Over the past year the Taliban have begun to gain ground against the Afghan government. They now control more territory than they have had since their regime was overthrown in 2001. In the wake of this, President Obama has authorized new action against the Taliban. Last month Obama authorized a drone strike against Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in Pakistan.
The administration claimed Mansour was a barrier to peace and the the assassination was intended to restart the dead negotiations. My doubts about this explanation have since been vindicated by what followed. A new triumvirate was quickly formed with a cleric by the name of Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as leader. Many Taliban groups quickly pledged allegiance to the new leader and prospects of peace with the Taliban became more distant.
Obama has now issued new instructions to American troops that will allow them greater power to target the Taliban directly. Under the new orders American troops will be able to accompany Afghan army regulars on patrols and missions. Prior to this, they had been limited to shadowing special forces troops. This move is expected to take the American forward air controllers into the battlefield to allow for close air support missions.
While the administration claims that troops will not be engaged in front line combat, that doesn’t really mean much these days, given that the Pentagon regards the “front line” as being a single “terrain feature” away from the enemy. American soldiers could easily end up within shooting distance of Taliban fighters.
Allowing troops air powers should have a significant impact on the war. Although the troops will not be deployed in great numbers, their presence has helped in the past and leveraging U.S combat air power could only benefit Afghan soldiers.
While these measures are unlikely to lead to the total defeat of the Taliban, they will help roll back some of their gains and put pressure on them politically. It will also help the afghan army cope with the increased Taliban activity that will come with the summer months.
Whether the escalation will increase is an unknown. Obama only has a seven more months in office before his term ends and he has to hand over command to his successor. Right now this is a bandage over an old wound that isn’t going to heal anytime soon.
Although both major presidential candidates are more hawkish than Obama and are likely to take a harder stance against the Taliban, further major escalation is unlikely. America is transitioning back towards traditional big war fighting. As this is going on the military is shrinking and being subjected to cuts. Assets are being moved to Europe and East Asia. The Army that sent tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan a few years ago will not exist in a few years and options for fighting the Taliban will be more limited.
At this point, America’s strategy is limited to managing the conflict with the Taliban. Clearly, there is no will, military or political, for another surge. The best possible outcome is for the situation in Afghanistan to stabilize and hold the ANA through the summer fighting season and possible allow them to regain the initiative. After that, the future of active U.S involvement in Afghanistan is up in the air.