- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2019

The collapse of peace talks in Afghanistan has left the U.S. with few military options as intense fighting resumes, while the near complete lack of public and political support for an influx of ground troops means the Trump administration must search for new ways to put pressure back onto the Taliban.

Although President Trump and Pentagon leaders have promised to increase strikes against Taliban targets after the collapse of diplomatic negotiations this month, private analysts say the U.S. has limited tools at its disposal and has exhausted most military avenues to defeat the radical Islamist movement on the battlefield. A ramped-up air campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda is already underway, but there is real doubt about whether that strategy will have a tangible impact on the Taliban’s political calculus.

Questions about the way forward have been raised as Afghans brace for a presidential election this weekend that could ignite a fresh wave of violence. Taliban leaders have threatened to target polling places ahead of the contest, in which President Ashraf Ghani is seeking a second term in a race against more than a dozen opponents.

Prominent Afghans, including former President Hamid Karzai, have called for the elections to be put on hold until the U.S.-backed government in Kabul can find a way to make at least temporary peace with the Taliban, which now controls more Afghan territory than at any other point since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Just weeks ago, President Trump said he abruptly canceled direct U.S.-Taliban talks after a year and a planned secret signing ceremony with Mr. Ghani and Taliban leaders at Camp David. Mr. Trump declared talks “dead” after another Taliban terrorist strike in early September whose victims included a U.S. Army soldier.

Military observers said there is little hope that the Taliban will rethink its strategy of violence and its outright refusal to work with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, analysts say, the U.S. is unlikely to change the dynamic on the ground through military force, likely leading to an indefinite period of fighting and again calling into question how and when Washington can end what is already the longest war in the nation’s history.

“I don’t think there are any good options going forward here,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former trainer for the FBI’s counterterrorism division.

“The Taliban-led insurgency is certainly not going to be defeated,” he said. “There’s no political will to stick 50,000 [U.S.] troops in. The chance to actually have a shot to win the war outright is in the past.”

Indeed, the president has seemed to agree with that assessment. In his 2016 campaign and throughout his first three years in office, Mr. Trump vowed to end American involvement in “endless wars” in the Middle East, and his administration a year ago began grueling diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban with the aim of finally achieving peace.

Those talks ended abruptly this month after the Taliban mounted several deadly terrorist attacks against Afghan civilians and American military personnel, leading the president to cut off diplomacy and declare that the U.S. would redouble its attacks on the group.

That change in approach seems to have at least temporarily halted plans for a major withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Mr. Trump talked openly about bringing home 5,400 of the roughly 14,000 troops currently inside the country.

In the weeks since the talks collapsed, analysts say, there has been an uptick in air and drone strikes against the Taliban. Pentagon leaders, however, say the big-picture military strategy remains fundamentally the same.

“What I would tell you right now, the Department of Defense has not been ordered to draw down forces,” Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week. “Our mission there continues to remain the same, which is to advise and train Afghan Security Forces, defense forces, as well as conduct counterterrorism operations in support of our Afghan partners.”

Some analysts argue that a heightened air campaign targeting Taliban leaders could force the group back to the table with new concessions in hand, such as a tangible cease-fire proposal, an ironclad commitment to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and other jihadi groups or a willingness to talk with the government in Kabul.

But they concede that the days of pouring more ground forces into Afghanistan in the hopes of achieving peace have long passed.

“There just aren’t that many targets on any given night,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“You could maybe see another squadron of aircraft come in and rotate in and rotate out … but no more ground troops are going to make an appreciable difference against the Taliban,” he said. “We’ve had some fairly high levels of pressure against the Taliban in the past years, and that has not caused them to rethink their strategy.”

Critics say an increased U.S. air campaign — whether it’s targeting the Taliban, al Qaeda or Islamic State militants operating in Afghanistan — carries its own dangers. Last week, an American drone strike targeting terrorist fighters reportedly killed dozens of pine nut farmers, underscoring the trouble U.S. forces face when operating in the more remote regions of Afghanistan often controlled by insurgent groups.

“That a U.S. drone strike purportedly targeting [Islamic State] militants could instead result in the deaths of scores of farmers is unacceptable and suggests a shocking disregard for civilian life,” Daphne Eviatar, director of security with human rights at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “U.S. forces in Afghanistan must ensure that all possible precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties in military operations.”

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is preparing for what could be a presidential election marred by unprecedented violence. With the Taliban’s strength at a near two-decade high, the group has vowed to target polling places and to otherwise disrupt the vote.

Mr. Ghani has declared that the election will go ahead as scheduled despite the threats. His domestic critics say a free and fair election is virtually impossible given the security situation and that Mr. Ghani is pressing ahead for his own political advantage.

Outside observers and some former Afghan officials say that proceeding with the election in the midst of widespread violence — and with no real prospects for peace on the horizon — would be a major mistake.

“We should first come to peace in Afghanistan and then conduct elections,” Mr. Karzai told The Associated Press this week. “We cannot conduct elections in a country that is going through a foreign-imposed conflict. We are in a war of foreign objectives and interests. It isn’t our conflict. We are only dying in it.”

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