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The Afghan war that didn't really end yesterday ended in defeat

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Massoud Hossaini/AP

(Read caption) Afghan and international soldiers stand at attention during a ceremony at the headquarters of the US-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014.

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News websites and broadcasts - and US and NATO press releases - were filled with discussion about the "formal" end of the Afghan war yesterday. But any close reading of the facts will find that they were wrong.

Call it semi-formal, or business casual, whatever you like. The reality remains the same: For American soldiers and for the Afghan people the war that began on Oct. 7, 2001 will go on.

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While most of America's NATO allies that hadn't already washed their hands of combat will now do so, American fighting and dying will continue, with 11,000 US troops remaining in the country. There will be talk of "advising," and "training" and "non-combat" presence. But for the most part that can be safely ignored.

Afghanistan is a dangerous place. The US-installed government there is on shaky ground, and just advising Afghan troops is a dangerous job, given that a high-percentage of US military deaths in recent years have been caused by Afghan soldiers and police. In August, Maj. Gen. Harold Greene was murdered by an Afghan soldier, becoming the highest ranking US officer killed overseas since Vietnam.

US casualties compared to Afghan ones have been negligible. Over 4,000 Afghan soldiers and cops were killed fighting in 2014 alone, compared to 2,224 US soldiers killed fighting there since 2001. Civilian deaths had soared to 3,188 by the end of November, making this year the bloodiest for civilians since at least 2009, when the UN began tracking civilian deaths. The civilian death toll is at least a 20 percent increase over last year.

If Afghan history is anything to go by, it's due to get worse as America's longest war war winds down to its inevitable conclusion. For the Afghans, who have been embroiled in a civil war with heavy foreign meddling since 1979, the prospect of peace seems slim.

The Soviet Union failed to impose its will on the Afghans after its invasion in 1979. In the decades since, other foreign powers haven't done the country much long term good. Some haven't cared much. Pakistan has supported the Taliban who have sought to destroy the US imposed order there - never mind the vast subsidies the US taxpayer ships to Pakistan's military every year.

During the Soviet occupation, the US supported the so-called mujahideen ("holy warriors"), and often seemed more interested in giving what Ronald Reagan branded the Evil Empire a black eye, than in caring about the long term stability of the country.

What came next was a bloodier chapter of the civil war. After the Russian pull-out in 1989 and subsequent end of funding for Kabul following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former mujahideen began a bloody fight for the spoils, with torture, rape, and pillage the methods of war employed by all sides.

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The Taliban emerged and seized Kabul in 1996, but the fighting continued along largely ethnic-lines, with America's former mujahideen friends, now fighting the Taliban as the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, often equaling the Taliban for brutality. The front came to be called in Western circles the "Northern Alliance" particularly as the US military began working with its militias to topple the Taliban following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks organized by Al Qaeda, whose leaders were being harbored by the Taliban at the time.

Those warlords and their allies are largely the people running the show in Kabul today, with the Taliban a potent presence in many provinces and looking forward to taking on their old enemies with less American interference.

What has the war bought for the US, at a cost of $1 trillion?

President Obama claimed yesterday that "we are safer, and our nation is more secure" thanks to the sacrifices of the Afghan war. There's no evidence to support that claim, and plenty to suggest the war has been a long, self-inflicted wound on the country. The job of scattering old Al Qaeda was accomplished by 2003. By the time Bin Laden was killed in a daring US raid in 2011, he was living comfortably in the Pakistani military garrison town of Abbottabad. Mullah Omar, the titular head of the Taliban, has likewise lived in Pakistan for years. 

Afghanistan is a poor, far away country. While Al Qaeda was based there ahead of 9/11, what is less often repeated is that much of the operational planning for the attacks were conducted in Hamburg, Germany.

Meanwhile, opium production in Afghanistan has soared despite $7 billion flushed down the tubes by the US on opium eradication. Afghanistan can not by any stretch be called a democracy - vote buying and thuggery at the polls dominate elections. The country's government is entirely dependent on foreign aid, and has been gifted or burdened, depending on your perspective, with assets it cannot afford.

Consider the military, which has about 200,000 soldiers on the books. (How many soldiers actually show up to work is another matter; so-called ghost soldiers are as much a problem in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq). The US has spent about $11 billion annually on Afghan forces in recent years - equivalent to more than half of the country's GDP. That means that if and when foreign funding stops or is reduced, Afghanistan won't be able to pay for the army fighting the Taliban.

None of the claimed long term objectives for the war, either from the Bush or Obama administrations, have been achieved. That's a defeat by any measure.

US funding for Kabul is likely to go on for quite some time. But it is unlikely to be better and more wisely spent with less foreign oversight and involvement. The rampant corruption that has bled billions over the past decade was never contained and the Afghan government is largely paralyzed. The presidential election earlier this year almost led to civil war among the opponents of the Taliban, with heavy US pressure ending up in the inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani. Yet three months since that crisis was averted, the country still doesn't have a cabinet. Why? 

The US insisted that a special, yet ill-defined, job of "chief executive" be created for the runner-up in the presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah. Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah have been squabbling over who will control choice positions in the government ever since, even as the population has grown frightened at the departure of foreign troops, the economy has teetered, and the Taliban have enjoyed a good year.    

In honor of the end of a war that wasn't really the end of the war, the foreign involvement in the war was renamed yesterday. No longer the International Security Assistance Force but:

Resolute? Perhaps. But Afghanistan's problems are manifold.