TSG IntelBrief: A Worsening U.S. Quagmire in Afghanistan
April 25, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The Afghan defense minister and army chief of staff resigned on April 24 in the fallout of a deadly Taliban raid against an Afghan army base.
• On April 21, a small group of Taliban fighters stormed a major army base and killed more than 160 Afghan soldiers.
• The attack was near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, an area once considered among the most secure in Afghanistan.
• In what is already the longest-running war in American history, the Trump administration faces the prospect of an unending combat commitment with increasing costs and diminishing returns.
The counterinsurgency situation in Afghanistan has been trending negative for more than a decade, despite the annual overly-optimistic status reports that the next year would be ‘the key year’ in turning around a failing effort. The reality is that the challenge of bringing enduring stability to Afghanistan has never been greater. The Afghan military—and more importantly, the central Afghan government—remains ill-prepared to fight a determined and growing enemy. The April 21 Taliban raid against a major Afghan army base, Camp Shaheen, was the worst such attack in the nearly 16 years since the current conflict began. The attack was of such a magnitude that it led to the resignations of Afghan Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a surprise visit. The situation will likely put more pressure on the U.S. to once again increase its presence and support in Afghanistan. Regardless of the varying degrees of U.S. operations in the country over the past 16 years, however, the forces that have truly driven the conflict—an Afghan government unable to govern effectively, rampant corruption at all levels, poor military leadership, Taliban infiltration in the ranks, and high attrition and desertion rates, to name a few—have persisted.
The April 21 raid consisted of approximately 10 Taliban fighters who reportedly disguised themselves as soldiers in order to gain access to the army base, which is located near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Balkh Province. The attack, which was well-coordinated and timed to occur during Friday prayers and meals, killed at least 160 Afghan soldiers. It took around five hours and an Afghan Commando unit to kill the attackers and regain control of the base. It is difficult to overstate how devastating the impact of this attack will be, as the fighting season in Afghanistan—which never truly ends—begins in earnest with the central government reeling from the loss. Until recently, Mazar-e-Sharif represented a relative success story in terms of sustained security. However, significant gains by the Taliban have allowed the group to expand greatly in the north of the country, far from its traditional stronghold in the south. Across Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken over the vast countryside while the military and government hold on in a scattered number of cities and bases. This growing imbalance—which has been worsening for years—has proven to be unsustainable, and the government has not won enough public support to reverse its eroding position.
The U.S. now faces the difficult reality of an unending combat commitment in Afghanistan to bolster a partner that has not won the support of its own people, and has not been able to take and hold territory from the Taliban for more than a decade. There are already 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan—mainly in advise and assist roles; there is also a Special Operations Forces presence that is more focused on counterterrorism, since al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are persistent threats. The U.S. military has asked for 3,000 additional troops, and that number is likely to creep up. It is very unlikely, however, that the U.S. will come close to matching the 100,000 troops that were operating in the country at the peak of the war; a peak that made tactical gains at tremendous cost, yet far too few strategic advancements.
The first American causality of the U.S. war in Afghanistan was CIA officer Johnny ‘Mike’ Spann. He was killed on November 25, 2001 in the Qala-i-Jangi fortress. The battle in which Spann lost his life took place near Mazar-e-Sharif—close to the base where the Taliban killed 160 Afghan soldiers on April 21, nearly 16 years later. The arc of America’s combat and support role in Afghanistan is quite long in terms of years passed, lives lost, and resources spent. It is quite short, however, in terms of tangible and enduring progress after 16 years of war. The April 21 Taliban raid provided even more evidence that the situation is moving from bad to worse for the Afghan government and its backers. For decades, the Afghan people—military, police, and civilians—have borne unimaginable costs in terms of lives lost and a society destroyed. Unfortunately, that suffering and destruction are unlikely to abate any time soon.
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