Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires

Continuing the war in Afghanistan is no longer a case of working to achieve victory, but rather, it is about prolonging a stalemate, or at worst, delaying a strategic defeat

They don’t call Afghanistan the graveyard of empires for no reason.

October will mark the sixteen-year anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan. It is not an anniversary that will be celebrated by the United States or its NATO allies. The war which began because of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington during the Bush administration has tied the hands of a third consecutive President. Donald Trump was vehemently against the war in Afghanistan over the past few years, and even more so on the campaign trail last year. The Afghan conflict is in a “civil war” stage between the government and Taliban, and Trump reluctantly finds himself right in the middle of it.

Like most problems on the global stage, there are few easy answers or quick-fix solutions. If there had been, one of Mr. Trump’s predecessors would have implemented that strategy already. However, it now falls to the billionaire President to succeed where others have if not failed, at least underwhelmed. That will be a challenge. Looking at the background of the conflict, which Trump undoubtedly has over the past few months, provides some perspective.

According to a University of Boston study, the US Congress had assigned around $783 billion to the war in Afghanistan, in what is called “overseas contingency operations” funding between the 2001 and 2016 fiscal years. This amount is over and above the standard yearly budget allocations to the US State Department and Department of Defense, meaning that spending in Afghanistan-related operations far exceeds $1 trillion. Of this $783 billion, only 15% ($117 billion) was used for relief and reconstruction in Afghanistan. This is not to say that war is inexpensive, but this amount is insufficient to improve Afghan infrastructure and rebuilding society, and belies a consistent long-term strategy from Washington.

Beyond the material cost, there is a considerable cost in human life as well. The Cost of War project by Brown University shows that some 31,000 Afghan civilians had lost their lives since 2001, with another 40,000 being injured. This strikes me as being a somewhat conservative estimate. In addition, more than 3,500 troops from the US-led Coalition have been killed in action since 2001, although the casualty rate has dropped since troop reductions began in 2013 onwards.

There have been some successes, certainly. There are millions of girls and young women enrolled in education in 2017, whereas under the Taliban, this was strictly prohibited. But the successes have been far too few and costs too high.

The Council on Foreign Relations, an influential and non-partisan American think tank, estimates that the Afghan government currently controls only 60% of the country, with another 30% being contested by the Taliban and other insurgents. For those who have some familiarity with Afghanistan’s history, particularly in the wars against British and Soviet occupiers, this may seem like an accomplishment. But it is not. The British were only in the country for a few years (twice), and the Soviets for about a decade; whereas US involvement is now entering its sixteenth year.

The part which should concern analysts the most is that the gains made by the US-led coalition and successive Afghan governments are reversible. If foreign forces were to suddenly leave the country, and halt its financial contributions to the Afghan government, the latter would be unable to stop the Taliban from recapturing the country in short order. The government in Kabul remains too detached from the outer provinces. The Afghan social structure, which emphasises the importance of decision making by, and loyalty to tribal elders makes it difficult for Afghan authorities to impose their authority. The Taliban were brutal, but were effective at ensuring that their governance and reach spread throughout the country.

Donald Trump faced an impossible decision: to continue fighting a war which is stagnating at best, or slowly going downhill at worst. The other option is to remove the US from Afghanistan completely, which would allow radical militants to take over the country, and potentially establishing another ‘terrorist haven’ – the removal of which was the stated intention of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in the first place. Trump’s decision to continue the war, but to implement a conditions-based strategy, hunting down terrorist and avoiding nation building is a watered-down mixture of the Bush and Obama approaches to the conflict, whether he knows it or not. Bush unsuccessfully tried to avoid nation-building, whilst Obama reduced troop numbers, began depending on drones to carry out attacks, and to focus on hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, with mixed success.

In truth, Trump has little choice but to continue the war he has inherited from his predecessors just to be able to avoid being blamed for the country falling to the Taliban down the line. If the United States and its NATO allies continue to provide support (both military and financial) to the Afghan government, the Taliban will lack the capability of capturing the country.

There are no attractive options for the United States in this situation. Afghanistan is as stable now as it is likely ever going to be, unless the Taliban suddenly decide to put down their weapons and enter serious peace talks. With ISIS starting to make a name for itself in the country, and outside players such as Iran, China, Russia and India showing interest in developments in Afghanistan, the potential for more complexity in the future is considerable.

Contrary to what President Trump has said, continuing the war in Afghanistan is no longer a case of working to achieve victory, but rather, it is about prolonging a stalemate, or at worst, delaying a strategic defeat.

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