Once again, the United States has delayed the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan — prolonging the United States’ longest war. Despite an earlier promise to remove US troops from the war-torn country, President Barack Obama announced on October 15 that he will keep military combat troops there at least through the end of his administration in 2016. And in 2017, troop levels will be more than five times higher than the 1,000 US troops previously planned. One major reason behind retaining such a huge military force is the Taliban resurgence and their occupation of Afghan cities in what is being called a major blow to the United States. Saying that he does not “support the idea of endless war”, Obama nonetheless said that he is “firmly convinced” that the US “cannot allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven” for armed groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
President Obama’s decision to keep US troops in Afghanistan has been made because of two main strategic goals in Afghanistan: to prevent Al-Qaeda’s return and to train the Afghan National Army (ANA). Nothing more is to be expected from the US, neither “nation-building” nor an “anti-narcotics programme”; in fact, these two have only a marginal importance, if any, for US policymakers. The fact that investments in infrastructure and social welfare of the population have been minimal speaks volumes about US priorities. The “Kabul Kleptocracy” and the “Poppy Mafia” will remain unaffected by the US presence in the country.
How is the victory or defeat of an occupying force measured after its withdrawal from the occupied country?
Simply, if it leaves behind a stable, friendly government and an enervated and debilitated enemy, then the occupation has been a real success. A pertinent example in this regard could be the US occupation of Japan after the World War II — the country is still a major strategic ally of the United States. But, if the “friendly” government is weak and fragile and after the withdrawal, the enemies return to power, then the war has been a shameful failure.
According to a report by the United Nations, the Taliban have now spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001. The UN data, which was compiled in early September 2015, shows that more than half of the country’s provinces are now under either “high” or “extreme” threat from the Taliban. A total of 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces now have some districts where the threat levels are high or extreme, while several others, including regions surrounding Kabul, are classified as being under “substantial” threat. The report also suggested that as the assessment is based on data compiled before the militant group began its offensive in the northern city of Kunduz, the current situation on the ground can be much worse.
The seizure of Kunduz in the north-east comes alongside the failure of the ANA to secure Helmand province in the south through its Operation Zulfiqar. In both areas, north and south, the Taliban continue to be a serious force. Amidst all these developments, the US has now planned to withdraw its troops slowly, nonetheless without a decisive defeat to the Taliban. It quintessentially means that the US has been badly defeated in its Afghan war.
The Failed Goals
There were two important directions of Obama’s approach in Afghanistan. First was a surge in 2010 with an aim to destroy the morale of the Taliban and the second was the drone policy that intended to kill Al-Qaeda militants and their affiliates as well as key Taliban leaders. Although, the surge initially cleared large tracts of southern Afghanistan, the US failed to capitalize on the gains and could not neutralize the Taliban threat. Resultantly, when the US troops went back to their bases, the Taliban reasserted their positions.
Two years after the surge, General John Allen said that they were down by almost 3 percent against Taliban. What were the Taliban doing just as the surge ended? They re-emerged and started to attack US and Afghan troops. Their most active operations were in Panjwai and Zhare in Kandahar and Nad Ali in Helmand; the district that sits beside Marja where the US troops had begun their surge in 2010, and it is the place from where, this year, the Taliban have been regularly attacking the ANA posts. The long-term effects of the surge, in effect, have been minimal. ANA’s Operation Zulfiqar in northern Helmand province also failed to meet its objectives. So, the first goal of the US mission — to defeat the Taliban and to train the ANA to continue the fight against them — could not achieve its objectives.
The second goal — to wash out and incapacitate Al-Qaeda and its allies — was partially met through massive bombing campaign in as early as 2001 when numerous Al-Qaeda members were either killed and captured or they fled to their countries of origin, with Osama bin Laden on the run and operational ties with his affiliates totally frayed. But, as they say “if you smash the thermometer, the mercury will spread everywhere;” one negative outcome of the bombardment campaign was that it scattered Al-Qaeda members around the world. These hardcore fighters and militants spread over an extensive geographical area ranging from the Philippines in East Asia to Libya in Northern Africa. They brought mayhem to their home countries, particularly in Libya after 2011. Even within the region, Al-Qaeda was not easy to defeat.
Moreover, Obama built on the Bush administration’s drone programme as the hammer to beat down that mercury. Between 2011 and 2013, the US conducted Operation Haymaker to take out the main Al-Qaeda and associated terrorists in northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.
But what actually happened was that the programme could kill only a few real targets but it produced more bitterness, anger and a surge in anti-US sentiments. If we analyze that data leaked to an online American publication on drones by an unnamed source, we come to know that firstly, about nine of every 10 people killed in drone strikes were not the intended targets. This exposed the intelligence-gathering capacity of the US and Afghan troops. The source explained that the US designated “military age males” (MAMs) as reasonable targets and designated those hit as “enemy killed in action” (EKIA). It also came to the fore that the targets that did get hit in most cases were neither Taliban nor Al-Qaeda affiliates “but were local forces with no international terrorism ambitions; groups that took up arms against the US after American air strikes brought the war to their doorsteps. According to the US government’s own assessment, the drone wars had no positive strategic effect. In fact, they had the opposite — producing the conditions for the creation of more insurgents.
Bombing Kuunduz Hospital
Another severe blow to the US was the targeted bombing of a charity hospital in Kunduz. In this one of the most despicable incidents of the United States’ 14-year war in Afghanistan, at least 22 people, including patients, three children, and medical personnel, were killed. The hospital, run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, was knowingly hit as revealed by ‘The Intercept’ which reported that “there was abundant evidence suggesting (not proving, but suggesting) that the attack was no accident. For instance, MSF repeatedly told the US military about the precise coordinates of its hospital, which had been operating for years; the Pentagon’s story about the incident kept changing on a daily basis; the exact same MSF hospital had been invaded by Afghan security forces three months earlier, demonstrating hostility toward the facility; the attack lasted more than 30 minutes and involved multiple AC-130 gunship flyovers, even as MSF officials frantically pleaded with the US military to stop; and, most compellingly of all, Afghan officials from the start said explicitly that the hospital was a valid and intended target due to the presence of Taliban fighters as patients.”
Moreover, a US tank also lumbered into the destroyed hospital, essentially contaminating the evidence that should have been studied by a forensic team. This heinous act in itself is a war crime but it did not appear to bother the Pentagon officials, who seem oblivious to considerations of international law. MSF called for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (established by the Geneva Conventions), but this was not to be.
Amidst all these failures, it seems that the US was compelled to withdraw the withdrawal plan. The move also depicts the US worries about ISIS operating inside Afghanistan. In the words of President Obama who said that he was not disappointed about the change in Afghanistan and that his view “has always been how do we achieve our goals while minimising the strain and exposure on our men and women in uniform and make sure that we are constantly encouraging and sending a message to the Afghan people: this is their country and they’ve got to defend it”.
Many US allies in Nato, with roughly 3,000 troops committed to Afghanistan, are supportive of Mr Obama’s move. But it remains a hard sell politically in Europe, where opposition from voters to having boots on the ground is still high. So, Afghanistan still remains a mission impossible for the US and its allies.