WASHINGTON – A coming deployment of up to 4,000 more U.S. forces to Afghanistan, expected as part of a new Trump administration approach to America's longest war, reflects the Pentagon's view that beefing up its training-advising role and its counterterrorism effort can help turn around recent Taliban gains and snuff out a growing Islamic State threat.
But adding troops is a U.S. tactic that has failed in the past and much will depend on the president's broader strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis's chief spokeswoman, Dana W. White, said Friday that Mattis had made no decision on a troop increase. She was responding to an Associated Press report Thursday, citing an administration official, that Mattis has settled on a plan to send almost 4,000 more troops and that it could be announced as early as next week. Another option is to hold off on the troop numbers until the new strategy is ready, which Mattis has said would be in July.
White said in a written statement that "any decision about troop numbers will be made only after consultations" with other U.S. government agencies, NATO allies and Afghanistan. Such consultations have been ongoing for weeks. Mattis is due to attend a NATO defense ministers meeting later this month.
The retired Marine general has said repeatedly that adding U.S. troops and other resources to Afghanistan would be just one part of a larger strategy, developed in conjunction with the State Department and other national security agencies. The plan envisions addressing the roles played by Pakistan, India, China and Iran and perhaps Russia. Pakistan is a particularly difficult problem because it has provided sanctuary for elements of the Taliban.
Among the Taliban's factions, the strongest is the so-called Haqqani network with its deep ties to Pakistan and particularly its intelligence agency. The relationship dates back to the 1980s Afghan war against the Soviet Union, which had sent in more than 100,000 soldiers to support the pro-communist Afghan government. Pakistan has been a troublesome ally for multiple U.S. presidents, permitting large-scale U.S. air attacks on extremist targets but sometimes halfheartedly addressing threats itself.
The latest is posed by Islamic State extremists, evidenced in a rash of deadly attacks in the capital city of Kabul, which have only fueled calls for a stronger U.S. presence. On the other hand, years of combat against the Taliban and much larger U.S. force numbers has never compelled insurgents to come to the negotiating table to talk peace or to sever their links with groups such as al-Qaida that plot attacks against the United States.
It's unclear how much support President Donald Trump has for deepening the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. One of his supporters, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, said Friday he supports a policy that keeps the pressure on the Taliban and that goes beyond prolonging a military stalemate.
"We went into Afghanistan to avenge the 9/11 attacks and prevent them from ever happening again," Cotton said. "But for too long, politics were put ahead of sound military planning, and as this war has dragged on, we've lost ground. I welcome the president's strong decision to put military advice above political advice, and his clear belief that the only way to end this war is to win it."
A few thousand more U.S. troops to support and advise the Afghan army are alone unlikely to reverse the war's direction, which the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has conceded is stalemated.
Mattis himself said in congressional testimony this week that the U.S. is not winning the war, and that the Taliban are "surging." He gave no indication he intends for the U.S. to return to a direct combat role in Afghanistan, other than the ongoing effort by U.S. and Afghan special operations forces to hunt down and kill members of al-Qaida and the Islamic State's Afghan affiliate.
Mattis has broadly defined the U.S. mission in terms remarkably similar to those set by President Barack Obama. One critical difference, however: Obama was willing to send up to 100,000 troops to lead the fight against the Taliban. Mattis' planned deployment would be far smaller and more restricted.
"Our primary national interest and the international interest in Afghanistan is ensuring it does not become an ungoverned space from which attacks can again be launched against the United States, other nations or the Afghan people," he told a House panel Thursday.
He said Obama erred by pulling out U.S. troops before Afghan security forces were ready to fight the Taliban.
After 16 years of war, ordinary Afghans are frustrated by the relentless violence. In one recent attack, security failures allowed a explosive-laden truck to explode in Kabul's center and kill more than 150 people. Many are also disappointed at a government so rife with corruption.