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17 years in, Afghan war at a 'stalemate'

More than a year after President Donald Trump announced his administration's new strategy for achieving succ...

Posted: Nov 28, 2018 7:10 AM
Updated: Nov 28, 2018 7:10 AM

More than a year after President Donald Trump announced his administration's new strategy for achieving success in Afghanistan and the wider region, the situation remains decidedly mixed with the conflict at a "stalemate." Still, some senior officials feel there are some reasons for cautious optimism on the diplomatic front.

And though the casualty rate for US troops is far lower than it was earlier in the conflict, Americans are still losing their lives 17 years into the war with three US service members killed in a bombing on Tuesday.

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A fourth service member was killed earlier this week with the US military saying he was accidentally shot by Afghan troops while the joint US-Afghan force was combating al Qaeda elements, the group that the US went to Afghanistan to fight some 17 years ago.

On Tuesday, Trump laid out his rationale for keeping US troops in the country telling the Washington Post, "We're there because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say if we don't go there, they're going to be fighting over here."

Tuesday's deadly attack took place in Ghazni Province, an area where the Taliban have sought to wrest control of the provincial capital and have stepped up attacks against government security forces. But the insurgents have been unable to hold any major populated areas and are pushed back by Afghan troops supported by NATO advisers and US airstrikes.

The situation there is emblematic of the wider military campaign -- the Taliban is unable to take major cities or towns but the Afghan security forces, despite receiving some additional US support, are unable to put an end to the insurgency.

While US troops have suffered casualties this year, they are largely serving in a supporting role with local Afghan forces doing most of the fighting. Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani recently announcing that some 29,000 Afghan soldiers and police had been killed or wounded since 2015. US casualties during that same period declined sharply as they largely shifted away from direct combat.

"We used the term stalemate a year ago and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much," Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a conference in Halifax last month.

Outside experts agree with Dunford's characterization.

Stalemate

"It's not entirely static but for the most part it's a stalemate," Stephen Tankel, an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, told CNN.

"The Taliban remain on the offensive" but are "unable to seize and maintain control over population centers" Scott DesMarais, an Afghanistan-focused researcher for the Institute for the Study of War, told CNN.

While US officials have acknowledged that the military situation remains in a stalemate, with some 65% of the population under Afghan government control or influence, officials have said that non-military factors, including efforts toward a settlement aimed at reconciliation, have progressed.

Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was recently named the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation and has traveled repeatedly to the region for discussions with national governments and the Taliban to try to jump-start a dialogue.

But senior US officials have also cautioned the US is "a long way," from being able to say that point of reconciliation with the Taliban has been reached.

"I think we are a long way," Dunford said while speaking in Halifax.

Speaking about the reconciliation efforts last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters "we're doing what we can to support Ambassador Khalilzad. He is firmly in control now and acting very much in an energetic way, I would put it acting energetically to engage with Saudi help, United Arab Emirates help and Qatari help to get the reconciliation talks going."

Mattis would not characterize the nature of those talks, simply saying "they're active."

Hopes for a reconciliation

Hopes for a reconciliation were buttressed earlier this year when the Taliban and Afghan government participated in a brief nationwide ceasefire. Yet the Taliban rejected a similar subsequent ceasefire proposal and fighting has resumed.

The prospects of a grand reconciliation are made more difficult by various factions within the Taliban and the Afghan government.

"You might still see fracturing inside the Taliban or inside the Afghan government" should reconciliation talks progress DesMarais said.

"Shifting political alliances within the Afghan government in advance of the 2019 presidential election may undermine the ability of Afghan political leaders to remain unified during any peace negotiations," the Pentagon's Inspector General Report on the war in Afghanistan said earlier this month.

"These types of processes take a long time, they never move as quickly as people want them to," Tankel said.

And some experts warn against a US Afghan policy that is overly reliant on a possible reconciliation with the Taliban, saying that doing so would actually weaken the chances of such a reconciliation taking place.

Doing so "gives away any negotiating leverage and reduces the odds of any deal" Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution told CNN.

"There needs to be an explanation about how we can protect our core interests without a negotiated deal," O'Hanlon added.

