neighboring Pakistan and balance separate fights against Afghan and foreign-based insurgents.
In the latest attack Sunday morning, Taliban fighters stormed a police base in southeastern Paktia province after detonating a suicide car bomb outside. At least five members of security forces and several civilians were killed, officials said. The attack came one day after an Afghan army commando shot and wounded seven U.S. troops inside an army base in northern Balkh province.
Almost every week seems to bring alarming and embarrassing developments that cast doubt on the ability of Afghan security forces to protect the public and make headway against the domestic Taliban insurgency and the more ruthless Islamic State.
From the powerful truck bomb that decimated a high-security district of Kabul on May 31, killing more than 150 people and sparking days of protests, to the Saturday shooting at the same base in Balkh where Taliban infiltrators killed more than 140 Afghan soldiers April 21, a spate of attacks from various sources is inflicting blow after blow on the nation's battered psyche.
The Saturday shooting was one of several recent insider attacks that are raising new concerns about poor vetting and conflicting loyalties, even among the elite Afghan special operations forces that the U.S. military sees as crucial to boosting the war effort. Experts said such attacks would be likely to increase if more U.S. troops arrive.
In eastern Nangahar province, where Afghan and U.S. special operations forces have been waging a joint campaign against Islamic State fighters, another Afghan army commando - reportedly a Taliban sympathizer or member - fatally shot three U.S. troops June 10.
U.S. military officials have claimed to be making steady progress in that fight. In April, the United States dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on a complex of caves and tunnels used by Islamic State fighters, reportedly killing 92.
But last week, in an equally dramatic response, hundreds of Islamic State fighters captured Tora Bora, the underground labyrinth that was once the redoubt of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Underscoring the confused battlefield situation, it was the Taliban that Islamic State forces fought and drove out of the area.
U.S. military officials have expressed growing concern about the war and urged that several thousand more U.S. troops be sent to shore up Afghan forces. Fewer than half of the country's 407 districts are under full government control, and Taliban forces have come close to occupying several provincial capitals.
But no new U.S. policy or troop numbers have yet been announced, reportedly because of disagreements within the Trump administration. They include arguments over whether sending more troops would make a decisive difference, how much NATO allies should contribute and whether the United States should pressure Pakistan to rein in Taliban insurgents believed to be operating from safe havens there.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was recently given authority by President Donald Trump to set troop levels in the Afghan conflict, said last week that the United States is "not winning" in Afghanistan and that the Pentagon will present its strategy plan next month. "We will correct this as soon as possible," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Both Afghan and American analysts, however, doubt that adding several thousand more troops to the 8,400 currently here will make much difference in a war that at one point involved 140,000 U.S. and NATO forces. They stress that U.S. policy also needs a strong political component to strengthen the government and push for reconciliation.
"It's clear that the U.S. cannot win this war militarily," said Michael Kugelman at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "The Taliban insurgency seems to strengthen by the day, the Islamic State remains resilient, public anger is building" and "Afghan troops are turning on their American trainers."
He said the new U.S. policy "can't come soon enough, but deploying a few thousand new troops will do little to shift the calculus on the ground."
Afghan analysts and officials argue that the top U.S. priority should be pressing Pakistan to cease harboring anti-Afghan militants. A spokesman for the defense ministry said Sunday that the U.S. government needs to put "real pressure on Pakistan to make it drop its support for terrorists."
Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired Afghan army general, said that the government is facing an agile guerrilla enemy and that United States needs to focus on cutting its "lines of supply and support and training" in Pakistan. Sending more U.S. troops, he added, will "give more ammunition" for insurgents to attract recruits among young and jobless Afghans.
Mattis said the Pentagon plans to take a "regional approach" to the war and address "where this enemy is fighting from," which is "not just Afghanistan." Afghan officials have been more blunt, accusing Pakistan of harboring a violent Taliban branch called the Haqqani Network.
At a conference this month, President Ashraf Ghani charged that Pakistan is waging an "undeclared war of aggression" on Afghanistan. Pakistan's military commanders bristled at the "unwarranted accusations" and said Afghans should "look inward" to solve their insurgent problems.
Some members of Congress and U.S. think tanks have urged the Trump administration to crack down heavily on Pakistan, a former Cold War ally and a major recipient of U.S. aid. Clearly worried, Pakistani officials have denounced recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and have strongly denied backing the Haqqani Network.
But other voices have argued against putting excess pressure on Pakistan, saying it could risk political instability and religious unrest. Pakistan has suffered from years of militant attacks, most recently a spate of suicide bombings at Sufi shrines and other civilian targets in February.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a congressional hearing last week that the United States has "very complex relations" with Pakistan, but Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., insisted that "if we don't succeed in Afghanistan," it is because of Pakistan's military-run intelligence service.
On the problem of insider attacks, Amarkhel said it is easy for anti-government sympathizers to "penetrate the ranks" of the security forces, because poor security and vetting make it difficult to assess recruits.
"It is hard to find the enemy within yourself," he said, adding that the Afghan military leadership is weak and politicized. "The recent insider attacks are not the first ones and will not be the last."
U.S. watchdog agencies have noted that corruption and nepotism within the Afghan military leadership have undermined the capacity of its forces, but changes in top officials appear to have made little difference. After the April 21 attack on the base in Balkh, Ghani dismissed both the defense and interior ministers.
Salahuddin reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Sharif Walid in Kabul, and Haq Nawaz Khan and Shaiq Hussain in Islmabad, contributed to this report.