Does Afghanistan need more foreign troops?

US commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson was talking about stalemate in Afghanistan, about the need for few thousands more troops. There are still more than 13 000 NATO soldiers, including 8 400 US troops, deployed to Afghanistan. Mainly in the framework of training mission Resolute Support.

General John Nicholson (Commander Resolute Support) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Credit:

General John Nicholson (Commander Resolute Support) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Credit: http://www.nato.int

Questions:

1. Isn’t “more troops” just a repetition of what we are doing in Afghanistan for years, does it make sense?

2. Gen. Nicholson also mentioned Russia saying that Russian meddling in Afghanistan has become more difficult. How do you assess current Russia’s role in Afghanistan?

Answers:

Jorrit Kamminga, Senior Visiting Fellow, Netherlands Institute for International Relations Clingendael

1. From the General’s point of view it makes a lot of sense. If you look at the short term tactical battle, there is quite a need for additional forces, especially special forces that can assist in offensives such as the one against Islamic State in July last year. It has often been the support of the international forces that made the difference when defending or retaking district and provincial centres. But, looking at the bigger scheme of things, no Western counter-insurgency force, big or small, will make the difference. If the troop surge of 30,000 troops could not do that, adding another 1,000 now will not change a lot. But there may be some short term benefits. Instead of breaking the stalemate, additional forces may in fact keep the stalemate going and as such maintain political stability long enough to pave the way for a political solution over time. That is what the discussion should really be about: how can we get some of these Taliban factions to the negotiation table? There is no easy answer for it. We only know that if the Taliban groups become stronger, there will be even less incentives to negotiate a political settlement.

2. Alarm bells have been ringing for much longer about the rise of Russian influence in Afghanistan. Following the drawdown of mostly Western troops it is only logical that powers closer to the region will want to play a bigger role. In that sense, it is a bit ironic that we are afraid of it while we are pulling out our troops. But I don´t think Russia will overplay its hand in Afghanistan. They will be very careful. In 2009, I made a documentary on the Russian experience in Afghanistan, called ‘Afghanistan, Land of Wonders‘.

It shows how big the scars still are in modern day Russia and how much the Afgantsy still suffer from that dreadful period. But any Russian initiatives for peace talks with the Taliban or for regional conversations about a political solution should be welcomed. The US and other western countries have tried this many times over the past fifteen years, but have failed utterly. Although we may not agree with the approaches taken, why should we deny Russia a chance to try something that could perhaps unlock the biggest challenge of all: How to find and implement a sustainable political solution?

I just came back from Afghanistan. In my conversations with Afghans, people talk much more about Trump. Perhaps that already tells us something about the relative importance of Russia compared to the US at this stage. In quite a lot of conversations Trump is seen as a strong man, a characteristic viewed very positively by most Afghans. But there are worries that Trump will further disengage with Afghanistan.

David Isby, Political and Defense Analyst, Author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires

1. There certainly is a need for US and international personnel, military and civilian, to carry out tasks that the stretched ANSF has difficulty in carrying out or simply does not have in their force structure. This includes areas such as tactical airlift and casualty evacuation capabilities. However, strengthening the foreign presence also strengthens the Taliban narrative that the government in Kabul is the illegitimate creation of outsiders and they are the genuine representatives of Afghan nationalism and religion.

2. Russian security interests in Afghanistan reflect their need to secure their clients in central Asia while reducing US influence in the region. Russia remains a peripheral player. China is more important, especially as it, like Saudi Arabia, is needed to use leverage with Pakistan if that country is to change its policy direction of supporting the Taliban.

Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia, Woodrow Wilson International Center 

1. It’s true that sending more troops to Afghanistan won’t end the war or even bring that much more stability. When there were 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan several years ago, that didn’t bring stability, so there’s no reason to think that a few thousand new troops now will bring a different result.

However, the additional troops would still serve an important purpose–they would provide a major psychological boost to Afghan soldiers and the government. Afghanistan has long worried that the US will abandon the country like it did in the 1990s. Sending several thousand more troops would send a strong message of reassurance that the US is not pulling the plug on the war effort.

2. If Russia somehow manages to launch a regional peace conference that leads the Taliban to stop fighting, then that would be excellent and Russia’s role would be praised everywhere. But I think that this scenario is unlikely. I think the Russians are trying to raise their presence in Afghanistan in order to undercut the influence of the Americans.

We have to be cautious about Russia’s efforts to reach out to the Taliban. If it is doing this in order to build influence and allow Moscow to bring the Taliban to the peace table, then that is good. But if Russia is getting closer to the Taliban simply to make life more difficult for the US, then that would be a bad thing.

From Russia’s perspective, now is the time to deepen its role in Afghanistan because the future role of the US in Afghanistan is very unclear at the moment.

Frederic Grare, Nonresident Senior Fellow, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

1. General Nicholson talking about the need for thousands of more troops is indeed an indication that the situation is in a stalemate and this is indeed a repeat of the past. The only way of it would be to articulate what amounts to a new surge with a political process which is currently inexistent. Troops would be used to create the conditions to bring people to the negotiation table.

2. Regarding Russia, it is quite obvious that it does have anymore answer than anybody else. It seems to be looking for a deal of some sort by which it would not intervene within Afghanistan providing the insurgents do not project themselves in the Russian periphery and probably hope that the Taliban can constitute an obstacle to Daech finding its way to Central Asia.

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