The War in Afghanistan Still Makes No Sense
It’s been 17 years of unclear objectives, cultural missteps, and millions of dollars lost with no results — and no end
Afghanistan has long known war. Over the years, tens of thousands of people have been killed, including soldiers who fought bravely on behalf of what they believed to be right. Countless fighters have been praised for their actions. One soldier in particular was singled out by a notable U.S. congressman as being “goodness personified” and lauded by a Republican president for his committed defense as a freedom fighter.
That all fits with convention, except for one thing: That praise — bestowed back in the mid-1980s — was heaped on Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of a notorious insurgent network that would go on to ally with the Taliban. The congressman was Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas, and the president was Ronald Reagan.
How times have changed.
The irony is important because it sheds light on the thinking that started this whole travesty. In other words, not enough.
The Taliban announced Haqqani’s death on September 4, 2018, though he was widely believed to have died in 2015. Although he’d been bedridden for several years due to illness and his sons had long ago assumed active leadership of the Haqqani network, confirmation of his passing coincides closely with the 17th anniversary of the terrible events that pulled the United States back into the country known as the “graveyard of empires.”
In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. and U.K. invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the ruling Taliban regime, which had been providing haven to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. That initial objective proved easy enough. The Taliban was unseated in just 75 days, and al-Qaida operatives were scattered across the country’s vast hinterland that borders Pakistan.
As the operation to crush al-Qaida transitioned into an occupation, however, a fresh narrative was needed to justify the continued presence of foreign troops. A coalition of NATO forces arrived in 2003 for a U.N.-mandated effort to stabilize the country. Suddenly, Western forces were there — as had always been the case, remember — to liberate the Afghans from oppression and allow girls to attend school. These were noble goals, of course. But they were not the original goals.
Professor Amy Chua argues that by failing to account for the importance of ethnic identity in the land it was invading, the United States repeated the same key mistake in Afghanistan that had condemned it to defeat in Vietnam decades earlier.
The sad but obvious truth is that had 19 hijackers not successfully perpetrated the most audacious act of terror on American soil in living memory, Afghan girls would likely still be forbidden from receiving modern education today.
The goalposts had been moved in broad daylight, but it didn’t matter. It was a masterstroke. After all, who could be callous enough to deny the people of Afghanistan their liberation? Now repeat after me, children: Human rights and feminism! Hip, hip, hooray!
The real question, though, isn’t what should have been done once we woke up in a quagmire. That one answers itself: Once you kick down the door and smash the place to pieces, there’s a moral obligation to help tidy up. The proper question would have been, prior to intervention: Do we know what we’re getting ourselves — to say nothing of the Afghan people — into?
The architects of the war clearly did not.
Do Your Homework
In her essay “Tribal World” for Foreign Affairs magazine, professor Amy Chua argues that by failing to account for the importance of ethnic identity in the land it was invading, the United States repeated the same key mistake in Afghanistan that had condemned it to defeat in Vietnam decades earlier.
A convenient and widely believed fiction about the Vietnam War is that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were fighting on behalf of communism. The intellectual elites of the North and their Chinese backers were indeed communist. The untold number of soldiers who actually shed blood against Americans, on the other hand, viewed the conflict in much simpler terms as “an innate Vietnamese resistance to foreign occupation” in the name of a “peasant nationalism embodied in Ho Chi Minh.” Reassessing the conflict in this way helps explain their incredible perseverance despite a mounting “body count” by which America tried naively to measure its progress in the war.
The shock of 9/11 drove the United States to apoplexy. The immediate aftermath left Americans with little appetite for namby-pamby contemplation of the attackers’ grievances, much less a desire to understand the internal political dynamics of the country on which they were keen to vent their outrage. (Which would have been difficult in any case, considering that, in 2002, only 1 in 6 young American adults aged 18 to 24 could locate Afghanistan on a map.) It certainly wasn’t the moment to ask, rhetorically, what Jesus would have done. It was time for vengeance, served at the sizzling temperature of a white phosphorus incendiary bomb. All but blind to the indigenous cultural landscape, they went in swinging.
Afghanistan hosts a complex web of rival tribal factions; the 2004 constitution recognizes 14 different ethnicities. In 1992, a coalition of Tajiks and Uzbeks wrested power from the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. In response, the late Mullah Omar formed the Taliban in order to reassert Pashtun hegemony and establish strict Islamic law in place of what had been virtual anarchy during the civil war and communist rule before that. Ali A. Jalali and Lester W. Grau recall that the Taliban — which, in Pashto, translates literally to “students” — “received extensive support from Pashtuns across the country who thought that the movement might restore their national dominance.” The Taliban is as much an ethnic movement as it is an Islamist organization.
American leaders might have realized this, too, had they bothered to ask questions first and shoot later. Instead, Chua explains:
The United States… joined forces with the Northern Alliance, led by Tajik and Uzbek warlords and widely viewed as anti-Pashtun. The Americans then set up a government that many Pashtuns believed marginalized them.
… Although many Pashtuns loathed the Taliban, few were willing to support a government they viewed as subordinating their interests to those of their deeply resented ethnic rivals.
Needless to say, it was a poor recipe for winning the trust of the people among whom the U.S. and its allies would be operating for the next 17 years and counting.
