By South Asia correspondent James Bennett
The continuing, if forgotten, war in Afghanistan is the United States’ longest-ever conflict.
- America’s top general in Afghanistan says the war is currently in a stalemate
- One expert fears that history could repeat itself in the country
- Afghans fear the vacuum that total withdrawal would create
But President Donald Trump has vowed to end “nation-building”, raising expectations of withdrawal.
The alternatives? Stalemate, or more troops.
Last month, Republican Senator John McCain asked America’s top general in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, a simple question: “Are we winning or losing?”
“I believe we’re in a stalemate,” the commander of Operation Resolute Support replied to the chair of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
According to a January report from America’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the United States has spent approximately $150 billion on nation-building in that country since 2002.
Why not cut the losses?
Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations and military history at Boston University, suggests it is because of a “reluctance to acknowledge that we have failed”.
So what are the alternatives?
Mr Trump has stated his intention to pull back from nation-building, but the US military — which the President has promised separately to build up and return to “winning” ways — wants a troop increase.
Kate Clark, from the Afghan Analysts Network, says Afghanistan would fail if Mr Trump were to cut aid.
“Clearly, if international funding — especially to the military but to the state in general — were cut, it is difficult to see the state surviving in its current form,” she said.
Of course, Afghanistan’s survival wasn’t the initial reason for invading.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) is public enemy number one today, but in 2001, it was Al Qaeda.
A week after the 9/11 attacks on New York, when President George W Bush made the case for going to war, he told America that the crucible of terror was Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime gave Al Qaeda safe haven.
“It [the Taliban] is threatening people everywhere, by sponsoring and sheltering and supplying terrorists,” he stated.
Has the blood spilt and money spent since then been effective?
No, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s South Asia expert Michael Kugelman.
“I would argue that one of the sources of terror that tends to be overlooked in this town is Al Qaeda, which has never gone away,” he said.
Mr Kugelman argues today’s focus on IS and wavering support for Afghanistan overlooks a dormant Al Qaeda.
“What I worry about is that history could repeat itself in Afghanistan,” he said.
“We could revert to the pre 9-11 days, where Al Qaeda essentially was given one huge sanctuary in Afghanistan to plan attacks in the United States.”
Currently, there are 8,400 American troops and 5,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan.
General Nicholson says he needs more personnel who can help to train the Afghan National Army units fighting the Taliban.
“In my train, advise and assist mission, we have a shortfall of a few thousand,” he told the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
Will the President agree with this?
For Mr Trump to increase troops, the generals must convince him that Afghanistan poses a threat he can’t ignore.
In other words, they must argue that 16 years on, the war on terror’s original mission remains incomplete.
Afghans naturally fear the vacuum that total withdrawal would create, so are keen to highlight the risk of IS gaining a toehold there, said Ms Clark from the Afghan Analysts Network.
“The [Afghan] Government likes to overplay Daesh [IS] because it’s useful for getting international financial and military support,” she said.
Indeed, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States wrote this week that the “security reasons for going into Afghanistan 16 years ago are arguably more urgent now”.
He cited Islamic State influence and “groups looking for a platform from which to destabilise our region and launch attacks on the rest of the world”.
Against that warning though, the prospect of continuing stalemate will weigh heavily on a President obsessed with victory.