The View From Asia

Will more US troops end the war in Afghanistan?

Asia News Network commentators say the way forward in Afghanistan remains fraught with concerns. Here are excerpts:

Way forward remains blurred

S. Mudassir Ali Shah

Dawn, Pakistan

United States President Donald Trump, breaking with his derision for the 16-year-old conflict, has finally rolled out his long-awaited policy towards Afghanistan. The presidential decision to boost troop levels is an extension of the botched approach of his predecessors.

All options that were on the table during the protracted review of America's new strategy for South Asia were bewildering. The number of extra troops for Afghanistan and benchmarks for victory are yet to be determined. The US President has virtually left the devil lying in the detail.

The presidential announcement is a success of sorts for his hawkish Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who have repeatedly warned that a swift withdrawal would create a vacuum that the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda would fill instantly.

As expected, the US would mount pressure on Pakistan to shut down militant safe havens on its soil and take concrete action against the Afghan Taleban. At the same time, the US will woo India - Pakistan's arch rival - into helping Nato battle extremists in Afghanistan.

His promise to pursue integration of all instruments of US might - diplomatic, economic and military - does not sound convincing. At the moment, the US neither has a full-time ambassador in Kabul nor a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many key diplomatic slots in the US State Department are yet to be filled.

Importantly, Mr Trump has come to realise that the Afghan Taleban - which controls over 40 per cent of Afghanistan - is a force to be reckoned with. Some elements of the insurgent movement may also be included in a future government. But US troops will be fighting against them, nonetheless.

On the campaign trail, Mr Trump scorned the Afghan war as an archetype of how the Bush and Obama administrations squandered billions of dollars in return for insignificant strategic gains.

But he has reversed his position that American men and women in uniform should come home from that country.

During the prolonged internal debate at the White House, his national security team bent over backwards to come up with suggestions acceptable to a cynical commander-in-chief. Frenzied efforts by his advisers came to fruition last week when they coaxed the President into approving the deployment of more troops.

By adding more troops to the 8,400-strong US force already stationed in Afghanistan, he has toed the line of warmongering Republican legislators and military commanders, who have been pleading for expanding the campaign against militants.

However, there are no guarantees that the additional American forces would be able to turn the tide, an objective that could not be realised by more than 130,000 international soldiers.

The plan comes at a time when the tempo of fighting has risen steeply across Afghanistan. In the first half of this year, civilians have died daily.

The Afghan army has also been targeted in mass attacks, leaving several soldiers dead.

The so-called way forward remains blurred. It remains to be seen how Mr Trump's team wrestles with a whole slew of complex questions - notably the cost of the new surge in treasure and blood, propping up the kleptocracy in Kabul and bringing the Taleban to the negotiating table.

From America's perspective, the mission must ensure foolproof homeland security. However, Mr Trump's road map is unlikely to yield the intended results in terms of vanquishing the Taleban or blocking the return of Al-Qaeda to Afghanistan.

No quick fix to end conflict

Wang Hui

China Daily (Asia), Hong Kong

In a rare prime-time national address outlining his Afghanistan strategy on Monday night, President Donald Trump ruled out a quick withdrawal of US troops, saying that a rapid exit of American troops would have unacceptable consequences and would "create a vacuum" that ISIS and Al-Qaeda would fill.

Instead, Mr Trump is expected to beef up the US military presence in the country. Although he stopped short of mentioning a number, he authorised US Defence Secretary James Mattis in June to deploy as many as 3,900 extra troops.

Currently, the US has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, part of a roughly 13,500-strong international force that is training and assisting Afghan forces to fight the Taleban, and conducting counter-terrorism missions. But, even with the proposed increase in US troops, the Taleban is unlikely to be contained, let alone rooted out.

Yet, compared with what the US has done to fight terrorists in the Middle East in recent years, the new US strategy does represent a greater willingness to shoulder more security responsibilities in Afghanistan. Military aid and air strikes, but no ground troops, marked the previous US administration's strategy in the Middle East, with former US president Barack Obama unwilling to maintain a military presence in the region.

Despite that, much headway has been made this year in the international campaign against ISIS terrorists in both Iraq and Syria. Under such a backdrop, a greater US presence in Afghanistan will help Afghan forces improve the country's security situation and prevent defeated ISIS terrorists from entering the country and colluding with the Taleban.

However, since Mr Trump asserted, "We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists", his Afghanistan strategy obviously lacks a long-term commitment to the Central Asian country.

Many in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified to feel disappointed about it as the US has a responsibility to clean up the mess it has created in Afghanistan.

For the US, its longest war has been fought at a formidable price: Some 2,400 Americans have died in the war, more than 20,000 have been wounded and the conflict is estimated to have cost almost US$1 trillion (S$1.3 trillion).

Yet, despite the toppling of the Taleban regime in late 2001, the US and its allies have spent the most part of the 16-year-old war playing cat-and-mouse games with the Taleban. And, more ironically, over the years, the land controlled by the terrorist group in Afghanistan has increased instead of diminished.

Hence, dispatching a further several thousand troops to Afghanistan will not be enough to end the conflict in the country. Instead, the US should learn the lessons from Iraq.

After the US invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein, its withdrawal left a political and security vacuum in the country. Political instability and factional rifts in post-war Iraq provided a hotbed for the rapid growth of ISIS, which later spread into Syria and inspired terrorist attacks elsewhere.

The US should understand that no country alone can tackle the challenge of terrorism. Before it plunges deeper into another Afghanistan quagmire, the US should truly reflect upon its anti-terror strategy and cooperate with other countries in jointly fighting terrorism.

  • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news media entities.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Will more US troops end the war in Afghanistan?'. Print Edition | Subscribe