And another part of the Trump administration strategy, getting Pakistan to exert pressure on the Taliban to force them to the negotiating table, has also not been as successful as officials had wanted, despite the US suspending over $1.66 billion in military aid.

O'Hanlon and Tankel both said that the decision on the way forward in Afghanistan will come down largely to what Trump decides.

Will Trump pull US troops out?

"There's absolutely no political demand this war should be ended," O'Hanlon said, adding "there's very little intensity around the Afghan issue in American politics."

While some Democrats, including the likely future chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, questioned the Trump administration's strategy for South Asia when it was announced, observers don't think it will be a major political issue.

"If Trump wants to he will be able to" end it, O'Hanlon added, saying there is "no passion in favor of sustaining it."

"Nobody knows if Trump could wake up on any given day and end the US presence in Afghanistan via tweet," Tankel said.

But the President's comments to the Washington Post on Tuesday suggest leaving isn't on his agenda at the moment and all three experts CNN talked to warned about the consequences of a premature withdrawal, saying that without the military pressure exerted by the Afghan forces and their US advisers, international terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the local ISIS affiliate, ISIS-K, could experience a resurgence and threaten countries around the world.

O'Hanlon added that that some senior military or defense officials could resign if Trump decides to reject their advice and pursue an abrupt withdrawal.

"I thought he was correct to make the mission open ended," O'Hanlon said, while adding "if we find we're not making headway, I think we should reevaluate."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 314509

Reported Deaths: 7247
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21626259
Hinds20359415
Harrison17934309
Rankin13634278
Jackson13447246
Madison10099217
Lee9980174
Jones8381163
Forrest7683152
Lauderdale7191241
Lowndes6401147
Lamar623086
Lafayette6200118
Washington5339134
Bolivar4802132
Oktibbeha462798
Panola4588107
Pearl River4512146
Marshall4443103
Warren4393121
Pontotoc420772
Monroe4113133
Union411076
Neshoba4031176
Lincoln3968110
Hancock379386
Leflore3497125
Sunflower336090
Tate334084
Pike3325105
Scott315973
Alcorn313368
Yazoo311669
Itawamba300477
Copiah297065
Coahoma295479
Simpson295288
Tippah288768
Adams286882
Prentiss279760
Marion269280
Leake268373
Wayne262641
Grenada261487
Covington259681
George248048
Newton246861
Winston227281
Tishomingo226967
Jasper221148
Attala214473
Chickasaw207857
Holmes189173
Clay185454
Stone182833
Tallahatchie178841
Clarke178080
Calhoun170832
Yalobusha164338
Smith162434
Walthall133945
Greene130633
Lawrence128624
Montgomery126942
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123142
Carroll121829
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107133
Tunica105726
Claiborne102430
Benton99525
Humphreys96733
Kemper95828
Franklin83823
Quitman80916
Choctaw76418
Wilkinson67331
Jefferson65728
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 532895

Reported Deaths: 11001
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson771431528
Mobile41089808
Madison34837505
Tuscaloosa25810454
Montgomery24355588
Shelby23730249
Baldwin21191309
Lee15892171
Calhoun14522316
Morgan14324279
Etowah13861353
Marshall12250223
Houston10581281
Elmore10060205
Limestone9986151
Cullman9705194
St. Clair9702243
Lauderdale9441242
DeKalb8846187
Talladega8255176
Walker7246277
Autauga6938108
Jackson6815112
Blount6694137
Colbert6310134
Coffee5524119
Dale4850111
Russell443238
Chilton4308112
Franklin426282
Covington4136118
Tallapoosa4039152
Escambia393977
Chambers3578123
Dallas3557152
Clarke351161
Marion3130101
Pike311377
Lawrence300798
Winston275673
Bibb261564
Geneva251477
Marengo249664
Pickens234761
Barbour231756
Hale223277
Butler216469
Fayette212562
Henry189044
Cherokee184745
Randolph181742
Monroe178040
Washington167639
Macon159950
Clay156857
Crenshaw152757
Cleburne149141
Lamar142935
Lowndes139053
Wilcox127130
Bullock122841
Conecuh110629
Coosa107928
Perry107826
Sumter104832
Greene92534
Choctaw61124
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