Afghanistan has suffered through a harrowing summer, even by the nightmarish standards of a country convulsed by conflict for decades.
On May 31, a truck bomb exploded in Kabul’s heavily fortified diplomatic enclave, killing more than 150 people . On June 2, Afghans, furious about their government’s failure to provide security, took to the streets of Kabul. Security forces cracked down, killing at least five people . One of them was the son of the deputy leader of Afghanistan’s Senate. His funeral the next day, attended by top Afghan political leaders, was rocked by three explosions that killed at least twenty people .
This merciless cycle of violence continued unabated. Two bomb blasts at Shia Muslim mosques, one in Herat on June 6 and the other in Kabul on June 15, killed seven and four people, respectively. On June 18, an assault on a police station in eastern Afghanistan killed five officers . On June 20, eight Afghan guards employed at Bagram, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, were gunned down in an ambush as they headed to the base to work a night shift. And on June 22, a car bomb outside a bank in Helmand Province claimed at least thirty lives .
That’s at least 229 dead in just twenty-three days.
The decision to put more boots on the ground has made headlines, but the still-evolving strategy is far more consequential. Indeed, if the United States is to help arrest Afghanistan’s spiraling destabilization , it’ll need much more than troops to do so. And yet, what’s known about the emerging strategy so far inspires little confidence that the Trump administration will have any more success than its predecessor.
Make no mistake: A mini-surge will do little to rein in Afghanistan’s recent orgy of violence, much less tame the Taliban insurgency. More than one hundred thousand American troops couldn’t do the trick during the height of the surge in 2010 and 2011, so you can bet your bottom dollar that dispatching a few thousand troops to reinforce the current 8,500 won’t either—even with the improvements in Afghan warfighting capacities in recent years.
Ramping up the U.S. military presence means more risks to American lives, both on the battlefield and in the barracks. This year, there’s been a spike in insider attacks—cases of Afghan troops turning their guns on their American trainers, typically because of Taliban infiltration or cultural misunderstandings. Over the last few months, three such incidents —including two in June—killed six U.S. troops. This problem isn’t as serious as it used to be; in 2012, nearly forty attacks killed more than fifty coalition troops. Still, it’s disturbing that such attacks continue despite U.S. efforts to improve screening of Afghan military recruits and to enhance American troops’ cultural understanding.
This isn’t to say we should reflexively dismiss the utility of a modest troop increase. On the contrary, more soldiers can enhance a U.S. training mission that’s in need of a boost. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted in recent Congressional testimony, more troops mean more U.S. advisers to accompany Afghan forces in the field, where guidance is badly needed.
More U.S. troops can also intensify efforts to boost Afghan intelligence-collection capacities—a major deficiency, as evidenced by the many intelligence failures of recent months. The May 31 attack was just the latest in a series of blasts to detonate in supposedly secure areas of the besieged capital. On May 3, a suicide bomber targeted a NATO convoy near the U.S. embassy. Strengthening such capacities would also enable Afghans to better screen their military recruits, thereby reducing the risk of militant infiltration and decreasing the possibility of insider attacks.
Still, a troop increase is no substitute for a broader strategy. A particularly strong need of the hour is a plan to guide U.S. engagement with Afghanistan’s national unity government (NUG)—an oft-overlooked driver of instability. It is a dysfunctional mess, thanks in great part to disputes between its two power-sharing rivals, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.
This fragile government’s vulnerability is intensifying. Since the May 31 bombing, protesters in Kabul have regularly—sometimes as often as ten times a day —taken to the streets and demanded Ghani’s resignation. They vowed to intensify their movement after security forces shut down their tent sites on June 20. At least six protesters have died in recent weeks—the deadliest such crackdown on dissent since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001.
Ominously, dissension within the government’s ranks has intensified as well, which risks upsetting the NUG’s uneasy ethnic balance (Ghani is Pashtun, while Abdullah is half-Tajik and draws much of his support from Tajiks) and raises questions about its very survival. Extraordinarily, the government’s own foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani, the leader of the Tajik-dominated Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, suggested that elements of the government were behind the funeral blasts and warned that JI would call for a new administration if all security ministers weren’t fired. Atta Muhammad Noor, a key Afghan political broker who is a top JI leader and the governor of Balkh Province, made similar accusations . In response, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Pashtun warlord who recently inked a peace deal with Kabul and is a bitter rival of both Abdullah and JI, warned that no one should think about overthrowing the government.