Afghan war: No end in sight

De­bates have avoided fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: What is the de­sired end game in Afghanistan?

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FORUM - LOUIS DELVOIE

More than 16 years have now elapsed since the United States and its NATO al­lies launched a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in Afghanistan. That op­er­a­tion was a re­sponse to the al-Qaida ter­ror­ist at­tacks on New York and Wash­ing­ton. The mil­i­tary pur­pose of the op­er­a­tion was twofold: (a) to de­stroy al-Qaida; and ( b) to de­feat the Tal­iban and se­cure Afghanistan so that it never again would be­come a base for ter­ror­ist at­tacks against the West. Nei­ther of those ob­jec­tives has so far been achieved, de­spite the ex­pen­di­ture of thou­sands of lives and hun­dreds of billions of dol­lars.

The lead­er­ship of al-Qaida was ex­pelled from Afghanistan in 2001 but man­aged to find refuge in the Tribal Ar­eas of North­ern Pak­istan. Far from be­ing de­stroyed, the alQaida or­ga­ni­za­tion and its brand flour­ished. It spread to Iraq in the form of al- Qaida in Me­sopotamia, which in turn be­came the pro­gen­i­tor of the Is­lamic State, a group that is now be­ing ac­tively fought in both Iraq and Syria. It also spawned al- Qaida in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, which is a no­table pro­tag­o­nist in the civil war now de­stroy­ing Ye­men and its peo­ple. It spread yet fur­ther afield to North-West Africa, where al-Qaida in the Is­lamic Maghreb launches at­tacks against fa­cil­i­ties in Al­ge­ria and is a cen­tral ac­tor in the on­go­ing Is­lamist in­sur­gency in Mali. While the suc­cess of Amer­i­can spe­cial forces in lo­cat­ing and killing Osama bin Laden in Pak­istan rep­re­sented a vic­tory over al-Qaida, it cer­tainly did not spell the end of the move­ment.

If al- Qaida has not been de­feated and de­stroyed, nei­ther has the Tal­iban. The lat­ter have suf­fered nu­mer­ous de­feats in the field and a cou­ple of years ago lost their charis­matic leader, Mul­lah Omar. This has not, how­ever, daunted them. To com­pen­sate for their losses on the bat­tle­field, they have found ready re­place­ments in the Afghan refugee camps in Pak­istan and have been able to re­cruit hun­dreds of graduates of Pak­istan’s madras­sas, or re­li­gious schools. In the three years since the last western com­bat forces left Afghanistan, the Tal­iban has been resur­gent. They have man­aged not only to cap­ture en­tire prov­inces, but in the process have in­flicted heavy ca­su­al­ties on the Afghan gov­ern­ment’s se­cu­rity forces.

Western me­dia of­ten por­tray the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan as one pit­ting the Afghan gov­ern­ment and its sup­port­ers against the Tal­iban. There is, how­ever, far more to it than that. The Tal­iban are not the only ji­hadists in the field. There is also the Hizb i-I-Is­lam led byGul­rud in Hek­mat­yar, which has been fight­ing the gov­ern­ment since the days of the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion in the 1980s. Then there is one of the most blood­stained groups, the so-called Haqqani net­works led by Maulawi Jalalud­din Haaqani. To this mix of Is­lamist ex­trem­ists has more re­cently been added a fairly large num­ber of fight­er­spro claim­ing their ad­her­ence to the Is­lamic State.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the task of the Afghan gov­ern­ment are long­stand­ing eth­nic and tribal di­vi­sions. The four main eth­nic groups— Pash­tuns, Uzbeks, Ta­jiks and Haz­zaras — sim­ply do not trust each other. They are con­stantly jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion and ad­van­tage within the gov­ern­ment and be­yond. Afghanistan is also very much a tribal na­tion, and tribal ri­val­ries come to the fore at ev­ery turn. Per­haps the best known is that be­tween the Dur­rani Pash­tuns and the Ghizali Pash­tuns. Th­ese two have been in con­flict since the early 18th cen­tury. The lead­er­ship of the Tal­iban is drawn mainly from the Ghizali Pash­tuns, and theirs is in many ways a tribal strug­gle just as much as it is an Is­lamist ide­o­log­i­cal cam­paign.

