Losing quickly is not an option in Afghanistan

Trump set no time limit on how long the United States will remain.

By Thomas Gibbons-Neff & Anne Gearan (War Zone)

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Published: Tue 22 Aug 2017, 9:29 PM

Last updated: Tue 22 Aug 2017, 11:34 PM

The US President Donald Trump's decision to continue military operations in Afghanistan, with a probably modest increase in troops, is an incremental shift in strategy that may help hold the line against a resurgent Taleban but isn't likely to change the course of the United States' longest war.
In a televised address to the nation, Trump said his "original instinct was to pull out" but that the "consequences of a rapid exit are predictable and unacceptable."
He said he would "not talk about numbers of troops" he would sanction but promised that "in the end, we will win." Trump also said the new strategy would involve pressuring Pakistan, long accused of harbouring terrorists, to support US goals.
Trump's decision is a middle path that does not hew to either of the main foreign policy themes he articulated as a candidate: to stay out of expensive overseas quagmires, and to decisively win any conflict worth entering.
It followed months of deliberations within the new administration, which swung from a bold stroke to yank US forces after nearly 16 years of war to options that would sprinkle more US trainers and Special Operations troops around the vast country in hopes of forcing the Taleban to the table and preventing the formation of another terrorist haven.
By tweaking a course set by President Barack Obama, Trump suggests that he, like Obama and President George W Bush before him, is facing the bleak reality of Afghanistan: There is no fast or politically palatable way to win, but losing quickly isn't an acceptable option, either.
Military strategists, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, have long argued that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and that the goal should be to convince the Taleban that they have more to gain from talking than fighting. No military or diplomatic strategy has shown the homegrown insurgency that such a tipping point was at hand.
Trump set no time limit on how long the United States will remain.
"I've said many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military operations," the president said.
The Obama White House had wanted to end its time in office with a minimal number of forces in Afghanistan, mostly relegated to Kabul. Yet as US troops left and the Taleban began regaining territory, Obama decided against a total drawdown, and in June 2016 bolstered the advisory role and approved more aggressive airstrikes against the Taleban. 
Trump will stick to that hedge, neither agreeing to pull out entirely nor attempting a major surge, as was seen in Iraq in 2007 and in Afghanistan in 2009. 
As a private citizen, Trump seemed to favour a more radical approach. "We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!" he tweeted in November 2013. 
Once in office, Trump put off any announcement of a strategy reboot, apparently frustrated that his advisers were not presenting him with options that could win the war.
The Pentagon has been pushing for more troops for months to add to the 8,500 US forces there alongside 5,000 soldiers from NATO countries. At the Pentagon, officials think the United States and NATO reduced its troops in Afghanistan "too far and too fast" after the end of combat operations in 2014. 
In June, Trump gave Mattis the authority to add the troops he needed after a request for more forces by Gen. John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan. But Mattis held off, instead pushing Trump to own a long-term plan for the war. 
Trump's announcement also zeroed in on Pakistan, long understood to harbour and support some of the militant groups that have trickled over the border and sown widespread violence in Afghanistan's provinces.
"We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taleban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond," Trump said. "Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour terrorists."
For US forces in Afghanistan, the years of bloody battling - periods that included large combat operations and daily firefights - are in the past. US casualties are a fraction of what they were at the height of Obama's war - 11 this year compared with nearly 500 in 2010.
Longtime diplomat Jim Dobbins, a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama, called Trump's decision prudent. 
"The choices come down to losing and not losing," he said. "It would be nice to have an option that allows you to win in a 'War is Over' way, but that's been tried and found to be too expensive, was not sustainable and in the current circumstances, it's not politically feasible." -Washington Post

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