Blood and Treasure
The human cost of the Afghan adventure has been staggering. If and when statistics of the war’s casualties receive public attention, they’re almost always those of Western forces: over 3,500 coalition fatalities as of 2018, more than 2,400 of whom were American, and over 20,000 injuries to U.S. troops.
Unless you go out of your way to seek the data, you’re unlikely to encounter the rest of the story — which is to say the bulk of it. Since 2001, over 30,000 Afghan civilians have died violently, and more than 100,000 have died in total with another 40,000 civilians injured on top of that. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) notes that in 2018, civilian casualties numbered above 5,000 for the third year running, more than double the 2009 level.
The full human toll is also not entirely visible. More than 138,000 U.S. veterans of Afghanistan are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In 2009, it was reported that 2 in 3 Afghans had mental health problems. Worse still, as the world’s main source of opium and heroin, Afghanistan is gripped by a drug addiction crisis.
The United Nations estimated in 2015 that there were perhaps 1.6 million drug users living in Afghan cities — a 70 percent increase from 2009 — and as many as 3 million more in the countryside. That would represent a jaw-dropping 13 percent of the country’s population, dwarfing the opioid crisis currently ravaging parts of North America. Land use dedicated to poppy production in Afghanistan has tripled since the war began. Efforts have been made to destroy the poppy fields to deny the Taliban a source of revenue, even though doing so could be financially ruinous to many ordinary Afghans as well since opiate exports make up a quarter of Afghanistan’s GDP.
Destroying the fields also won’t work in hindering the Taliban overall because depriving ordinary farmers of their livelihoods merely breeds resentment toward the United States.
Then there’s the bill, financed almost entirely through loans. Including increases to the Defense and Veterans Affairs budgets, the war in Afghanistan has cost the United States $1.07 trillion. One estimate shows that if it takes 35 years to pay off that new debt, the interest alone could total nearly eight times as much. Even then, none of this accounts for expenses like lost income, future benefits owed to veterans, or higher interest rates charged to Americans thanks to their government’s borrowing.
Perhaps the dimmest news of all, though, is that the progress made over the years appears to be reversing, which could end up making the war’s human and financial sacrifices all for naught. SIGAR’s quarterly reports in April and July of 2018 show that insurgents have made significant gains over the last two years. From January 2016 to May 2018, the share of districts that the Afghan government controlled or influenced fell from 71 percent to 56 percent. Insurgents, meanwhile, now contest or control 43 percent of the country, the most since the war began in 2001.
Although al-Qaida has been marginalized in Afghanistan, the Islamic State-Khorasan province (IS-K) has emerged in its place. “At the same time,” the Council on Foreign Relations observes, “the Taliban appears to be as strong as ever, and the U.S. military describes the war as a stalemate. Kabul experiences suicide bombings on a scale never before seen” — usually at the hands of the IS-K. Since the Afghan government assumed responsibility for security in 2014, there has also been a rise in “green-on-green” insider attacks, in which an insurgent infiltrates the Afghan army or police ranks.
As if ordinary Afghans didn’t have enough to worry about, civilian casualties from aerial operations (drone strikes) in 2017 were the highest ever recorded. That is, no doubt, largely due to the Trump administration’s decision to loosen restrictions on the rules of engagement when hunting for insurgents. The current pace is well on track to break the record again in 2018.
The graveyard of empires
As with any quagmire, mission creep has seized hold of the campaign in Afghanistan. Wesley Morgan writes in Politico magazine:
The changing complexion of the American mission, aimed primarily at aiding the Afghan government in its civil war against the Taliban, underscores how the conflict has morphed away from its original focus: preventing a reprise of 9/11 and punishing its perpetrators.
A reprise of 9/11 in the United States has been prevented, so far. Yet, it took a full decade to finally track down bin Laden, and his death brought no discernible benefit; Islamic jihadism has since metastasized across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa (see video). Now America is in so deep that it’s compelled to see this new, monumental task through to completion — if it’s even possible — or face humiliation. In the end, fighting terrorism using military force is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Vox illustrates this here:
The U.S. government admits, in obscure reports such as the SIGAR quarterly assessments that most people never read, that it blundered in Afghanistan early and often. Among its key findings, the July 2018 report concludes this:
1. The U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of its stabilization strategy.
2. The stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context.
3. The large sums of stabilization dollars the United States devoted to Afghanistan in search of quick gains often exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption, and bolstered support for insurgents.
The report recognizes, furthermore, that “no amount of troops could compensate for the lack of popular legitimacy and poor capacity of Afghan civil servants and security forces in the longer term.” It also laments the swift drawdown of Western forces in the years leading up to 2015.
This last point is worth lingering on because it’s a common criticism of President Barack Obama. No sooner had most Western troops headed home than terrorists refilled the void. But what was the alternative? Stay there forever? That’s what President Donald Trump is apparently ready to do, having increased the troop level in Afghanistan back up to 15,000. It’s still a far cry from the 130,000 coalition troops who had been there during the pinnacle of the occupation.
It also might make no difference. In an interview with Vice, a Taliban commander mused that “if [130,000] American soldiers couldn’t defeat the Taliban, how can 15,000 win?”
He has a point. The bleakest story of my generation doesn’t look to be improving anytime soon. Afghanistan is the new Vietnam. Despite being hugely outgunned and witnessing his forces take repeated losses, a different Taliban commander has remained unperturbed. He hauntingly reminded Canadian General Rick Hillier: “You have the watches, but we have the time.”