As U.S. President Donald Trump meets the leaders of 28 NATO member countries this week, they will be weighing in on a key question: how many troops to send back to Afghanistan two years after the alliance ended major combat operations there and more than 100,000 of its troops withdrew.
More crucially, will such an increase reverse the Taliban’s gains over the past two years when the insurgents have overrun large swathes of the countryside and attempted to capture large population centers?
Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based security analyst, says the deployment of fresh NATO troops to Afghanistan will be a boost for the Afghan forces in their fight against the resurgent Taliban.
He backs the reported recommendation of senior U.S. security officials asking Trump to increase their country’s forces by 3,000 because such recommendations are informed by facts on the ground.
“Such [recommendations] give us hope for the future,” he said. “We hope that such demands encourage the U.S.’s NATO allies to be more active and address the issue of extremism within the geography of Afghanistan.”
Kohistani said the Taliban are not capable of seizing and holding provincial centers this year, but he added that the group is trying to make more gains in rural areas.
The insurgents, however, appear to be aiming high. Even before announcing their annual spring offensive, named Operation Mansuri, the Taliban were clearly pressing for a battlefield advantage by massacring more than 130 Afghan Army soldiers in the 209th Corps headquarters, Camp Shaheen, on April 21.
Since then, the insurgents have stepped up their onslaughts in different parts of Afghanistan and continue to make headlines. Last week, Taliban fighters attacked the city of Ghazni in central Afghanistan from three directions but failed to seize territory. On May 6, the insurgents seized and held for 10 days the center of district of Qala-e Zal in northeastern Kunduz Province. The propaganda machine is churning out constant stories of battlefield successes.
The apparent insurgent momentum has forced U.S. officials to revise their threat assessment. In February, General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, spoke of a security stalemate in Afghanistan but added that the equilibrium favored the Afghan government.
What makes things even more complicated now is that the insurgents do not only enjoy safe havens and support inside Pakistan but are receiving weapons and backing from Russian and Iran.
“Russia has become more assertive over the past year, overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban,” Nicholson told journalists on April 24.
They are doing this “to undermine NATO efforts and bolster belligerents using the false narrative that only the Taliban are fighting ISIL-K,” he added, referring to the Islamic State militants’ local branch by its self-styled name, Islamic State Khorasan. “Similarly, neighboring Iran is providing support to the Taliban.”
A recent report by the office of the U.S. director of national intelligence also sees a worsening security situation in Afghanistan.
“The overall situation in Afghanistan will very likely continue to deteriorate,” the report, issued on May 11, noted. “Even if international support is sustained. Endemic state weaknesses, the government’s political fragility, deficiencies of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Taliban persistence, and regional interference will remain key impediments to improvement.”
Cornelius Zimmermann, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, however, sees the Afghan security forces capable of defending the majority of Afghan territory and two-thirds of the Afghan population who live in those regions.
“Last year, the security forces prevented eight major attempts to seize provincial capitals. And they continue to prevent the Taliban from achieving their stated objectives,” he said. “Further assistance provided by [NATO’s] Resolute Support [mission] will certainly have a positive impact on the security forces’ ability to stabilize the country.”
General Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, agreed. He said more 350, 000 Afghan forces are becoming more capable every day and they will prove a bulwark against the Taliban tide this year.
He pointed to the recent recapture of Zebak and Qala-e Zal districts in the northeastern provinces of Badakhshan and Kunduz as a proof of Afghan forces rising capabilities. The two districts were briefly overrun by the Taliban in recent weeks.
Radmanish says the inclusion of new planes and helicopters is making the Afghan Air Force more effective.
“We are certain that with building our capacities we will be able to defuse the activities of the Taliban, whatever name that they are giving to those activities, Omari or Mansuri,” he said, referring to the Taliban offensives during the previous and current years.
Michael Kugelman, a regional specialist at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, however, is not convinced that an increase in U.S. and NATO troop numbers can help in ending the latest round of the Afghan war that began in late 2001 when Western forces toppled the hard-line Taliban regime.
“We tried the military option for a number of years. We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at the height of the troop surge in 2010-2011.That clearly did not end the war,” he noted. “It did not make the Taliban sue for peace.”
Kugelman urged Washington to take a deeper look at reconciliation. “We really need to see what type of things the U.S. might be willing to do that it was not willing to do before that would increase the possibility that the Taliban would be willing to sit down for negotiations,” he said.
But back in Kabul there is little hope for peace talks. Security analyst Asadullah Walwalji says Trump has no viable alternative to adding more forces in the hope of breaking the Taliban’s momentum.
"If Afghanistan is defeated and terrorists re-emerge in the country, it will pose a grave danger for the international community," he noted.