Afghanistan’s Unwinnable War: Conflict to Intensify in 2018 ‘Game Changer’

With the help of huge B-52 bombers, the US has expanded its campaign to far northeastern Afghanistan near the China and Tajikistan borders where it is also targeting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which neighboring China blames for launching attacks on its soil.

(PKONWEB Report): Fighting in Afghanistan has escalated with US and Afghan officials tipping 2018 to be a “game-changer” as relentless airstrikes pummel Islamist militant groups — but others warn the 16-year war has simply become a more violent stalemate– according to The New York Times, “experts have stopped asking what victory looks like and are beginning to consider the spectrum of possible defeats.”

“I don’t think there is any serious analyst of the situation in Afghanistan who believes that the war is winnable,” Laurel Miller, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said in a podcast last summer, after leaving her State Department stint as acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This may be why, even after thousands have died and over $100 billion has been spent, even after the past two weeks of shocking bloodshed in Kabul, few expect the United States to try anything other than the status quo, the NYT report says.

It is a strategy, as Ms. Miller described it, to “prevent the defeat of the Afghan government and prevent military victory by the Taliban” for as long as possible.

A traditional easing in fighting during the freezing winter months has been absent this year as the Taliban and Islamic State group respond to intensifying US and Afghan air assaults.

Since US President Donald Trump announced his new strategy for Afghanistan in August, giving the US Air Force more leeway to go after militants, American pilots have been bombarding Taliban and IS fighters, their training camps and drug-making laboratories, report AFP.

“The gloves are off,” Brigadier General Lance Bunch, who directs future air operations in Afghanistan, told reporters recently.

The new policy has “definitely been a game-changer and the Taliban is definitely feeling it”, he added. “But sooner or later, the United States and Afghanistan will find themselves facing one of Afghanistan’s endgames — whether by choice or not,” according to NYT.

The US is deploying more troops and aircraft to Afghanistan, which has become the main theater of operations for the US Air Force following a drawdown in Syria and Iraq. At the same time it is beefing up Afghanistan’s fledgling air capabilities.

Related Article: Pakistan Shouldn’t Be Scapegoated if US Doesn’t Succeed in Afghanistan: ISPR Spokesperson

US aircraft dropped 4,361 munitions across the country in 2017 — including more than 2,300 since August, which exceeded the combined total for 2015 and 2016.

With the help of huge B-52 bombers, the US has expanded its campaign to far northeastern Afghanistan near the China and Tajikistan borders where it is also targeting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which neighboring China blames for launching attacks on its soil.

“The days of old where you had fighting seasons are gone,” Major General James Hecker, head of NATO’s Air Command in Afghanistan, told AFP in Kabul last week.

– ‘Point of no return’ –

Militants have reacted violently to the increased airstrikes, launching a wave of deadly attacks across the war-torn country, including in Kabul, in a devastating display of defiance.

The Taliban, by far Afghanistan’s biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks last month alone, the Washington, DC-based terrorism research group TRAC said, describing the number as “unprecedented” for January.

Combined with increased activity by relative newcomers IS, which has been expanding beyond its eastern stronghold, the country appeared to be “at a flashpoint almost to the point of no return”, TRAC warned in a new report. The challenge remains that ISIS signatures are expanding in Afghanistan with the potential to expand outwards, said Pakistan military media wing ISPR’s official spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor in an interview with Sputnik.

The escalation of the conflict foreshadows a “particularly bloody year”, Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC told AFP, forecasting more Afghan and US casualties.

Afghanistan’s so-called “fighting season” traditionally starts in the spring before easing over the winter when freezing temperatures and heavy snow make combat more difficult.

But in recent years Taliban militants have continued to carry out attacks throughout the colder months.

This winter has been worse than ever, Borhan Osman, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said in a report.

“Afghanistan is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter… since 2001,” Osman said, highlighting last month’s attacks in the Afghan capital that killed more than 130 people in less than 10 days.

– ‘Escalating stalemate’ –

Among the worst of the attacks was an assault on Kabul’s luxury Intercontinental Hotel on January 20, a terrifying hours-long ordeal which saw Taliban insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests charge from room to room searching for foreigners.

That was followed a week later by a devastating bombing involving an explosives-packed ambulance in a crowded street that killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians, and also claimed by the Taliban.

“This looks like a mutually escalating stalemate” as both sides adapt to the new tactics of the other, Afghanistan Analysts Network senior analyst Kate Clark told AFP.

The fighting this winter has been fueled by more Taliban fighters remaining on the frozen battlefield instead of regrouping in Pakistan, which has long been accused of providing safe havens to the militants — charges Islamabad denies.

Former general and military analyst Attiqullah Amarkhil told AFP that Taliban fighters had been ordered to “move forward instead of going back and forth” across the border.

“I have not been to Pakistan for a year and I will not go there,” Mawlawi Ahmad, a Taliban commander in the restive southern province of Helmand province, told AFP.

The escalation in fighting has all but dashed hopes for peace negotiations with the Taliban anytime soon.

Trump ruled out talks last month after the spate of attacks, an apparent reversal of the position set out in his Afghanistan strategy.

But Washington is still hoping to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said last week following a trip to Kabul.

Sullivan’s comments come as the Afghan capital gears up for the Kabul Process meeting at the end of February, where the central government is under pressure to present a framework for peace talks.

But expectations for progress are low.

“There’s no way Kabul, or Washington for that matter, would agree to extend an olive branch to an outfit that is placing explosives in ambulances,” Kugelman said.

So in Afghanistan’s 16-year-long unwinnable war, what’s the best loss to hope for? According to some experts quoted by the NYT, there are few scenarios. The likeliest outcome may be allowing the status quo to continue (Perpetual Stalemate), even as all sides suffer under rising violence, said Ms. Brown, the Carnegie Afghanistan expert.

Brown discussed other likely outcomes:

– Nation-Building, Minus the Nation –

“I’ll tell you what my best-case scenario would be,” said Frances Z. Brown, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to NYT.

That, she said, would see the American-led coalition abandon its efforts to impose a centralized state and instead allow Afghans to build their own state from the bottom-up.

It would mean accepting a central government that acts more like a horse trader among local strongmen and warlords. American and allied troops would guarantee enough security to sustain the state. Afghans would figure out the rest for themselves.

Over time, ideally, Afghans might develop a functioning economy, then something like real democracy and, finally, peace and stability.

“But what we know from other cases is that this takes generations,” Ms. Brown said. “So the 18-month time frames we’ve always had for Afghanistan are not realistic.”

The perpetual occupation necessary for this to work might also doom it. Continued foreign aid incentivizes Afghan elites, who are already on the verge of splintering, to compete rather than come together.

This approach would involve tolerating the Taliban’s presence in rural areas. And rolling crises would be built into this model, so Afghans would have to hope that they would somehow never derail the decades of progress needed before lasting change could take hold.

Other options the report says, include: Starting Over; The Somalia Model; A Peace That Satisfies No One; A Post-American Civil War; Perpetual Stalemate.

Few modern wars have raged this long this destructively and with this much outside intervention. If there is an obvious way out, history does not provide it. (Read NYT’s full report).

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