The Afghan gov­ern­ment would be bet­ter able to deal with all of th­ese con­flicts if it en­joyed wide­spread pop­u­lar sup­port. To achieve this, it would have to demon­strate that it is sig­nif­i­cantly im­prov­ing the liv­ing con­di­tions of most Afghans. This it can­not do. With a per capita Gross Do­mes­tic Prod­uct of only $1,950, Afghanistan is still the sec­ond-poor­est coun­try in all of Asia (only North Korea is worse off). Many, if not most, Afghans con­tinue to live in ab­ject poverty in a coun­try scarred by 10 years of Soviet mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion and nearly 30 years of civil war. Re­con­struc­tion ef­forts have been painfully slow and in many in­stances to­tally in­ef­fec­tive.

Why have Afghans not ben­e­fited more from the billions of dol­lars that western na­tions have poured into the coun­try over the past 15 years? One an­swer to the ques­tion is to be found in a re­port pub­lished sev­eral years ago by Ac­tion Aid In­ter­na­tional. That re­port es­ti­mated that of ev­ery U.S. dollar ded­i­cated to aid Afghanistan, only 13 cents made its way into lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. The bulk of the money was used to pay ad­min­is­tra­tors, for­eign con­sul­tants and con­trac­tors, and cor­rupt Afghan of­fi­cials. That re­port may now be some­what out of date when it comes to spe­cific num­bers, but it does un­der­line a cen­tral prob­lem in western ef­forts to aid Afghans. And so long as that aid is not used more pro­duc­tively, the Afghan gov­ern­ment can ex­pect at best tepid sup­port, if not scorn, from the pop­u­la­tion at large.

In its ef­forts to deal with the coun­try’s fraught se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion, the Afghan gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to en­joy mil­i­tary sup­port from western coun­tries. There are now more than 8,000 Amer­i­can troops and more than 5,000 other NATO troops de­ployed in Afghanistan. Their role is to pro­vide train­ing and sup­port to the Afghan se­cu­rity forces, not to en­gage in com­bat di­rectly. Given the sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances made by the Tal­iban in re­cent months, the ques­tion is now be­ing asked whether that level of sup­port is ad­e­quate. Sev­eral Amer­i­can gen­er­als have been quoted as ad­vo­cat­ing a ma­jor in­crease in the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary con­tin­gent, and they ap­pear to en­joy some sup­port on Capi­tol Hill. Oth­ers are fun­da­men­tally op­posed to pro­long­ing the United States’ in­volve­ment in the long­est war in its his­tory.

Th­ese de­bates have so far avoided deal­ing with a more fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: what is the de­sired end game in Afghanistan? Most western ob­servers have by now aban­doned the de­luded no­tion that Afghanistan can be trans­formed into a lib­eral democ­racy fea­tur­ing hon­est gov­ern­ment, the rule of law, gen­der equal­ity, etc. They would now set­tle for a ba­si­cally flawed gov­ern­ment, but one ca­pa­ble of rid­ding the coun­try of the Tal­iban and its as­so­ciates, and of es­tab­lish­ing a de­gree of se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity through­out the land. But even the achieve­ment of that more mod­est ob­jec­tive lies far in the fu­ture un­der the best of cir­cum­stances, and a vic­tory by the Tal­iban can­not be ex­cluded as a pos­si­bil­ity. Given th­ese re­al­i­ties, and af­ter 16 years, it would be un­der­stand­able if western publics be­gan to ask how many more peo­ple and how much more money they should en­vis­age pour­ing into an Afghan war with no end in sight.

BASHIR KHAN SAFI/GETTY IM­AGES

Afghan se­cu­rity per­son­nel keep watch dur­ing fight­ing be­tween Tal­iban mil­i­tants and Afghan forces in Kun­duz on May 10. Hun­dreds of Afghan fam­i­lies have fled fight­ing be­tween the Tal­iban and gov­ern­ment forces near the north­ern city of Kun­duz as the in­sur­gents cap­tured a strate­gic district soon af­ter launch­ing their an­nual spring of­fen­sive.

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