Afghanistan in 2016 saw 11,489 of its civilians killed in armed conflict, according to international observers. This was the highest number since external recording started in 2009. This year is expected to be at least as bad. The fighting season from May-October was particularly intense, with substantial losses among Afghan security personnel.
In short, there is no end in sight to the United States-led war in Afghanistan, even as its seventeenth year arrives. In fact, the Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs) appear to be gaining ground. The Taliban has taken back control of most of Helmand province, whose great value includes being the centre of opium-poppy cultivation. At most around 65% of the country is estimated to be nominally in government hands.
The Taliban and AOGs, it is often said or assumed, rarely show themselves in large numbers because of the risk of air-attack. That is simply not the case. A filmed parade of fighters and equipment in western Afghanistan is one example of confidence, as reported by the Long War Journal:
“Hundreds of Taliban fighters in the western province of Farah paraded their vehicles and then stood in formation for a lengthy period of time, without fear of being targeted by Afghan or Coalition forces, to listen to an official give a speech recently. The Taliban continues to be able to operate openly in nearly all areas of the country” (see Bill Roggio, "Taliban fighters mass in western Afghan province", Long War Journal, 30 October 2017).
It is far from clear how the American military strategy will be able to repel the Taliban advances. US military forces, including almost 11,000 troops, are smaller than at any time since the build-up of 2008 onwards. That number is set to rise a little, even as deaths among soldiers are again on the increase.
In Afghanistan, the covert war is just as significant as the more open one. CIA paramilitaries and associated private military contractors have long waged a secret campaign against al-Qaida there. Now that war is expanding to take in the Taliban, a policy shift has been initatied under the agency's new director, Mike Pompeo (see Thomas Gibbons-Neff et al, "A Newly Assertive C.I.A. Expands Its Taliban Hunt in Afghanistan", New York Times, 22 October 2017). He is reportedly set on raising the status of “the Company” after the Obama administration's low period, when it was associated with rendition, black sites and all. In doing so, Pompeo will need to accommodate Trump's desire for the conventional US military to operate more freely after Obama's era of micro-management.
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The emerging style of Trump’s wars can be measured by another valuable indicator: a subtle change in the quality of data from Afghanistan being made public. This is owed to the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2008, which established a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). This mouthful of a title disguises what has turned out to be an independent observer of the Afghan scene, delivering detailed quarterly reports for Congress and available online. The data from SIGAR accommodates copious information about the status of Afghan security – formally the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) – not least in terms of casualties, the rate of desertions and costs to the United States.
The portion of SIGAR's coming from the US military organisation that trains ANDSF has recently been classified, meaning it is no longer available to a wider audience. The Long War Journal says:
“Coincidentally, or perhaps not, these numbers are generally the most prominent indicators of the issues still plaguing the ANDSF. High casualty and attrition rates, low morale, and poor administrative support systems have been an unfortunate staple of ANDSF development”.
Thus, even as Trump is willing to give the military more freedom of action and let the CIA undertake direct if covert operations against the Taliban, information on the actual state of Afghan security is closing up. That is yet another example of the steady move towards remote warfare.
A secret war is far less likely to be unpopular, the powers that be calculate. If the people don’t know, they can't cause awkward problems. This is to get things backward. The lesson of these sixteen wars of the "war on terror", in Afghanistan as elsewhere, is that public information, debate and accountability are the only way forward.