Under what circumstance would NATO return to Afghanistan?
Summary: US forces continue to run Special Forces, drones and other “force protection” activities inside Afghanistan. How and why might a large scale return of an ISAF II take place?
The New York Times has an article out which strongly suggests that US forces are still engaging with the Taliban and that operations might even be scaling up:
“Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising”… Western and military officials said that American and NATO forces conducted 52 airstrikes in March, months after the official end of the combat mission. Many of these air assaults, which totalled 128 in the first three months of this year, targeted low- to midlevel Taliban commanders in the most remote reaches of Afghanistan.
As early as January, when officials in Washington were hailing the end of the combat mission, about 40 American Special Operations troops were deployed to Kunar Province to advise Afghan forces that were engaged with the Taliban over a handful of villages along the border with Pakistan.”
The US government response is that this is for counter-terrorism and force protection purposes only.
I was idly brainstorming myself with the question: “Under what circumstances would NATO (aka US Military, aka ISAF) return in force to Afghanistan. I was looking ahead the next four or five years and would welcome anyone’s thoughts – this is where I got to thus far:
The first and most pragmatic response to the question should probably be “If they ever actually leave…”. It is reasonable to work on the assumption that a “presence” of US and international forces will be in Afghanistan for years – Special Forces, intelligence operators, drones, advisors, trainers, etc? Even being beyond the supposed 2016 deadline? I don’t think so. Propping up a regime in this way is much cheaper than the previous solution, aka the surge. It also retains crucial influence and oversight on Afghan developments, while allowing useful training and experience to be maintained and the options for taking the war to AQ and ISIS, without a major rebalancing of logistics.
But broadening this to an ISAF/NATO-type mission I came up with this:
• A gradual deterioration of the security situation, perhaps over years. This would presumably be as a result of Taliban victories but might be fuelled and exacerbated by divisions within the government forces – perhaps warlords forming their own militias and provinces becoming “no go” areas to central government influence. An increase in Taliban victories would be a more plausible trigger for a renewed Western military intervention – for the purposes of this piece, lets call it ISAF II. This might start with a battlegroup deployed for enhanced base protection and then expand to a brigade, etc. Something that looked more like a civil war – Ismail Khan vs, Dostum, vs Atta, vs central government vs Taliban vs HIG would be less likely to draw in Western forces this time. Too messy and no obvious legitimate focal point to support.
• A major shift in the balance of power – the Taliban make some major advances – a collapse of an Afghan Army Corps, for example. This is a straightforward “propping up” at the request of a hard-pressed Afghan government.
• Fragmentation of collapse of the Afghan government. This would look more like another civil war scenario. Any ISAF II commitment would need a very clear understanding and a clear centre of gravity to focus on – do we back Ghani/Abdullah?
• An AQ/ISIS “event”. I am thinking here of a 9/11 or similar – outside of Afghanistan. If the US mainland got hit again by an AQ/ISIS mass-casualty attack and the originators were traced to a region of Afghanistan it is very plausible that US ground forces (plus a small coalition of the willing?) would find themselves on the ground with or without Afghan government support.
• Military intervention in Afghanistan from a neighbour. In 1998, Iran apparently came very close to military invasion in response to the Taliban’s execution of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif. This is a little bit more outside the box, but a military incursion by Pakistan or Iran might well trigger a (very careful) deployment from Western forces.
• Humanitarian. Famine, genocide, earthquake, flood, take your pick. These have all been visited on Afghanistan. A heartfelt appeal from the Afghan regime could well bring back large numbers of international forces
In what capacity?
• Boots on the ground – for COIN work, military confrontations and humanitarian relief. Conventional military operations
• Air power and base protection
• Enhanced mentoring and training of various Afghan force components: army, air force, police, CN, border police, Afghan Local Police (I think they still need it), ANCOP
• Political, military, diplomatic advisors
• Additional “force multipliers” for the ANSF – logistics, intelligence, transport, airpower
• Special Forces
• Drones, intelligence gathering – AQ, Taliban, ISIS…
• Peace-keeping missions
2015 is going to be a tough year for the country. Although the Taliban are not taking and holding significant amounts of territory, they are still in the field, capable and confident. The Taliban have recently announced their annual Spring operations – promising a summer of suicide bombings and ground attacks. The UN has noted in its March report that casualties amongst the civilian population were increasing. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are similarly still in the field and resisting. In fact they are doing more than merely resisting, they are in some areas taking the fight to the Taliban. I feel we should consider a multiple year stalemate a very real possibility.
I think we should see drone strikes and Special Forces activities the bare minimum now of what America is willing and capable of doing in Afghanistan – it greatly reduces the “blood and treasure” aspect but allows for direct support of a regime that still very much wants an American military presence. A new and large scale commitment looks inconceivable from the vantage point of 2015 – the 2001 – 2014 experience was too costly, too painful and too lacking in a flag-waving victory moment. But times change, memories fade, mistakes are forgotten by new presidents and Prime Ministers. Lessons remain merely “identified” and rarely learnt. But never say “never again”.