Will Afghanistan Ever Find Peace?

On the 14th of December, Taliban forces killed around 20 Afghan soldiers and policemen in the provinces of Helmand and Paktia. Three days later, another group attacked a police checkpoint killing eleven more members of the Afghan local and national police. The same day, a suicide bombing on a NATO convoy left a civilian dead in Kandahar. The account is heavy, the week bloody – but it, unfortunately, reflects the nation’s daily reality.

Afghanistan has been ravaged by decades of conflict with the main actors being the Taliban forces who are fighting for power and governance. In February, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a report stating that the Taliban « controls, contests, or influences 171 districts. The Taliban have drafted a similar report claiming that they control or contest 211 of the districts. The numbers are slightly different, but they reveal a striking reality, which has been confirmed by many analysts: the resurgent Taliban now control more territory and population that they did in 2001. While the armed group’s control of some parts of the nation has fluctuated in the last decades, they now control around one-third of Afghanistan’s territory.

The number of casualties resulting from this conflict is of course alarming. According to the Guardian, the Afghan security forces are « currently dying at the rate of about 30 per month. To this number needs to be added the number of civilian casualties. The Watson Institute asserts that as of August 2016, more than 31,000 civilians are estimated to have died violent deaths as a result of the war. The past year has only contributed to the increase of that number. Human Right Watch highlights that the Taliban and other insurgents are responsible for 61 percent of the deaths, were mostly killed by IEDs and suicide attacks. The government forces caused around 23 percent. Other actors are also to be considered, including ISIS who has claimed several deadly attacks in Kabul, but also the United-States who have been active actors in the conflict since 2001. The United-States have also suffered important losses. As of October 18, 2016, there have been 2,386 US military deaths with 1,834 of them being the result of hostile action. Since the beginning of last year, 11 more American soldiers were killed in action.

These numbers are high: the tragic yet logical consequences of such a lengthy conflict. In the days following 9/11, George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The combat mission lasted for 13 years until brought to an end under Obama in 2014. This decision has been criticized by many who feared for another Iraqi fiasco: the rapid withdrawals of troops possibly leading to a dangerous power vacuum. Regional expert Ahmed Rashid believes that the withdrawal plan is a big mistake which will almost certainly mean the relapse of Afghanistan into civil war and the emergence of groups even more extreme than the Taliban, as has happened in Iraq and Syria.

Before his accession to power, it seemed that Trump would follow on Obama’s withdrawal strategy. In 2011 he tweeted that the US was wasting lives and money in Afghanistan. But last August demonstrated a very different approach to the Afghan matter. In a speech, he admitted his change of mind declaring: “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” Since then, he has announced the deployment of more American troops on the Afghan soil and committed to send 3,900 soldiers to bolster the 8,400 forces already present. This number is too low to make a difference according to many experts. To the New York Times, US General Nicholson said that for most of this year Afghanistan has had only 80 percent of the troops it required. The additional troops deployed will not change much of that high percentage. Especially that the troops are not supported by a strong and clear strategy. Trump said he would not act like his predecessors: he refuses to participate in nation-building and will only focus on killing terrorists:  In doing so the president is likely to heavily rely on the airforce. Reporter Ayaz Gul points out that Washington plans to supply a total of 159 Hawks to the Afghan government by 2024, concurrently the number of American airstrikes in Afghanistan has reached a level not seen since 2012. This strategic orientation is likely to have a very negative impact on the civilian population. A 2017 Human Rights Watch report has revealed that aerial strikes – most from attack helicopters – resulted in 72 percent increase in civilian casualties – the highest since 2011.

Afghanistan has not found peace in decades and still seems very far to reach it. Trump’s decision to not withdraw from the country has been overly criticized by a nation weary of its longest war. Staying in the country might not be in the best interest of the US who will have to remain much longer if it wants to see results. But an escalation for de-escalation approach might offer positive results in Afghanistan on the long term. And even if the US will probably never win this war it might allow them not to lose it. Deserting Afghanistan would leave a power vacuum likely to benefit the Taliban forces who have much power and owns much territory. Terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, might also take advantage of that decision adding to the instability. Especially that the Islamic State might try to regain power elsewhere after its defeat in Iraq and Syria. US reengagement will contain such threats. But for more efficient results the United-States need an efficient grand strategy, and « killing terrorists » is not one. A sole military answer is not enough, it needs to be backed by political and social answers. All the more as Trump’s strong reliance on air power deeply affects the civilian population while not offering constructive solutions. This fits with Trump’s rejection of nation-building which limits the possibility of peace. It is true that it is a strategy used by his predecessors, but it can only show results in the long term. Today, Afghanistan can’t have peace. With the U.S leaving the country, it might plunge it into an even more disastrous spiral of chaos while an escalation might contain the current threats and instability. The latter solution is not ideal but might be the best for the nation if it is well implemented. However, this looks far from being guaranteed. Only time can and will tell if Afghanistan will finally find it’s way to peace.