War in Afghanistan: U.S. Officials Want More Troops and Greater Say in Strategy

US troops in Afghanistan
U.S. Army General John Nicholson talks to soldiers during a transfer of authority ceremony at Shorab camp, in Helmand province, Afghanistan on April 29, 2017. U.S. marines took over the camp at the end of April for the first time since 2014. James Mackenzie/Reuters

The Afghan Taliban has begun its annual spring offensive. In the northeast of the country it is edging ever closer to the strategic city of Kunduz, which it has managed to capture twice over the past 18 months. In the south, Taliban militants battle Afghan troops for control over two of the group’s strongholds—Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

On Monday, IHS Jane’s, a company specializing in defense and security analysis said of this year’s assault : “Although the Taliban's spring offensive statement was shorter and more subdued than in previous years, the insurgency is likely to make further ground against the government over 2017.”

It was bad news for the Afghan people, many of whom are preparing to flee—or have already fled—from the oncoming Taliban. For U.S. military officials, it was likely confirmation of what they already knew. Senior military advisers have begun urging Trump to increase the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, in opposition to former President Barack Obama’s plans to eventually withdraw troops from the troubled country.

At present, there are around 8,400 U.S. forces in Afghanistan. They, along with NATO troops, are there to support Afghan soldiers against the Taliban and the less powerful Islamic State militant group. Also jostling for influence in the country are Russia, Iran and Pakistan (the latter two countries border Afghanistan).

Read more: Russia’s increasingly close relationship with the Taliban is now of major concern to Washington

In February this year, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson told a Senate committee that a “few thousand” more U.S. troops would be required to break the stalemate in the country.

Now, sources tell the Washington Post that cabinet officials have set a number. The new strategy calls for at least 3,000 more troops, matched by at least the same number of NATO forces.

The plan also calls for U.S. officials to have greater authority to order airstrikes; for the Pentagon, not the White House, to set the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan; and for military advisers to have greater mobility in the country.

While the proposed strategy counters Obama’s attempts to leave a mere 1,000 troops in Afghanistan by the time he left office—an endeavor he ended up having to slow—it has the support of the Afghan government. General Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense told CNN that a troop increase would benefit his country and the rest of the world.

"Fights in Afghanistan are not domestic; it is international terrorism operating in Afghanistan," Waziri told the network. “[The] U.S. must finish terrorism in Afghanistan by assessing, advising and training Afghan security forces and make them strong to counter-terrorism.”

Even as the Afghans appear to be on board, it is less clear whether President Donald Trump is. Speaking to the Washington Post, an unnamed official said the president is keen to “start winning” again, despite Trump having said fairly little about the 16-year fight in Afghanistan.

The war already costs the U.S. $23 billion a  year, a figure that would jump if the new strategy—which also calls for more aid to the country—was implemented. On the campaign trail at least, Trump expressed a reluctance for the U.S. to become more involved in military conflicts—a view shared by his chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

But with Bannon rumored to have fallen out of favor, Trump has proved himself quick to deploy military force. On April 13, he authorized the dropping of the largest ever non-nuclear bomb over an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan. Unofficially called the mother of all bombs, the explosive allegedly killed up to 94 ISIS militants, say Afghan officials. Analysts have disputed this figure.

Military advisers expect Trump to make his plans for Afghanistan clear before May 25. That’s when the president will travel to Brussels for a NATO summit where he intends to discuss responsibility sharing between the bloc’s members and how they can all better fight terrorism together.

Trump will likely expect NATO members to up their efforts in Afghanistan, should the U.S. choose to do so. But, after years of unending war in the country with little real movement, the larger question of whether increasing troops to Afghanistan will have much effect remains unanswered.