According to recent reports the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is currently around 11,000, higher than the previously disclosed number, 8,400, released by the Department of Defense in 2016.
American troops have been deployed to Afghanistan for 16 years.
At peak involvement in 2011, the U.S. had deployed approximately 100,000 troops, as part of President Obama’s surge plan intended to stabilize Afghanistan for a troop withdrawal along a predetermined gradual timetable.
The increase in troops paralleled an increase in the number of U.S. and coalition casualties. 2011 and 2012 also saw an increased number of so-called “Green on Blue” attacks, where Afghan government forces targeted U.S. or Coalition soldiers, with 16 green-on-blue attacks in 2011 and increasing to 44 by 2012.
In 2017 there were 3 “Green-on-Blue” attacks.
Even after the troop surge, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State and variety of smaller Pakistani terrorist groups remain operational in Afghanistan. Tehreek-e-Taliban, Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi and Lashkar-e-Taiba are just some of the other Afghan and Pakistani terrorist organizations that continue to hold ground throughout Afghanistan.
Twenty of the 98 U.S. designated terrorist groups worldwide operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and this is the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world. The Taliban is believed to maintain control of approximately 40% of Afghan territory.
During President Trump’s campaign one of his promises was to get out of the war in Afghanistan. Now several months later President Trump intends to increase both defense spending in Afghanistan, but also deploy more Americans soldiers. The current amount of aid being sent to Afghanistan is around $4 billion. However, over the past 16 years the United States has spent over $117 billion in foreign aid to Afghanistan.
In President Trump’s speech on August 21st, he announced the primary goal as one of targeting terrorist groups, noting, “we are not nation building, but destroying terrorists and preventing weapons from falling into their hands.”
President Trump is seeking to avoid a vacuum in Afghanistan similar to the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq 2011, that led to the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in turn metastasized into the Islamic State.
The strategy for Afghanistan calls for both increased military involvement as well as seeking support from U.S. allies, most notably India. The President’s invocation of India is likely intended to put pressure on Pakistan.
Part of the Trump plan for Afghanistan involves tackling the role of Pakistan-technically a U.S. ally- in funding and harboring terrorist groups destabilizing Afghanistan. The U.S. has drastically cut aid to Pakistan in recent years, but the South Asian nation still received $383 million in 2016. According to U.S. government data, $742 million is planned for Pakistan in fiscal year 2017. There is a risk in the plan however, given tensions in the region between Pakistan, India, and neighboring China.
Another aspect of President Trump’s plan is abandoning a fixed timeline, in favor of a conditional approach. President Trump wants to attempt a conditional approach toward eliminating the Taliban and remnants of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates such as IS.
The Afghan Special Operation Command has primarily served as the bulwark against attacks launched by the Taliban and other Islamic jihadis groups. The Afghan government is ramping up their Special Operation Forces to cover more territory so that more missions can be conducted to successfully limit the Taliban’s expansion.
Part of President Trump’s increase in U.S. troops to Afghanistan is intended to train up to 17,000 new members of the Afghan special forces unit, one of the few effective units upon which the Afghan military relies extensively.
Afghanistan’s President Ashrah Ghani, ordered in their four-year roadmap that the increase in their special operations. The Afghan Special Operation command will also attempt to regain territory held by the Taliban and other jihadist groups.
The U.S. has seen a similar program to combat terrorism in Iraq. The estimated 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq has been involved in programs to retrain and reunify the Iraqi army, which relies heavily on Iraq’s elite counter terrorism service. At first the program met difficulties with Iraqis not wanting to join the military, and the resistance from Iraqi officers not sending units to Americans for training. Heavy reliance by the Iraqis on special forces capability has become apparent following the liberation of Mosul where Iraqi special forces suffered heavy casualties are difficult and time consuming to replace.
The Afghan army may be experience something similar in the fight against the Taliban, which should be a concern for U.S. planners. It remains to be seen what effect the Trump policy for Afghanistan will have. But it is likely to succeed only if taking into account previous surge and train efforts and why and how they failed.