The fact that US forces are still in Afghanistan after 17 years of fighting and the incumbent administration has not found any workable solutions to the Afghan conundrum is not surprising when you consider the country’s history. The British and Czarist empires and later the Soviet Union also failed to achieve their desired objectives in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, a country with impassable terrain, deep-seated religious values, and antipathy toward foreign occupation raised formidable obstacles that prevented the great powers from extending their influence. The great powers, however, were determined to maintain the balance of power in and around Afghanistan to ensure that the strategically prized location never fell under the influence of some other power.
The US-led Afghan war was at the start a response to the September 11 attacks, aimed at eliminating al-Qaeda and toppling the Taliban regime that had allegedly provided shelter to the radical Islamist group. As the war has dragged on with inadequate efforts at accomplishing the complicated task of building a strong Afghan state with multi-ethnic representation, negative perceptions of foreign occupation have gained ground.
If the Americans were to pull out of Afghanistan anytime soon, they would leave the Afghans and other actors at the mercy of radical Islamist groups such as the Taliban and ISIS. The US lacks adequate hard- and soft-power resources and the diplomatic strength to impose a solution or reach a political settlement.
The protracted Afghan war has overstretched US military engagement and expended a disproportionate amount of American resources, both human and material. The Barack Obama administration reduced the size of the active combat mission by the end of 2014 but left US troops for a mission called Operation Resolute Support to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.
Somalia body-bag syndrome – arising from the widely publicized loss of the lives of 18 American soldiers with 73 wounded in a humanitarian mission in Mogadishu to facilitate the delivery of aid during the civil war – apparently continues to haunt US missions abroad. Such operations have evidently become selectively driven more by national interests and turned militaristic with an emphasis on air strikes to limit casualties among American soldiers.
The US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, like previous intervening forces, lacked the patience and perseverance needed to conduct the war effectively as well as forge a successful state-building process. The phenomenon of continued US dependence on Afghan warlords to gather intelligence and conduct the war and the idea and practice of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan ran parallel.
The US tilt in favor of the warlords of the Northern Alliance group in the formation of government institutions led to a feeling of alienation among the Pashtuns – the majority ethnic community of Afghanistan. Further, reports pertaining to the involvement of coalition forces in the use of torture against Afghan detainees at Bagram and other detention centers and the increased reliance on air strikes rather than ground forces cost many civilians their lives.
Apart from this, the coalition powers’ attempts at displaying their military might while keeping the Afghan state weak on the security and economic fronts erected long-term hurdles for international forces.
In “A Long-Overdue Adaptation to the Afghan Environment,” a chapter he contributed to the 2011 RAND Corporation publication The Long Shadow of 9/11, former CIA officer Arturo Muñoz attributes the stalling of the US-led mission in Afghanistan to a measly investment of resources and the way they were utilized. He argues: “Instead of honoring Afghan terms of peace, utilizing village institutions to maintain security, and training Afghans to do most of their own fighting and rebuilding … the US and NATO tried to impose Western ways of doing things.”
The US-led mission in Afghanistan followed the principle that the state should be the enabler rather than the provider of economic growth. International aid was tied to the global private sector, which was entrusted with the task of reconstruction. As a result, Afghanistan remained a fragile state on the economic front.
Furthermore, aid was tied to the purchase of American products and services. Approximately 70% of US aid was made conditional upon US goods and services being purchased or employed, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall wrote in the 2011 publication Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way.
These factors led to a gradual erosion of the soft-power resources of the mission and of support by Afghan nationals for the mission. At the same time, the Taliban’s influence kept growing even while many Pashtuns disliked their radical religious ideology and practice of brutality, and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) – the Afghan affiliate of ISIS – emerged as a new, devastating non-state actor in Afghan security dynamics.
The administration of US President Donald Trump, perhaps realizing that negotiations with the resilient Taliban could only be pursued from a position of strength, authorized an increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan and resumed drone strikes, but in vain, and the policy was later shunned in favor direct talks with the Taliban.
Once the Trump administration sent positive signals to pursue direct peace talks with the Taliban, it became concerned that the negotiation process could tilt in favor of the radical demands of the increasingly confident group, which had become emboldened by territorial gains.
On the other side, the fledgling peace talks and initiatives aimed at consolidating democracy invited despicable attacks by the ISKP, which supported the contention that continuing instability in Afghanistan would play into the hands of the radical group.
In another development, the Taliban also made a volte-face in the peace process by escalating violence in the provincial capital of Ghazni.
Campaigning is already underway for the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held on October 20 amid violence. The despicable ISIS terror attacks that recently killed at least killing 13 people in the eastern province of Nangarhar mirrors the suicide attacks on the Kabul voting center in April that killed around 60 civilians lining up to register to vote for the upcoming elections. These atrocities highlight the group’s loathing for peace and democracy.
On the diplomatic front, Washington’s insistence on imposing sanctions against other significant actors within the Afghan security scenario, such as Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan, instead of pursuing a policy of engagement, dialogue and consultations with these powers on a political settlement of the issue has made the situation more complicated.
The US alleges that Iran and Russia are contributing to the growing instability in Afghanistan by choosing a role for themselves in training and arming the Taliban in an attempt to put pressure on the US in the wider region. On the other hand, these countries have reportedly accused the US of pursuing shared interests with ISIS in keeping Afghanistan unstable so that it can justify maintaining a permanent military presence in the region.
The US-led coalition forces continue to ignore the prevailing balance of power dynamics in and around Afghanistan at the peril of the mission.