President Trump announces mini-troop surge to Afghanistan: will NATO follow suit?

In his televised speech on 21 August, President Trump announced that more US troops will be deployed to Afghanistan, signalling a change of approach from his predecessor, President Obama. The exact number of additional troops and the strategy for deploying them was not specified in the speech. Instead, President Trump promised “in the end, we will win” presumably by following a recooked version of the US strategy from the past 16 years of the conflict.

According to the New York Times, “By refusing to place a number on troops or to specify benchmarks for success, Mr. Trump was in essence shielding himself against potential backlash from his political base and from the American public, which has grown weary of the war. But in substance, Mr. Trump’s strategy was not all that different from Mr. Obama’s, relying on a mix of conventional military force and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. One administration official conceded that there was to be no major change in the mix of American forces operating in Afghanistan, and that the priorities would remain training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations”.

At best, this latest iteration of the US approach—expected to involve an additional 4,000 US troops to the effort, which would bring the total American presence to about 12,400—may help hold the line against a resurgent Taliban, but is unlikely to change the course of the United States’ longest war. The Associated Press reported Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid as dismissing Trump’s speech as “old” and his policy as “unclear”, but the plan was welcomed by the Afghanistan Government.

The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also welcomed the “new” US South Asia strategy. NATO’s combat operations in Afghanistan ended at the close of 2014 and were replaced by a mission, Resolute Support, to train and build Afghan forces. The mission currently comprises around 12,000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partners (and about 6,600 are non-US troops). It operates with one ‘hub’ (Kabul/Bagram) and four ‘spokes’ (Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south, and Laghman in the east). 15 countries have pledged additional contributions to the Resolute Support mission, Stoltenberg said. But even though the NATO leadership in Brussels is making all the right noises about continuing to support US strategy in Afghanistan, any increases are likely to be limited. Poland, for example, which has 200 soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan, has said it intends to boost that number to 230. Britain has 585 troops there, and an additional 85 advisers have already been pledged.

At the NATO Brussels Summit in May, during his opening press conference the Secretary General did state that “the security situation remains challenging”, but that Afghan security forces have “proven capable, professional and they have been able to counter every time the Taliban has attacked. And they have proven also able to fight the many different terrorist groups including ISIS in Afghanistan”. This glowing reference for the Afghan security forces seems to belie the evidence on the ground of a weakening Afghan regime and an unchecked Taliban resurgence. At the Brussels Summit, the NATO Secretary General announced that a mini-troop surge was under consideration, but was also quick to avoid any comparison with earlier troop surges:

“So now when there is a request for a few thousand more troops it is something completely different than the surge back in 2009 and 2010. Because then it was a big surge in the combat operation. Now it is a request for a few thousand more troops to do more training and capacity building. At least in the NATO framework. And the aim of that is to for instance further strengthen the Afghan special operation forces. They are proven extremely important in the fight against Taliban and terrorist groups. To strengthen the air defences, the air force of Afghanistan”.

Special forces and the country’s fledgling air force are two elements of the Afghan armed forces that are likely to be the focus of the new support. Afghanistan’s special forces number about 21,000 troops (or about 7 per cent of the total Afghan armed forces), but they do the bulk (70 to 80 per cent) of the fighting according to the New York Times. There are plans to double the number of commandos, and Maj. Gen. James Linder, the head of US and NATO special forces in Afghanistan, said on 20 August that the additional troop request included about 460 trainers for this purpose. Plans to expand and refit the Afghan air force are a longstanding aim, which is not expected to be concluded until 2023.

If the US Congress funds the president’s $45 billion wartime request to fund the fight in Afghanistan this year, the war will have cost the Pentagon over $800 billion.