U.S. President Donald Trump is considering whether to send up to 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, a decision expected to come before a NATO summit on May 25. But the question being asked is what can the U.S. achieve with such a small number of extra troops in a country where 350,000 Afghan security forces are already engaged in battle.
Back in March, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post titled “Why we need more forces to end the stalemate in Afghanistan.”
It is a question Trump must have considered as he viewed the proposals his top advisers put on his desk recently.
The Trump administration is determining whether to send between 3,000 to 5,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to try to break a stalemate in the 15-year war against the Taliban. Administration officials say Trump is likely to discuss a troop increase when he attends a NATO summit later this month.
Some are calling it one of the most important decisions of his early presidency, pitting president Trump against candidate Trump, who proposed during his election campaign to leave Afghanistan and focus attention on the United States instead.
With some 350,000 Afghan security forces already engaged in the fight, the numbers reportedly under consideration are marginal, and seem intended only to increase pressure on the Taliban to negotiate.
“His thinking is basically to try and help the Afghan government keep territory, to take back some more territory, and to put it in a position where the Taliban would like to go to the negotiating table. That’s it,” said Kate Clark, a senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
However, bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table has been an elusive goal. Multiple multi-nation efforts toward this goal have fizzled out without concrete results.
When former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar received a red carpet welcome in Kabul this month after signing a peace deal with the government, the Taliban squashed rumors that they may follow his example, calling negotiations “un-Islamic” and tantamount to “surrender.”
When U.S. commander General John Nicholson publicly requested an increase in troop levels to advise and assist the Afghan forces during senate testimony in February, he admitted the Afghan forces were in a stalemate with the Taliban. While the latter had been unable to take over any major cities last year, they had held their ground, and even gained a bit of territory.
The surge, marginal as it may be, may break that stalemate in favor of the Afghan government and push the Taliban to change its mind. But it might also strengthen their resolve, according to Islamabad-based analyst Maria Sultan, who heads the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute.
“The mere fact that the entire war rhetoric is based against the presence of foreign troops, it creates more sources of instability and also more potential targets,” she said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and top officials of his government reportedly support a U.S. troop increase.