Trying to find the way to ‘not lose’ in Afghanistan

Trying to find the way to ‘not lose’ in Afghanistan

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U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command commander, and U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Thetford, U.S. Central Command senior enlisted leader, give coins to U.S. Marines, Navy and Army personnel in Afghanistan on Jan. 19. (Sgt. Franklin Moore/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — Last year, U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan launched what the Pentagon called a historic winter offensive, with the goal of keeping the Taliban disrupted and unable to prepare for attacks in the spring.

That offensive would keep the pressure on the Taliban, render them unable to rearm and resupply, and lead to talks to end the war, Pentagon official said in interviews with TMN.

It did not. Now this year the offensive shoe is on the other side. This winter, it is the Taliban that has been relentless in its attacks, even as nascent peace talks were underway in Qatar.

The Taliban now controls more territory in Afghanistan since it was the government there in September 2001. This year the Taliban has been full force in suicide attacks and other forms of action against coalition forces.

“There is the eternal back and forth between offense and defense from the tactical to the strategic level,” Earl Tilford, a military historian and retired Air Force intelligence officer, told TMN in an interview. “Inconsistencies caused by political changes encompassing three administrations and 18 years also have something to do with it.”

Pentagon officials have maintained that the suicide attacks and high-profile assaults on urban areas are tactics designed to keep Afghan troops and the government unsettled. Since the Taliban is eventually driven from these areas, the attacks are nothing more than publicity stunts, Pentagon officials have said.

Last year the Air Force set a record for bombing in Afghanistan as it continued to shift ground fighting duties to the Afghan army. It was also a record year for casualties for the Afghan military, the Pentagon conceded.

There are roughly 15,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, part of a larger NATO support and training mission.

On Monday, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters that negotiators for the U.S. and the Taliban meeting in Qatar reached “agreements in principle” on key points for a peace plan to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan, according to multiple news reports.

However, the Taliban has made several similar gestures in the past. It is unclear how the peace talks will address the China-Pakistan-Russia unity on Afghanistan and great southwest Asia, analysts said.

“Peace negotiations are unlikely to work,” Richard Haas, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Project Syndicate on Jan. 14. “Talks have taken place on and off over the years, but diplomacy is never far removed from facts and trends on the ground. Both work against a negotiated settlement.”

Haas said the best the U.S. can come up with is “not a strategy for winning, but rather one for not losing.”

However, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told Pentagon reporters on Monday that there have been “encouraging conversations going on with the Taliban” and that his meetings this week are “making sure we stay in tight coordination with our coalition partners” on all developments.

Shanahan said he has been briefed on all scenarios for Afghanistan. Asked if he had been tasked to prepare for a full withdrawal, he told reporters Monday, “I have not.”

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