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17 years on, a US admission: Taliban cannot be defeated

Ebrahim Moosa – Radio Islam International | 15 November 2018


The Afghanistan war cannot be won militarily and peace will only be achieved through a political resolution with the Taliban, the newly-appointed American general in charge of US and NATO operations has conceded.

In his first interview since taking command of NATO’s Resolute Support mission in September, Gen. Austin Scott Miller provided NBC News with a candid assessment of the seemingly unending conflict, which began with the US invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001.

“This is not going to be won militarily. This is going to a political solution,” Miller said in October.

His comments echoed similar sentiments from the NATO secretary-general in February.

“We don’t think that there is a military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, but we strongly believe that we need a strong Afghan force to be able to create the conditions for a political solution,” Jens Stoltenberg said.

In his interview, Miller claimed that the Taliban is also tired of fighting and may be interested in starting to “work through the political piece” of the 17-year-old war.

The US commander’s claim, however, is highly contestable. Just last month, a top Taliban commander told RT, in a rare interview, that the group’s leaders had no desire to negotiate with the Americans.

For a while, the conflict has been dramatically tipping towards the Taliban’s favour. According to a report by RT, even by US military estimates, the Afghan government controls or influences just over half of the country’s 407 districts – a record low since the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, began tracking district control in November 2015.

To make matters worse, casualties among Afghan government forces have skyrocketed in recent months. Afghan security forces suffered 1000 fatalities in August and September, according to the Pentagon.

As per Miller, in 2018, Afghanistan’s capital Kabul alone has witnessed 19 high-profile human bomb attacks.

He himself has apparently come in the crosshairs.

Earlier on in October, Miller was near Afghan Gen. Abdul Raziq, a powerful Afghan police leader, when one of the latter’s bodyguards opened fire on a group of Afghan and U.S. military leaders in the governor’s compound in Kandahar, killing Raziq. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley, the U.S. general who oversees the NATO advisory mission in southern Afghanistan, and an unidentified civilian were also wounded.

Miller claimed he was not the target, but acknowledged the ever-present threat.

“We all know we’re at risk. It’s Afghanistan,” he told NBC.

Growing American public discontent

A recent poll shows a majority of American citizens support withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan, 17 years after the US initiated the conflict. Support for winding down the persisting conflict is even higher among army veterans.

The YouGov poll revealed that 61 percent of US citizens would support the president removing all troops from Afghanistan. Some 69 percent of veterans supported the idea.

Everyone surveyed agreed that the process of withdrawal should begin soon – 63 percent of the general public and 64 percent of vets want to see “some or all” of the US troops stationed in Afghanistan home within five years.

Most respondents (55 percent of residents overall and 59 percent of veterans) agreed that the US government lacks clear military objectives in Afghanistan. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of veterans do not think the war has been a success for the US, an opinion shared by 68 percent of the general public.

A significant number of Americans (37%) also conveyed that they believed the Afghan invasion to be a mistake from its outset.

Taliban resilience

Between August 2003 and December 2014 NATO led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which was established to complement the US war effort in 2001. The US’s initial invasion of Afghanistan was dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom. Its successor, which is still ongoing is called Freedom’s Sentinel.

Starting in May 2012, NATO leaders endorsed an exit strategy for withdrawing foreign forces from Afghanistan. In May 2014, the United States announced that its major combat operations would end in December 2014, and that it would leave a residual force in the country.  In October 2014, British forces handed over the last bases in Helmand to the Afghan military, officially ending their combat operations in the war. On 28 December 2014, NATO formally ended ISAF combat operations in Afghanistan and officially transferred “full security responsibility” to the Afghan government.

The military coalition however, simultaneously opted to remain in Afghanistan in a new, “non-combat” capacity dubbed Operation Resolute Support, purportedly to train and develop the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.

The number of troops deployed to the Resolute Support mission has steadily increased and currently stands at around 16 000 troops from 39 nations. The US remains the biggest contributor (8475) followed by Germany (1300), Italy (895) and Georgia (870).

Notably, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also set to soon join the Resolute Support mission.

Despite much talk of negotiations with the Taliban and a potential peace settlement, conditions on the ground continue to belie these claims.

The UN recorded the highest number of “security-related incidents” in Afghanistan in 2017, and the International Crisis Group suggests the country experienced the most intense fighting last winter (2017/18) than any other winter since 2001. Winter usually sees a lull in fighting.

There has also been a significant increase in the use of air strikes by the US in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban, I fear,” said UK Foreign Office Minister Mark Field, “remain capable of attack across the country, and in Helmand province they remain the single biggest challenge for the security forces.

The Taliban now control “more territory than at any point since the US-led invasion in 2001 which toppled its regime”.

The war costs US taxpayers about $45 billion each year, and the US has spent more than $5.6 trillion on the “war on terror” (which is broader than just Afghanistan) since 2001.

Despite these conditions and acknowledgments of military limitations by the likes of Miller, NATO and the USA have refused to set end dates for their ongoing mission. If anything, Donald Trump has only promised to lift restrictions on wartime spending and free military commanders to act with greater impunity.

Reflecting on 19th century British adventurism in Afghanistan, a British Army chaplain, G. R. Gleig, who witnessed that conflict, called it “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.”

“The United States should learn from the history of Afghanistan and understand that escalating the war will have no particular impact on the outcome,” writes The Diplomat’s Akhilesh Pillalamarri. “Minus a permanent occupation–which would be ineffective at best, and bloody and cost-prohibitive at worst–the only way to deal with Afghanistan is to deal with its plethora of local powers. And if this means accepting the Taliban, in exchange for a modicum of stability and a promise not to host global terrorist organizations, then so be it. The alternative is an unwinnable, never-ending war.”

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