One Year On, Little to Show for Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy

The Pentagon says the United States is winning the war, but after 17 years, there’s still no end in sight.

Afghan residents walk near destroyed houses after a Taliban attack in Ghazni on Aug. 16. (Zakeria Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan residents walk near destroyed houses after a Taliban attack in Ghazni on Aug. 16. (Zakeria Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images)

One year after President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan, the United States appears to be no closer to stabilizing the country and quelling the Taliban insurgency, according to analysts and a report issued by U.S. Defense Department.

The strategy has included a greater focus on defending population centers while ceding much of the remote countryside to the insurgents. It has also involved an interdiction campaign against the Taliban, with airstrikes on their narcotics labs and other revenue sources. The goal has been to pressure the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Pentagon officials say the measures are working.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity, a window of opportunity for peace right now,” said Gen. John Nicholson, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, briefing reporters at the Pentagon this week via video from Kabul.

He cited a brief cease-fire between the Afghan government and the Taliban over a Muslim holiday in June, followed by secret U.S.-Taliban peace talks in Qatar in July.

But the situation on the ground tells a different story. The Taliban maintain their grip on much of the country, and the civilian death toll has reached a record high, according to a recent report by the Pentagon’s inspector general. Also, the Islamic State in Khorasan, the Afghan arm of the Islamic State, continues to carry out high-profile attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians. 

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the changes introduced during the Trump era weren’t significant enough to alter the balance of power in the 17-year war.

“The relatively modest changes it involves are unlikely to produce transformative effects quickly,” he said.

“It’s hard to believe that an overall coalition military strength less than 20 percent its maximum of a half decade ago can turn things around when 140,000 [International Security Assistance Force] troops couldn’t do so back in 2010-2012 or so.”

Seth Jones, a senior advisor to the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said data suggested that the Taliban’s control of populated areas overall, primarily in rural regions, had actually increased.

The problem with the administration’s strategy of ceding the more remote areas of the country to the Taliban is that the insurgents increasingly are using the rural terrain to conduct attacks within major urban areas, he explained.

“If the Taliban continues to increase its control of rural terrain, it will invariably put significant pressure on urban centers,” said Jones, who previously served as a plans officer and advisor to the commanding general of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan.

This problem was on full display this month when the Taliban notched a significant symbolic victory with a bloody assault on the city of Ghazni. The Aug. 10 attack on the strategic city, which lies on the main highway between Kabul and Kandahar, reportedly caught Washington and Kabul off guard. An estimated 1,000 insurgents charged the city and surrounding districts, overwhelming Afghan local police and military officials, who temporarily lost control of parts of the city.

In a five-day counterattack, Afghan forces, backed by U.S. air power and Army Special Forces, eventually drove the Taliban from the city, but the bloodshed claimed the lives of at least 100 Afghan soldiers and police and more than 150 civilians.

In a statement, the insurgent group boasted that the assault on Ghazni “signifies the failure of yet the latest American strategy. … The experience of Ghazni has proven that no defensive belts of cities can withstand the offensive prowess of the mujahideen.”

Nicholson countered that the insurgents were driven out of the city with higher casualties than they inflicted. They also failed to achieve several key objectives: taking the city’s prison, the governor’s palace, and the police station.

“This was not a military victory by any stretch,” Nicholson said. He also noted that the Taliban only launched attacks in cities twice in 2018, a relatively low number compared with previous years.

Another component of the U.S. military’s strategy in Afghanistan is to build up the Afghan military, train the Afghan air force, and equip it with high-end gear, such as fighter aircraft and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

But the Afghan air force’s rapid increase in strike capability seems to be accompanied by a steep rise in civilian casualties. A U.N. report issued in July said 149 civilians had died and 204 suffered injuries from air operations in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2018—a 52 percent increase over the same period last year.

Jones said Trump’s strategy failed in another critical way: It has done little to prevent Pakistan from harboring Taliban fighters.

“What the U.S. has not been able to do is fundamentally change Pakistan’s behavior,” Jones said. “This is serious problem with the South Asia strategy. I’m not that optimistic over the long run.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman