In 1842, four years after invading in formidable numbers and to great fanfare, an entire British army retreating from Afghanistan to India was massacred. Its worthy Afghan foes, with an eye on history and taunting any would-be invader, allowed one military surgeon, Dr. William Brydon, to survive and tell the tale of how unforgiving Afghanistan is to those who covet it. Today, the withdrawal of US forces has led to the Taliban rapidly increasing its control of the country to 85 percent, including border crossings and key infrastructure. This has raised the question of what exactly two decades of American blood and treasure has achieved. It would seem that, as with the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in 1989,
Afghanistan has shown itself to be unconquerable and thoroughly ungovernable.
Only three countries recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan when the US and its allies invaded in 2001. The pseudo state that emerged from the chaos of the Soviet withdrawal married a specifically Pashtun Afghan nationalism with radical beliefs. The movie theaters of Kabul gave way to public stoning and, amid the administrative vacuum, Afghan territory became a haven for terrorists.
However, the link between the 9/11 hijackers and the dismantling of the Taliban remains tenuous; if anything, it has become clear that real tensions existed between them and Al-Qaeda. It is, therefore, helpful to be reminded of the legal basis for the Afghanistan war. Almost 20 years ago, the US Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists bill and, shortly after, the UN Security Council authorized the creation of an International Security Assistance Force to “reaffirm its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan.” Some $2.3 trillion later and international forces are hurriedly leaving the troubled country months early, while the Taliban is stronger than it could possibly have hoped to be.
America’s two decades bogged down in the Afghan quagmire has taken a significant toll, with some 2,300 US troops killed and 20,600 injured. These figures are, however, dwarfed by the overall total of 241,000 dead, of which more than 71,000 were civilians. The human cost of the conflict has been consistently cited, considering the difference to Afghan lives the operation was supposed to have made.
The vast majority of the money spent in Afghanistan has been on counterinsurgency operations and reconstruction. Roughly half has been spent on building up the Afghan National Army and Police, with a further $36 billion going on local governance and development. According to President Barack Obama in 2012, when he ordered a surge in personnel, America’s job was to “build a partnership with the Afghan people… one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.”
The situation today, however, couldn’t be starker. With the withdrawal of international forces not even complete, the much-touted Afghan security personnel have been fleeing in their hundreds across the borders into neighboring Iran and Tajikistan. Worse still, others have reintegrated into the Taliban. Under the circumstances, US President Joe Biden’s remarks last week that, “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country,” smacks of an admission of defeat.
The Afghan authorities have never seemed more vulnerable and reliant upon American support.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The fighting that has broken out between Afghan security forces and the Taliban is not what policymakers had planned for, but in many respects it is what they have learnt to expect. With Taliban delegations already traveling overseas to represent themselves as the de facto government, the Afghan authorities have never seemed more vulnerable and reliant upon American support. As Taliban commanders last week proudly displayed the scores of weapons they had seized from the Sultan Khil military base, it can only be imagined what other state resources will fall into the wrong hands, plunging Afghanistan into greater turmoil.
The admission by NATO, whose Resolute Support Mission (RSM) has been propping up the security forces, that “there is no military solution to the challenges Afghanistan faces” was telling. Though the Taliban may have been quick to fill the vacuum, its gains do not reflect any ability to be able to govern the territory it has taken. In 2001, it struggled to extend its writ over Afghanistan’s myriad different groups. Today, with an emergent China and re-emergent Russia, any number of local warlords will soon be able to court foreign support to entrench themselves and tip Afghanistan further toward the civil war scenario to which it has become accustomed.
Aside from cosmetic changes to Afghan society, a legacy of suffering, waste, fraud and abuse is what is left of America’s “forever war.” The Armiger Group’s Henry Jones-Davies, a security practitioner with years of experience in Afghanistan, underscored the futility of international efforts when he said: “The idea that we could impose a Western-style democratic system on a country with so many different ethnic and religious groups and tradition was incredibly short-sighted. The resurgence of the Taliban is reflective of a reaction to the imposition of foreign systems of governance.”
As Afghanistan lurches toward 50 years of instability and conflict, how the Taliban is able to mitigate the country’s many complexities remains to be seen. The withdrawing forces would have done well to heed the warnings of the 1842 campaign.
• Zaid M. Belbagi