As the metal-tread wheels of personnel carriers scraped across the border, an army’s last soldier traversed “Friendship Bridge” into Uzbekistan. Around noon, with local press in attendance, the Lt. General uttered only a few words: “There is not a single … soldier or officer left behind me,” he said. “Our nine-year stay ends with this.”
The day was February 16, 1989, and the Soviet Union had just completed their year-long withdrawal from Afghanistan. To many in the west, the withdrawal was defeat by negotiation as the Soviets abandoned their hand-picked government to the forces inside and outside the mountainous Asian nation.
“The Soviet-backed Kabul Government has generally kept a firm grip on the cities, but throughout the war has been unable to rout the rebels in the countryside,” wrote Bill Keller of The New York Times.
Twenty four years later, after more than twelve years spent at war, the United States has become what it once opposed: a waning superpower forced to abandon its grand design to the forces that continue to animate Afghanistan.
The weight of history
Afghan politics has long been something of an anachronism. The country’s physical and political landscape has served as canvas for major superpowers to watercolor their way to strategic advantage. In the 1980s, the USSR sought to conquer the state’s rugged terrain, financialy supporting Communist control in the Greater Middle East, only to have their advantage whittled away the forces like the Mujihadeen, a rag-tag bunch of fighters hungry for the liberation of Afghanistan and supported by the US and Pakistan.
“Whether the Afghan situation will develop along the lines of national accord and the creation of a broadly based coalition government or along the lines of escalating war and tension,” read the statement issued by the USSR upon withdrawal, “depends to a large degree on those who have, over all these years, aided and abetted the armed opposition, supplying it with sophisticated weapons.”
The actor that “aided and abetted” the opposition, was of course the United States. President Reagan, citing concerns over Soviet control of key oil reserves in Afghanistan, approved Operation Cyclone which, through the CIA, funneled billions of dollars into Afghanistan, funding guerillas (the Mujahideen) from 1979 through the so-called “end” of the civil war in 1992. The consequence, however, was the strengthening of non-state militant groups, many of whom operated out of Pakistan.
In 1989, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, warned Bush Sr. that US training and investment in jihadist groups in Pakistan had created the proverbial “Frankenstein”, militant groups liable to confound future efforts for peace throughout the region. When the USSR finally withdrew from Afghanistan, and the fight for control of cities like Kabul intensified, tensions between the “guerillas” gave rise a series of splinter groups. One such group, founded by a Mullah named Mohammed Omar, gained support from factions within Pakistan and were soon known by another name: The Taliban.
The plight of terrorism
Against this Taliban, the United States would wage war in the fall of 2001. Having financially supported Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, the Taliban were declared a threat to US and international peace and security. Within weeks, US bombing raids commenced, buttressed by US-supported Northern Alliance Forces (anti-Taliban troops) who entered the country.
Fighters from Uzbekistan, Pakistan, soldiers of Arab and Chechen descent, joined the United States and fellow NATO countries in the assault. The fighting, initially intense and overwhelming, drove the Taliban from their strongholds in provinces like Kandahar into the mountainous regions between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
“We will not falter, we will not fail,” said President George Bush, addressing the nation from the Treaty Room in the White House in 2001. “Peace and freedom will prevail.”
Ashes to ashes
By December 2001, a UN-led conference announced the formation of an interim government and a new temporary leader for Afghanistan —the sporadically-inimical Hamid Karzai.
But the conflict blistered on. By January 2002, the “war” in Afghanistan had become a “peacekeeping mission”, operated by NATO forces, called ISAF —International Security Assistance Force— but the violence continued unabated. Sure enough, western forces found themselves pitted against insurgents in close-quarter combat. So began the lingering and exhausting battles over meager gains at high cost.
The Taliban’s leader, Mohammed Omar, recognized the latent strength in his group’s small numbers and local knowledge. After allegedly fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001, he advised his followers to abandon Kabul and regroup in the rugged mountains.
“Defending the cities with front lines that can be targeted from the air will cause us terrible loss” Omar said, according to an account in Stephen Tanner’s Afghanistan: A Military History. By 2003, NATO had taken responsibility for security in Kabul, but those “followers” continued their battle in mountain passes and valley villages.
Any early military successes in Afghanistan were met with long-term political failures. The fight for strategic control of provinces like Helmand and Kandahar excised the greatest tolls on western troops over time. For the British, Helmand has claimed nearly 400 of their men in uniform. Canadians have lost 122 in Kandahar. The US would lose 453 and 388 in those provinces respectively.
But the elections of 2004 stoked hopes that an Afghan political order, headed by Karzai, might stabilize the country. But with a parliament featuring too many “warlords and strongmen” eager to exercise politics for profit, instability continued.
