US must do ‘something different’ in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon’s intelligence chief has said that the work of American and NATO forces to stabilise Afghanistan is at risk of being squandered.

Lt-Gen Vincent Stewart, the Defence Intelligence Agency’s director, told a Senate panel on Thursday that the US must do “something very different” in Afghanistan or else the Taliban will make new advances on the battlefield. He maintained that the current stalemate in fighting could then tip in the Taliban’s favour.

Stewart said he visited Afghanistan six weeks ago to see the situation for himself. His grim assessment comes as the Trump administration considers sending a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan, mainly to boost training and advising of Afghan forces.

In the same hearing, the head of US intelligence agencies also offered a pessimistic assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan. “The political and security situation in Afghanistan will also almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in the military assistance by the US and its partners,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said at the hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Afghanistan will struggle to curb its dependence on external support until it contains the insurgency or reaches a peace agreement with the Taliban,” Coats told lawmakers in presenting an annual assessment of threats to US national security.

US-led forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for 16 years, making it America’s longest war, yet the situation there remains a stalemate.

The Taliban, which first emerged in the mid-1990s in southern Afghanistan, managed to conquer most of the country before its 2001 ouster with the help of a range of foreign jihadists, including Pakistanis, Saudis and Chechens.

But it has been on the rebound, Coates said, and continues to gain strength. “The Taliban are likely to continue to make gains, especially in rural areas,” said the US spy chief, adding that efforts to bolster local military have been less fruitful than hoped.

“Afghan security forces’ performance will probably worsen due to a combination of Taliban operations, combat casualties, desertions, poor logistics support and weak leadership,” he said.

“Afghanistan will struggle to curb its dependence on external support until it contains the insurgency or reaches a peace agreement with the Taliban.”

“Although the Taliban were unsuccessful in seizing a provincial capital in 2016, they effectively navigated their second leadership transition in two years following the death of their former chief, Mullah Mansoor, and is likely to make gains in 2017,” Coats said.

“The overall situation in Afghanistan will very likely continue to deteriorate, even if international support is sustained,” he said.

“Kabul’s political dysfunction and ineffectiveness will almost certainly be the greatest vulnerability to stability in 2017,” Coats said.

Coats said the fighting will also continue to threaten US personnel, allies, and partners, particularly in Kabul and urban population centres.

America has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Most belong to a 13,300-strong NATO mission to train and advise Afghan partner forces fighting the Taliban.

Last month, the United States dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in combat in Afghanistan, targeting an Islamic State complex.

President Donald Trump is reportedly weighing whether to send as many as 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The US currently has about 8,400 troops stationed in the country.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump has asked military advisers “to relook at the entire strategy” in Afghanistan. Trump is expected to make a decision on the plan sometime in the coming days.

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