As the Trump administration weighs sending more troops to Afghanistan, the 16-year war grinds on in bloody stalemate.
Afghan soldiers are suffering what Pentagon auditors call "shockingly high" battlefield casualties, and prospects are narrowing for a negotiated peace settlement with the Taliban. The insurgents may have failed to capture and hold a major city, but they are controlling or influencing ever more territory.
"The situation is deteriorating," said Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor and close Afghan war observer.
This grim picture forms the backdrop for administration deliberations on a way ahead in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are supporting beleaguered Afghans against the Taliban insurgency and stepping up attacks on an extremist group considered an Islamic State affiliate. The three most recent U.S. deaths in Afghanistan were in combat last month against the IS affiliate, which also was the target of a much-publicized U.S. airstrike April 13 using the "mother of all bombs."
President Donald Trump will receive a proposed new approach to the war within a week, according to Theresa Whelan, a Pentagon policy official. "The interest is to move beyond the stalemate," she told senators, offering as a preview little more than an echo of the Obama administration's goal that Afghanistan "reaches its potential."
Whereas Trump called for significant changes to how the U.S. fights IS in Iraq and Syria, he has said far less about the much longer U.S. war in Afghanistan. The basic pillars of President Barack Obama's strategy -- supporting Afghan forces rather than doing the fighting for them and seeking a political settlement with the Taliban -- are likely to remain in place, defense officials said.
Testifying on Capitol Hill with Whelan, Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said the new strategy could include more U.S. troops and changes in what the military calls "rules of engagement," laying out when force can be used. The U.S. combat role officially ended in December 2014. Thomas' troops operate separately, targeting al-Qaida and IS fighters.
The Pentagon is considering a request for roughly 3,000 more troops, as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan has advocated, mainly for training and advising. The larger question is what they would do and how they'd fit into a broader strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan.
Sen. John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, has warned the administration that it is risking failure. Referring to the stalemate, he told Thomas, "If the present status quo prevails, then there's no end to it."
But it's unclear what Trump can do.
Biddle said the Taliban have little incentive to negotiate a peace deal and "the battlefield trend is against it."
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Afghan forces aren't capable of securing the country. Unless Trump adopts "a far more decisive approach," security could collapse "either slowly and painfully over years or as a result of some shattering military defeat or critical political power struggle at the top that divides the security forces and the country," he said.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wants an infusion of U.S. and allied troops to bolster support for the Afghan army.
But his request took a back seat to a broader administration review of Afghan policy and a push for NATO to contribute more troops. Both of those matters will be discussed at a NATO summit May 25.
The U.S. says it has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan; one-quarter of them are for the counter-terrorism mission.
Fatigue may be setting in. The war is now in its third U.S. presidency and American taxpayers have committed $66 billion to equipping and supporting Afghan security forces. Although Afghans have become more effective in recent years, they've been unable to break the Taliban's grip on substantial amounts of territory.
The government controls 60 percent of the country's 407 districts, slightly up over the past several months. But in January 2016, the government controlled 71 percent.
The Taliban's total now stands at 29 percent, according to a Pentagon inspector general report last month. It cited a "shockingly high" figure of 807 Afghan troops killed in just the first two months of this year.
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