“Every time a new government comes into power the strongmen change their disguises,” wrote The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, relaying the words of a bookstore owner in Taloqan, Afghanistan, back in December 2001. The sentiment has held true for more than a generation.
Afghanistan’s crumbled economy further hindered the efforts to establish peace and stability. Hobbled by the 2007 opium surge and trafficking of all kinds, the laggard economy often made it more profitable to work through informal grey or black market arrangements. Power remained the only currency, and competition between groups sparked brushfires that cut swaths through the already patchwork political landscape.
“A legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people…[but has been] hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces,” Obama said, addressing an audience at West Point in December 2009. Noting that the Al Qaeda-supported Taliban continued to aggress from their safe havens in Pakistan, Obama added “While we have achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.”
The addition of 30,000 troops under General McCrystal — ”the surge” as it would be called — sought to harness all the US had learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, to eliminate the Taliban’s hold once and for all. The words “kinetic” and “non-kinetic” became the parlance of American counter-insurgency and the battle for “hearts and minds” led to the war’s deadliest years (2009, 2010, 2011). In supporting the surge, Obama’s resolve was clear: “Our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The Taliban, he added, would not be tolerated.
This June, eight months after the end of the “surge”, NATO and the US handed off control to Afghan security forces. After more than 12 years at war, 3349 soldiers had lost their lives, and another 15,000-20,000 Afghan civilians had been killed in the fight against terror.
For some, the transition signaled a small victory: a restoration — of a kind — in keeping with Obama’s pledge to return Afghanistan to the Afghans. For others, however, the day signaled something else — defeat, as the US announced a willingness to renew talks with the Taliban.
In a world without absolutes, Afghanistan serves as both metaphor and parable: “You’re damned if you do, they’re damned if you don’t.” While the Taliban may not have been defeated in this 12 year war, inaction in the face of terrorist threat may have extended their reach or strengthened their resolve.
But this fall, as the United States moves to extricate itself from their longest battle, the realities of troop withdrawal are stark. Does the US negotiate with the Taliban? Commit significant funds to support the Afghan military over the long-term? Or even withdraw immediately, admitting not only defeat, but also a lack of national interest in the continued fight for Afghanistan?
These three options, presented by Stephen Biddle in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, have significant consequences. For some experts, the Taliban have little incentive to negotiate. And while recent reports note reduced attacks, analysts assume the forces are laying low, waiting once again to fill the vacuum left by a retreating superpower.
To bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Biddle argues, the US will likely have to bankroll Afghan forces to the measure of 4-6 billion dollars annually. This financial commitment is necessary to ensure the security forces are capable of defending the state against the Taliban. But the investment will rely on Congress’ long-term, scandal-proof support — a significant test for the woefully divided American government, particularly with Afghan elections in April 2014.
Biddle argues, also, that a full-scale, immediate withdrawal is not the worst of all possible options for Obama, particularly if negotiations with the Taliban, or continued financial support, will be untenable proposals for Congress. In theory, it isn’t unthinkable that Obama could sell the immediate withdrawal to an American audience where only 0.5 percent of the population has served their military and 42 percent disapprove of his handling of the war to date.
But the politics of admitting defeat are far more complex than polls, and recent controversy over US policy on Syria, for instance, will make abandoning Afghanistan politically unpalatable. Instead, however, officials have seized upon the narratives of transition instead of retreat.
“Our war might be ending, but the war in Afghanistan is only changing,” Matt Sherman, an advisor to ISF Joint Command told Defense One.
Afghanistan: Post script
With the return of 34,000 troops in 2014, US engagement in this region will undoubtedly continue. In the era of drone strikes and targeted captures (evidenced this past week by the joint missions in Somalia and Libya) the United States continues to demonstrate its might without American “boots on the ground”.
Like a candle burning at both ends, though, America’s continued engagement in Afghanistan belays a slow and dangerous leak: with perpetual investment in shadowy wars through which control over adversaries is impossible, where traditional notions of victory are inapplicable, and where a policy of violence in the name of security is always expandable.
“I’m not sure what ‘over’ is,” Brigadier General Jim Blackburn, commander of the U.S. Army III Corps, told The Atlantic’s Defense One this week. He added: “I don’t think there will be an end to people conspiring against the United States of America.” With that, despite Obama’s attempt to distance his administration from the timbre of the “war on terror”, Afghanistan has become a symbol for something more worrisome.
In the existential war against actors seeking to limit US power, where brazen force is the weapon of choice, all the world is a stage. The next 12 months might be another act, but it is just the latest act in a lengthy, perhaps unending, performance in the greater Middle East.