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Trump makes only move he can on Afghanistan

by Murray Brewster (feat. D. Michael Day)

CBC News
August 22, 2017

Even though his administration mused openly about turning the Afghan war over to well-connected private security contractors, U.S. President Donald Trump did pretty much the only thing he could do on Monday.

He endorsed the preferred Pentagon option of increasing the U.S. and NATO troop commitment, but provided no specific numbers.

Trump said he won't be bound by deadlines and the eventual withdrawal will be determined by "conditions on the ground," which is also something American military commanders have long advocated.

In doing so, he takes ownership of a conflict that has now touched three presidencies.

It is a war he once described as a "waste" in an August 2012 tweet.

Trump said he thought about pulling out of Afghanistan entirely, but decided against it.

Total withdrawal, or endorsing the status quo, would, however, be a signal of defeat in the face of Iran, Pakistan and Russia, all of which are vying for influence in the region, said a former commander of Canadian special operations troops.

"This is not a fight, geostrategically, the Americans can walk away from," said retired Lt.-Gen. Mike Day. "Should he have announced they were walking away, it's just a reminder of Vietnam."

Even before Monday's televised address, Washington was casting about looking for allies to join them under the NATO flag.

The alliance put out a formal ask last spring among members for 3,000 troops – over and above the U.S. commitment – to assist in training both the Afghan army and police.  

That was given a chilly reception by the Liberal government.

"There are absolutely no plans to send any troops back to Afghanistan," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on June 29. "We have served there with distinction, with valour, over 10 years and made a significant impact."

Recalcitrant allies

Day said he's curious to know what sort of coalition-building the White House has done in advance and whether long-standing allies are willing to make significant contributions to the NATO force.

Stephen Saideman, an international affairs professor at Carleton University, said that is an important point in light of Trump's undiplomatic lecturing of allies over defence spending at the last summit.

"I think very few countries will send troops to this mission, in part because they've done it before and any government in Europe does not want to be seen as being too close to Donald Trump," he said.

The Afghan war, which killed 158 Canadian soldiers and cost the federal treasury upwards of $12 billion, has raged unabated since the federal government formally ended the military mission in 2014.

A continuing threat

Three weeks ago, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted the number of Taliban, Islamic State or other terror-related attacks in the country had increased compared with previous years.

A major suicide attack in Kabul on May 31 killed 150 people and caused "significant damage" to the Canadian embassy, according to remarks at the time by the foreign affairs minister's office.

The Pentagon's latest report to the U.S. Congress said Afghanistan "faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, [Islamic State-Khorasan], and al-Qaeda."

It is "the highest concentration of extremist and terrorist groups in the world," American defence officials concluded.

Unchecked stalemate

A number of top U.S. security officials, including Defence Secretary James Mattis, say the situation is at a stalemate that, if left unchecked, could slide into defeat for the Afghan government and the American-led coalition.

The former head of Canada's development mission in Afghanistan said that is a breathtaking understatement in light of the pounding Afghan forces have taken.

"I do not believe that there is a 'stalemate' now, as claimed by American commanders," said Nipa Banerjee, who now teaches at the University of Ottawa, but remains in contact with many high-level Afghan officials.

"Right now, the Afghan army is losing. A troops surge might actually result only in a 'stalemate,' preventing Kabul's fall in the near future."

In the first five months of this year, 2,531 Afghan soldiers were killed and another 4,238 wounded, according to the U.S. inspector general.

Banerjee said previous training missions have failed to fully prepare Afghan troops and cops for the ravages of a dirty counter-insurgency war – a point tacitly acknowledged by Mattis in testimony before Congress in June.

"The bulk of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are far below the readiness level that the international community had planned for," said Banerjee.

Despite the horrific losses, Day said he believes the Afghan army will not fold because it has sustained heavy casualties for years and still come back fighting.

The Afghans may not lose on the battlefield, but the balance sheet is another thing.

"Afghanistan faces dire prospects in its struggle to achieve fiscal sustainability," the World Bank said in a May 2017 assessment. "The long-term fiscal outlook is discouraging. … Afghanistan will not be able to meet its public spending needs without substantial donor funding for the foreseeable future, even in the best-case scenarios for economic growth."
Canada's contribution has, for the last few years, been made via cheque book.

It recommitted at the last NATO Summit to spending $150 million per year to help with development and to pay for the cost of the security forces.

Politically disengaged

Yet, it has remained curiously absent politically.

Afghanistan's new ambassador to Canada was involved in a diplomatic fuss a few weeks ago when a correspondence she wrote to her foreign ministry in Kabul was leaked.

Shinkai Karokhail, a former Afghan MP, expressed bitter frustration at having her request for meetings with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland turned down.

The Canadian who was in charge of international election monitoring in Afghanistan said walking away from Afghanistan, politically, is not the right thing to do.

"The challenges in Afghanistan will only be overcome through a long term commitment by the international community - politically, economically, through engagement in education," said Grant Kippen, who oversaw and reported on the corrupt practices in the 2009 Afghan presidential election. "The military piece is important but we need to invest more in all the people of Afghanistan, not just their security forces."

Without tackling corruption, Kippen said Trump's plan will turn out no better than the Obama Administration's plan.

"I have always felt as long as corruption is allowed to flourish in Afghanistan, then forward progress will be difficult, if not impossible.  Corruption was a big problem in 2003 and it remains an even bigger problem today."


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