Afghan war: No end in sight
Debates have avoided fundamental question: What is the desired end game in Afghanistan?
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.
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.