The Cable

Washington Scrambles to Shore Up Faltering Afghan War Effort

Trump heading to Brussels to ask European allies to do more, everywhere, but he might get the cold shoulder

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 24: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, hold a news conference at Resolute Support headquarters April 24, 2017 in in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mattis is on a regional tour of the Middle East.  (Photo by Jonathan Ernst - Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 24: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, hold a news conference at Resolute Support headquarters April 24, 2017 in in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mattis is on a regional tour of the Middle East. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst - Pool/Getty Images)

On his first overseas trip since being sworn in, President Donald Trump will continue to push NATO allies to increase defense spending and make the case that they should invest more in the fight in Afghanistan.

That message could fall flat with some allies who have been committing troops to the war effort for well over a decade, and see more pressing and immediate threats coming from Russia in Europe and extremists gaining strength in North Africa.

National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to outline the president’s agenda when he travels to a NATO conference in Brussels later this month, saying the message will “stress the need for members to pay their fair share,” in defense spending, a reference to the president’s call for all NATO allies to invest two percent of their GDP in defense spending.

“All of us have to be committed to achieving our objectives in Afghanistan,” McMaster said.

But NATO allies have other concerns taking up their limited manpower and much smaller defense budgets, said Jim Townsend, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy in the Obama administration. Particularly for the new allies in the Baltics and the southeastern Europe “who are looking at Russia breathing down their necks,” Townsend said, “they want NATO to be focused on the Russian threat.”

Some of the newer faces in the alliance have also complained that NATO has been distracted by missions in Afghanistan and Libya, taking its eye off of problems closer to home, Townsend said. Other members are already stretched thin, and don’t have a lot of excess capacity for new deployments to Afghanistan. France has 4,000 troops deployed on security and counterterrorism operations in northern and western Africa, and Germany, the U.K. and Canada, among others, have sent troops to new missions in the Baltic states.

The alliance is also preparing to go on alert for Moscow’s massive Zapad military exercise this summer in Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which will feature close to 100,000 troops moving on the border of several NATO nations.

But the needs in Afghanistan are real. A proposal put together by U.S. commanders in Kabul and backed by the brass in the Pentagon calls for the deployment of an additional 3,000 U.S. troops — on top of the 8,400 already there — to advise and assist Afghan forces battling the Taliban. The insurgent group has made steady progress since NATO ceased combat operations at the end of 2014, and now wields control over about 8.5 million Afghan civilians, up from about 5 million a year ago according to an unreleased U.N. report.

The broad outlines of the plan, first reported by the Washington Post this week and later confirmed by Defense officials, calls for the lifting of some restrictions on how U.S. forces operate, allowing troops to embed with Afghan army units closer to the fight in order to direct the battle near the front lines. It would also loosen rules on air strikes.  

The Trump administration has yet to make a final decision on the plan, and it is unclear how Trump and his deputies will present the unfinished proposal in Brussels.  

But American intelligence officials say that without the added authorities, the government in Kabul could lose even more ground. On Thursday, several top intelligence officials painted a dire picture of the security situation, predicting that the Taliban will continue to win back territory through 2018, even if Washington sends more troops to the fight.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told a Senate intelligence panel that “the political and security situation in Afghanistan will also almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in the military assistance from the U.S. and its partners.”

The Taliban have been encircling Kunduz in recent weeks, threatening to take back control of the city U.S. and Afghan forces evicted them from in 2015. The insurgent group also attacked a military base in Mazar-e-Sharif in the country’s north last month, killing over 150 Afghan soldiers in the deadliest assault of the 16-year-old war.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that in his view, “unless we change something… the situation will continue to deteriorate and we’ll lose all the gains that we’ve invested in over the last several years.”

Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst – Pool/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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