By Luis Durani
Almost fifteen years has passed since the initiation of the Afghan war and yet the Taliban pose a larger threat today than at the beginning of the conflict. They are on the verge of taking over the entire Helmand province.
At the moment, the government in Kabul can only claim full control for three out of the fourteen districts within the province. The government ignored a last minute appeal on Facebook by local officials in Helmand for additional reinforcements against an impending Taliban siege. This unusually off season offensive came after the Taliban temporary captured Kunduz, which was a major symbolic victory for the insurgency. The capture of Kunduz was the first time during the entire war that the insurgency was able to establish full control of a city within Afghanistan. After fifteen years of training and millions upon millions invested into the Afghan army and police, what has been the result?
After almost fifteen years of blood, treasure, and time spent by the international community on the war in Afghanistan, the gains are minimal at best. The Afghan government has come to epitomize everything the American-led effort was against. The only way the West can ensure the viability and perpetuity of the current Afghan government is to continue the long and expensive occupation of Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. This type of no end in sight occupation is not only impractical but unpopular to the American and European public at large . The war in Afghanistan has been a failure. A new approach is needed to withdraw from the region while ensuring terrorism never emanates from it.
How Did We Get Here
When historians look back at this war, they can perhaps outline the mistakes that were made. Until then, the following is a start:
Created with Original Sin
The Afghan government was hastily put together in Bonn, Germany to replace the toppled Taliban government. This new government consisted mainly of the same warlords whose atrocities gave rise to the Taliban in the early 1990s. While in power, the Taliban provided security and safety from the horrors that were perpetuated by these warlords. Unfortunately for the Afghan people, security came at the cost of being subjected to a harsh and fundamentalist theocracy, which eventually rendered the Taliban government unwanted by those whom it governed.
The Iraq War
Despite an ill-formed government, the selection of Hamid Karzai, the only leading figure in the government without a tarnished history, as president brought hope to a country that had been in continuous war for the past twenty years at that time. As soon as Karzai began to lead, attention transitioned from Afghanistan to Iraq, where the drums of war were beating for an eventual campaign that removed the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein. The war and ensuing insurgency in Iraq continued to be the center of the media’s attention. Afghanistan became the forgotten war. This negligence of the Afghan war would have devastating consequences for the war effort.
Corruption and Accountability
With Iraq in the limelight, the warlords in the Afghan government had cart blanche to do as they pleased. Without the proper oversight, the government’s main function became corruption. Rule of law became applicable on a selective basis. Besides the reintroduction of warlords in the government, the empowering of the Afghan minorities at the expense of the Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group, would create further resentment. This exclusion was partially attributed to the fact that the Northern Alliance, NATO’s main ally in the war, was comprised largely of all of Afghanistan’s minorities while the Taliban were mainly comprised of the Pashtuns. With significant help from the US and NATO, the Northern Alliance ascended to power from near defeat.
Insecurity and crime increased dramatically throughout the country as the warlords turned diplomats returned to their former fiefdoms. The once eradicated production of opium flourished throughout the country in areas controlled by the warlords and Taliban . Horrendous crimes that were eliminated accompanied the return of the warlords such as the practice of sexually abusing young boys. The government in Kabul knowingly turned a blind eye to the practice that was being perpetuated by the Afghan military and local police . These types of monstrosities become the norm.
In a conservative society such as Afghanistan where values and belief stem from religion and tribalism, the gravity of such acts of abuse appeared to not be fully understood by the US and NATO. Ordinary citizens were left powerless as no “legal” means were left to address their grievances. They began to fear their government. Once again the people across the country thirsted for security. The Taliban pounced on this opportunity and provided justice with their mobile courts and provided the social needs that the government failed to do. Slowly their popularity began to rise. For the people of Afghanistan, the Taliban appear to be the lesser of two evils.
The United States and international community were hoping to remedy their past mistake of abandoning Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union. An outline for a government and a well-trained army and police was put together. Unfortunately, the recent Taliban advances display a government that lacks not only proper training but even more importantly ideological cohesiveness. The government has failed to exude a sense of national identity that the population can unite under. Unlike the Soviet-backed government of Najibullah whose members to a large extent saw past ethnic identities and shared a common political ideology, the current government is held together by the inflow of foreign aid and the presence of foreign troops. As soon as the aid spigot is closed and foreign troops withdraw, the government in Kabul will unravel and collapse.
Defeating the Taliban will not be an inexpensive or easy feat. Unlike ISIS or Al Qaeda, the Taliban are a native insurgency with a vision that does not extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan. To cluster them with terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda only hurts America’s strategic imperative for the region. As a result of the Afghan government’s failures, parts of the country that did not support the Taliban before are now turning to them for help. Badakhshan, which was one of the last remaining areas to not fall under Taliban control prior to September 11th, have districts now that are under Taliban control. To a large extent, it appears as if the Taliban have shed some of their Pashtun-centric identity for a more inclusive Afghan identity. Whether this will hold after the full withdrawal of foreign troops is a different story.
The Afghan people are no longer wondering if their government will fall but rather when. Those who can afford to leave are doing so . The current strategy with its opaque objectives will continue to erode any goodwill the West attempts to build in the Afghanistan. A change is needed and the only viable solution is to open a genuine dialogue with the Taliban with limited pre-conditions.
The main concern of the US and NATO is to get a guarantee of no more human rights abuse and ensuring that the group does not shelter nor aid terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. If the guarantee is not adhered to after the West withdraws, sanctions and isolation should follow. The Taliban have experienced the detrimental effects of being a pariah in the international community before and will not want to relive that again.
The expectation of the Taliban laying down arms and integrating with a corrupt government is an impractical prerequisite. Momentum and time is on their side, there is no feasible reason for them to engage with such a prerequisite. If the West can ensure terrorism will not emanate from Afghanistan and human rights abuses will not occur, the rest can be left to the internal dynamics of the Afghan people and region to work out amongst themselves.
The current strategy has not resulted into anything that was initially hoped for by the international community in 2001. Any further extension of the country’s occupation by the US and NATO will only result in more unnecessary troop and civilian deaths as well as prolonging the conflict. The war in Afghanistan is over and a new approach is needed by the US and NATO.
Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese Foreign Policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineer and B.A. in political science. He is also author of “Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State.” Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani