AFGHANISTAN New US plan to increase troop numbers could slow Taliban advances and will prevent large-scale collapse of Government authority


New US plan to increase troop numbers could slow Taliban advances and will prevent large-scale collapse of Government authority

A NATO spokesman said on 29 April that while the new US administration’s policy on Afghanistan has not been finalised, Washington is considering deploying 3,000 additional troops to help combat the Taliban. The US is also considering easing Obama-era restrictions on air strikes in the country, and requesting increased troop contributions from other NATO countries. US President Trump is expected to make a final decision on the proposed strategy by 25 May, when he is due to attend a NATO summit in Brussels.

Washington’s move to increase support to the Afghan National Army (ANA) reflects the ANA’s current inability to contain the Taliban’s advances. Our last Report noted that the group had launched its spring offensive, and that its efforts to seize territory would primarily focus on the North. Reflecting this strategy, the group has recently made rapid advances around the northern city of Kunduz, and the ANA said on 9 May that Taliban fighters were just 1.5 km from the city centre. Unless the US provides increased support to Afghan forces in Kunduz in the next few weeks, the Taliban is likely to repeat its 2015 and 2016 seizures of the city, which were only reversed by rapid US ground and air interventions. The Taliban’s current advance on Kunduz – the loss of which would be seen as a symbolic defeat for Kabul – will therefore increase the likelihood of the US authorising the proposed surge in troops before 25 May.

The new US strategy is not intended to defeat the Taliban, but instead to push the group to re-engage in peace negotiations. Reflecting these limited aims, the proposed deployment would bring US troop levels in the country to approximately 11,000, far below the 2011 peak of 100,000. In addition, even if this increase does occur, the US will not be able to fully contain the Taliban’s advances and the group will continue to seize territory in the coming months, including in Helmand Province, where additional US troops were deployed in April in response to increased Taliban activity there. However, the group’s currently overwhelming strength means it will have little incentive to agree to meaningful new talks in the coming months, especially as it is seeking to prevent hardline members defecting to its rival Islamic State.

Increased US troop numbers will instead help the ANA to limit the Taliban’s capacity to capture and hold key urban centres, reducing the group’s overall ability to challenge the Government. Moreover, Washington could gradually build on the proposed plan by sending further troops in the year ahead, a move which could more substantively reduce the speed of Taliban expansion. But a significant surge in the US military role is unlikely during the next six months, particularly as the Trump administration had campaigned partly on pledges to reduce commitments overseas. Nonetheless, the proposed strategy shows that Washington remains committed to supporting Afghanistan, which will help prevent a large-scale collapse of security and of Kabul’s authority during the next few years.

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