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The War in Afghanistan Is Far from Finished

It's worth remembering that handing over responsibility to a competent and trustworthy government able to provide security and justice for its citizens became the whole point of the war.
January 9, 2015, 7:35pm
Photo via AP/Massoud Hossaini

Despite the end of US and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan, the war isn't over. It is now in its deadliest phase since the Taliban were bombed out of power 13 years ago.

In 2014, Afghan civilian casualties were up on the previous year, continuing a grim trend. According to the United Nations, at least 3,188 people were killed and 6,429 injured as of the end of November. The Afghan security forces suffered more than twice as many losses last year than US forces suffered during the entire war, with some 5,400 soldiers and policemen killed.

Even in the capital of Kabul, the ceremony ending NATO's mission had to be held in a secret location because the likelihood of a Taliban attack was so high. That same week, shortly before the country assumed control of defense from coalition forces, Afghan National Army soldiers shelled a wedding ceremony in Sangin, killing at least 28 people, including women and children. The incident has been described as a misfire, but I have been to Sangin many times, and have seen troops there shoot indiscriminately at civilians — even saying, "Fuck them, they are all Taliban here," when told they were firing at a fleeing father and son.

Also that week, a 12-year-old girl was allegedly gang raped in her own home by a six-man Afghan Local Police unit operating in Kapisa Province. It's impossible to know how many young boys the Afghan National Police have raped — a practice that is horrifyingly routine — but the number is high. The policemen we trained and placed in power across the country customarily abuse children, whom they abduct from local communities and use as "chai boys," or tea servants.

Departing troops are leaving behind an explosive mess in Afghanistan. Read more here.

Such attacks and abuses are evidence that the Afghan security forces are not ready, and often not even willing, to take on the Taliban alone. In many cases, they are far more interested in preying on the populations they are supposed to be protecting. Many districts, if not entire provinces, are in danger of being overrun.

That there is an increasingly vicious and desperate war between two sides that couldn't care less about civilian casualties seems to concern almost no one in the US. That we have failed to defeat the Taliban also seems to be of no concern.

The US will keep 10,800 troops in Afghanistan as part of a 17,000-strong foreign force. But make no mistake, this is barely enough to carry out occasional airstrikes when the Afghan army is in danger of being overrun, which it has been many times already, and to support Special Forces hunting al Qaeda. A contingent of 17,000 is nowhere near enough to properly "advise, train, and assist" Afghan security forces to the necessary extent. The country's new president, Ashraf Ghani, has already asked the US to reconsider its decision to withdraw completely by the end of 2016.

Taliban claims 'defeat' of US and allies in Afghanistan as NATO withdraws troops. Read more here.

It's worth remembering that handing over responsibility to a competent and trustworthy government able to provide security and justice for its citizens became the whole point of the war in Afghanistan. Any withdrawal was supposed to be "conditions based" on achieving that goal.

These conditions have not been met, and Western withdrawal now is an admittance of failure. Most Afghans with money have an exit plan; those without look to the future with fear. In his speech ending "our combat mission in Afghanistan," President Barack Obama said that "the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion." In view of the undeniably worsening situation there, the phrase sounded creepily Nixonian. But this was probably apt, given that the suffering of foreigners — even those whose safety and well-being we once guaranteed — is no longer enough to warrant intervention.

Obama also admitted that al Qaeda still has a presence in Afghanistan, meaning that the original reason for the invasion remains. Until recently, defenders of the war often argued that it had achieved its purpose: preventing it from ever again becoming a haven from which al Qaeda could launch attacks against the US. You don't hear this claim anymore.

The only vague hope is that some sort of peace deal might eventually be reached. A much better deal could have been crafted back in 2002, when many senior Taliban figures offered to support Hamid Karzai's government, but they were rejected, hunted, arrested, and killed. The survivors, and many others besides, ultimately determined that fighting was the only option.

If there had been deal in 2002, and if a small fraction of the effort and money spent on combat had instead been directed toward a genuine effort to rebuild Afghanistan, we would in all likelihood be looking at a very different country today.

The US just can't stop blowing billions in Afghanistan. Read more here.

Instead, after thirteen years of fighting, thousands of lives lost, and over a trillion dollars spent, the Taliban is now in a much stronger position. It is also a highly fragmented group, making a nationwide peace deal much harder to achieve.

It's a damning indictment, but many Afghans would probably be much better off if our allies just left them alone, either to look after themselves or be looked after by one of the many anti-government groups commonly referred to as Taliban. The groups described as such are very different from the Taliban of 2001. While some continue to carry out predictably senseless and hideous acts of violence, others actually allow girls to go to school, or run shadow courts that are seen as far more reliable and fair than the official judicial system.

"Whoever provides me with security and justice is my king," a village elder told me a few years ago. It doesn't matter who provides it, or whether or not they wear a uniform.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is as strong and as bold as it has been at any time since the war began. We are leaving just when all the things we promised are most badly needed but are nowhere to be seen. Life in Afghanistan today is in many ways the exact opposite of what we promised. Certainly no Afghans will be fooled by the NATO mission's ridiculous new name, "Resolute Support."

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Violence is a daily occurrence, and corruption poisons every aspect of daily life. Child marriage is common, as is the use of child soldiers. Opium production is at an all time high, the government budget is dependent on foreign aid, and the weaknesses of the Afghan security forces mean that a return to the hideous days of the civil war looks possible. This is what we are leaving behind in Afghanistan.

That there is an increasingly vicious and desperate war between two sides that couldn't care less about civilian casualties seems to concern almost no one in the US. That we have failed to defeat the Taliban also seems to be of no concern. Even the reduced goals of "reversing" or "blunting" the Taliban's momentum are no longer even mentioned.

Instead, the only news that's needed, and the point that President Obama decided to end his speech on, is that 90 percent of US troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq are now home. Apparently this is all that matters.

_Follow Ben Anderson on Twitter: _@BenJohnAnderson