External Affairs

US Changes Rules of War in Afghanistan, Will Strike Taliban Harder

While the ultimate objective still remains political reconciliation in Afghanistan, the route by which the parties get there will be vastly different under the Trump administration.

US secretary of defence James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. Credit: Reuters

Washington: “War is principally a matter of will,” secretary of defence James Mattis said last week while unveiling details of the new US strategy to counter the Taliban and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan.

The effort is aimed at winning rather than “not losing” the longest war waged by the US. Afghanistan’s security interests are likely to supersede those of Pakistan’s, bringing more balance to the strategy. The most obvious manifestation of the new plan is tripling the capacity of Afghanistan’s meager air force in the next few years in direct opposition to Pakistan’s wishes.

Mattis said the US will “embolden the Afghan forces by providing close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. That will make them more effective, in turn convincing the Taliban and other extremist groups that ‘you’re not going to be able to win this by killing.”

In nearly six hours of testimony in front of both the House and Senate armed services committees of the US Congress, Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made it clear that their approach was more aggressive. It was the first time military details of the new South Asia strategy were made public.

The idea is to squeeze the Taliban militarily, peel off leaders amenable to making peace and bolster the Afghan security forces with equipment and timely intelligence inputs.

US President Donald Trump’s strategy unveiled on August 21 marks a near-complete departure from his predecessor Barack Obama’s policy, which many analysts saw as riddled with confusion, lacking in clear objectives and largely being aimed at seeking an exit. The Obama White House is said to have “micromanaged” the war from Washington, tying the hands of the US commander of NATO forces on the ground.

Senator John McCain, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee where Mattis and Dunford testified, called it “a foolish policy of arbitrary time tables for withdrawal” during the hearing. He welcomed the changes but demanded details.

The details came in fast and thick from Mattis and Dunford who have been given more freedom to design and execute the policy in a manner they deem fit without political interference or constant inputs from Washington consultants. Trump had said in his speech he would “expand authorities for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.”

Over the years, US commanders have asked for more autonomy in how they engage the Taliban and the Haqqani Network operatives in Afghanistan but Obama’s desire to be the president who brought about reconciliation overrode requests from the field. The general sense was that US forces were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

While the ultimate objective still remains political reconciliation in Afghanistan, the route by which the parties get there will be vastly different. Taliban will come under military pressure, whether they are in Afghanistan or living under ISI protection in Pakistan, until they reject violence.

Mattis described the new policy as “4R’s+S” – regionalise, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain. The strategy, which now is under the larger rubric of “South Asia” rather than just “Afghanistan-Pakistan,” brings India into the fold in an attempt to “regionalise” the policy. It also seeks involvement of Russia, China and Iran, although given Washington’s general hostility towards all three, that’s a distant dream.

The “realignment” aspect of the policy may end up having the most bearing on immediate results. Realignment of forces will now place US advisers and trainers at the level of an Afghan battalion instead of just placing them at the corps level. Reinforcement involves sending an 3,000 additional US troops to Afghansitan to bolster the 12,000 already there. At least 15 NATO countries have signaled they would increase their support, Mattis said.

The presence of US advisers at lower levels will mean they can request air strikes around the country. This is significant because only US advisers have the authority to request air support. Mattis said that Afghan forces that had US military advisers alongside them “have won every time they have fought the enemy.”

A Pentagon investigation into the deadly 2015 strike on the hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz resulting in 33 civilian deaths revealed that lack of a US adviser at hand contributed to the excessive fire power used by US forces. The nearest adviser was apparently pinned down miles away in a separate battle with extremists.

According to the Trump administration's Afghan policy, the burden is on the Pentagon to show results. Credit: Reuters

According to the Trump administration’s Afghan policy, the burden is on the Pentagon to show results. Credit: Reuters

The new policy also changes the most important rule of engagement – terrorists can now be targeted wherever they are and not just in “proximity” to US or Afghan forces. “So these kind of restrictions that did not allow us to employ the air power fully have been removed,” Mattis said.

“Today wherever we find them, the terrorists – anyone trying to throw the NATO plan off, trying to attack the Afghan people and the Afghan government – then we can go after them,” the defence secretary revealed. Dunford elaborated further, saying that terrorists can be targeted “if they are in an assembly area, a training camp and we know they are an enemy and a threat to the Afghan government.”

Most military analysts agree that the previous rules were convoluted. Obama’s announcement to withdraw US troops on a fixed time table further undermined what his troop surge might have achieved.

Dunford told the US Congress “we drew down our advisory effort and combat support for Afghan forces too far and too fast. As a result, the Taliban expanded territorial and population control and inflicted significant casualties on the Afghan army and police, while the campaign lost momentum.”

The Indian government had raised the need to adequately equip the Afghan army during the few consultations the Obama administration had with New Delhi, but the White House paid no heed. Obama’s advisers – from Richard Holbrooke to John Kerry – were always concerned that Pakistan would feel threatened by well-equipped and well-trained Afghan security forces. Creating a real Afghan air force was considered blasphemous.

But Mattis plans to massively expand Afghan air capability. According to news reports, the US will provide 159 Black Hawk helicopters over the next few years and train Afghan pilots. The process will be slow – only six helicopters will be inducted by the end of next year, the report said. The loss of the past eight years in ignoring this obvious need will no doubt weigh heavy.

Dunford was the commander of US forces in Afghanistan in 2013-14 and saw the results of Obama’s policies himself. Now that he and Mattis, who also has direct experience of the war in Afghanistan, have been given the authority to shape a better outcome, the burden is on the Pentagon to show results.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.