Afghan turmoil and Pakistan

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The Pentagon sharply raised its estimate of the number of US troops currently in Afghanistan, ahead of a decision on adding thousands more under President Donald Trump´s new strategy for the war-ridden country. Pentagon Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said a comprehensive review showed there were approximately 11,000 uniformed US servicemen and women in Afghanistan, compared to the 8,400 number used since last year. The new count, which includes temporary and covert units as well as regular forces, was made to establish the basis for an increase in troops — possibly by around 4,000 — under Trump´s revised strategy to better support Afghan troops in the fight against the Taliban. But McKenzie declined to say how many more troops would be added. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis still hasn´t made that decision. According to McKenzie, after president Barack Obama set a ceiling of 8,400 troops for the country last July, military commanders had been hampered in their ability to deploy full units, leading to “unintended consequences”. Meanwhile, short-term and clandestine units were not included in the count.

The new estimate came nearly two weeks after Trump and his top cabinet and military officials decided to increase US soldiers and airmen in Afghanistan to put more pressure on the Taliban and other extremist groups. Few details were provided on the new strategy, however, as Mattis said he wanted a clearer view of the actual number of US forces there. US generals have for months been calling the situation in Afghanistan a “stalemate,” despite years of support for Afghan partners and an overall cost to the United States of about $1 trillion. A US troop increase would allow the US- led coalition in the country to provide more advisors and tactical support to strengthen the Afghan army´s efforts against the Taliban.

McKenzie said the new count was an effort to be more transparent, but he said the Defense Department would not be providing much information on the breakdown of the US forces, so as to maintain operational security and avoid “telegraphing” US intentions to the Taliban.

The new Afghan strategy will take a page from successful US efforts over the past two years to strength Iraqi security forces against the Islamic State group with better training, logistical support and the battlefield backup of US artillery and air strikes on enemy positions.

But in Iraq most of the action against Islamic State fighters is in dense urban settings, while the Taliban are more spread out in the Afghan countryside, a battle situation Mattis has characterized as more like Vietnam. The region is seeing a return to the Cold War. Then, as now, Afghanistan looms large. But this time Pakistan may or may not have switched sides, or at the very least is hedging its bets. Except that this isn’t really what is going on.

No, Pakistan in a sign of growing maturity, is taking a firm leaf out of the US book on diplomacy and alliance building. Meaning that it is putting national interests first and is not afraid to shop around to secure those. And so it was that this week that Pakistan took receipt of four advanced attack helicopters, or Mi-35M. This is not insignificant. For it was only back in 2014 that Moscow lifted its arms embargo against this country, which had been in place since the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan war. Fast-forward two years and Russia and Pakistan inked the helicopter deal, said to be worth $153 million. Additional purchases of this nature haven’t been ruled out. Something else that hasn’t been ruled out is Russian and Chinese involvement in Afghanistan’s backyard. Given that Pakistan’s new found maturity dictates, in theory, at least, that money talks. And even though it isn’t a rich man’s world — this is a country not known to scrip and save when it comes to defending the national interest. After all we would rather see nearly half the population suffering food insecurity if it means that we have cash to splash on nukes, those big boy gadgets that are the ultimate in weapons of macho destruction.

In short, the Pakistani state apparatus is likely still clinging to the hope that in return for spending a handsome sum on Russian weaponry and an absolutely stunning mark-up on China’s down payment for CPEC — that these two regional players have its back. It is a hope likely well placed. The slowly emerging Pak-Sino-Russian axis is all out to displace the Indo-US-Afghan one for regional hegemony.

Yet what does this mean for the region in terms of American involvement here? The unpopular answer is that things aren’t perhaps as bad as they seem. At the US helm is Donald Trump, a man with no clear-cut vision, who relies on showmanship over substance. He knows how to identify a problem and then back he sits as if twitter is his own personal magic wand. If only he had thought to copyright that. We say this not to mock the elected head of state of another country. We say this sincerely. For all his, at times, rash and reckless talk — the apprentice-president will not want to irk China. Not when Pyongyang is upping the ante in the already heavily militarised Korean Peninsula. If things further escalate, Trump will have to rely on Beijing to flex more of its diplomatic muscles. And then there is the ongoing bro-mance with Putin. Which has kept going strong against all the odds, from being on opposite sides in Syria to allegations of electoral corruption. The unquiet American is a man who wants more than anything to distinguish his presidency from that of his hawkish dove predecessor. And while his recent rhetoric on Pakistan appears much of the same — the regional balance of power is slowly shifting. The playground is different this time around.  *