KABUL, Afghanistan — For 10 years, ever since the towers fell, the United States has fought a war in a distant land — in hopes, it says, of protecting American interests and making the world safer from terrorism. Now, as President Barack Obama plans to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014, the question remains as muddy as ever:
What happened here?
There have been victories — and setbacks. More than 1,522 American service members have died. There has been talk of a more stable, safer Afghanistan and frequent, obvious evidence to the contrary. The country’s president and the United States share an uneasy relationship, and it’s difficult to tell the story of the past decade in a single, concise statement.
Which is not surprising. Over more than 30 years of warfare, there has rarely been clarity in Afghanistan. You can’t always tell who’s on which side, and sometimes people are on both. Conventional battles are common, as is shadowy guerrilla warfare. Yesterday’s enemy is today’s ally. Tomorrow he’s an enemy once again.
Afghans are dying by the thousands in a conflict which began to free them from al-Qaida whose leaders are mostly hiding in Pakistan — a nominal American ally.
America’s chapter in Afghanistan’s struggle is drawing to a close. President Barack Obama has said he will withdraw a third of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops by next summer and end combat operations in 2014 — with or without even a semblance of a lasting success.
Much work remains unfinished even after almost a decade of war and billions of dollars in aid. Although battered, the insurgents still control large swaths of the country, and it is nearly impossible to travel safety from the capital to the southern city of Kandahar.
Echoes of withdrawals past
Efforts to establish effective government, especially at local levels, have achieved limited success at best. Afghanistan’s own security forces remain far from capable of defending the country on their own. And only about 2,000 of the estimated 25,000-40,000 insurgents have joined a highly touted program to reintegrate into society.
In announcing the timetable, Obama spoke of building a “partnership with the Afghan people that endures” long after the last American service member has gone home. His words were aimed at reassuring the Afghans that America would not abandon them.
That pledge was reminiscent of the Soviet assurances to their Afghan clients when they, like the British a century before, concluded that fighting in Afghanistan wasn’t worth the cost in blood and treasure and withdrew in 1989.
Moscow left behind a friendly government and a well-equipped Afghan army. Three years later, that government collapsed, the army fell apart and the country was again engulfed in war.
America entered Afghanistan in October 2001 to strike at al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Another goal was to oust the ruling Taliban that arose from the chaos in the wake of the Soviet defeat and also Osama bin Laden and his network.
The Taliban were dispatched with relative ease by U.S. air power and ground forces provided by militias that had resisted the hard-line Islamist movement. The U.S. and its partners established a government in Kabul, setting the stage for democratic elections.
But the Bush administration shifted its attention and resources to Iraq and a new war to bring down Saddam Hussein.
Faced with a monumental challenge and limited resources, Afghan President Hamid Karzai turned for support to the militias and warlords that Washington had used to oust the Taliban.
With that, the new government sank into a quagmire of corruption and favoritism — opening the door to the revival of the Taliban. By 2006, the country was facing a full-blown insurgency.
Old alliances shifted back and forth. The man who invited bin Laden to Afghanistan is now a member of parliament and a Karzai crony. The warlord who helped rescue Karzai from fighting in Kabul in the 1990s now leads one of the main insurgent groups fighting his government.
Obama entered office promising to focus attention on the Afghan conflict, which he described as a “war of necessity” as opposed to Iraq, a “war of choice.” He doubled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and in December 2009 dispatched 30,000 more troops in a “surge” to try to stop the Taliban momentum.
In doing so, Obama in effect changed the character of the war. His commanders employed the counterinsurgency strategy that brought some success in Iraq, coupling military force with an ambitious, troop-intensive plan to push insurgents from their strongholds so the local government could build a system of services and institutions to win the loyalty of the people.
The military always knew there would never be a winner in the war. Instead, it hoped to create the necessary groundwork for a process of reconciliation and reintegration to encourage insurgents to re-enter Afghan society.
But the investment proved too much for an American public weary of war and struggling with an economy marked by job loss and rising deficits.
Expensive in blood and treasure
Even with troop reductions, the United States is facing huge expenses if it sticks by Obama’s plan. Building and funding a 300,000-member Afghan army and police will cost an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion a year even after 2014. The U.S. already paid $22 billion in 2010 and 2011 to train and equip the Afghans.
The dilemma is that without such an investment, Afghanistan could again slip into civil war as it did when the Soviets left 22 years ago. Preventing that will require not only a strong security force but a power-sharing agreement among the numerous ethnic groups, including the Pashtuns from whom the Taliban draw their strength.
In Afghanistan, ethnic conflict lies at the heart of the cycle of war, which began in the early 1970s when a clique of leftists overthrew the monarchy and tried to establish a socialist, secular government on a deeply religious, conservative tribal-based society.
The different ethnic groups banded together to fight the Soviets, who invaded in December 1979 to defend the leftist government. But years of conflict sharpened the differences among the Pashtuns, who represent about 40 percent of the population, and the ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, who make up the rest in central and northern Afghanistan.
The Taliban entered Kabul in September 1996 but failed to take over the whole country.
A northern alliance of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara warlords joined invading U.S. forces in October 2001 to throw out the Taliban. These warlords took control of powerful positions in the government.
With the days of foreign forces numbered, Karzai has been reaching out to the Taliban, a process that Washington has tacitly endorsed. That effort has alarmed many Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara politicians, who fear Karzai will give too much power to his fellow Pashtuns.
“He mixes the enemy in place of a friend, a friend in place of the enemy and confuses the nation,” said Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik leader who lost to Karzai in the 2009 presidential election. “That has deprived our country of its main strength, which is will, and the strength of our people. The people are confused, the people are disenfranchised, the people are resentful.”
Obama’s drawdown announcement served to reinforce many of those fears.
“This announcement, they fear, runs parallel to a possible power-sharing deal with the Taliban that may emerge during this period,” Thomas Ruttig, co-director and senior analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think-tank, wrote recently in Foreign Policy. “For them, today was the beginning of the end of the world’s support for Afghanistan, for the third time after 1989 and the 1990s factional wars.”
With such a complex ethnic and political landscape, few believe Afghanistan will enjoy peace anytime soon. Optimists hope the level of violence can be reduced and the fighting limited to small areas around the country.
“I think an optimistic, hopeful outcome is nonetheless one in which some pockets of insurgency persist after 2014, but are contained and hopefully degraded over time primarily by the Afghans themselves,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “For us the key is that no large sanctuaries develop. I am optimistic on these points.”
Pessimists, including many Afghans, fear that once the foreign troops leave, the country will descend into a new civil war.
Gov. Mohammed Anwar Jigdalik of Kunduz province said his fellow northerners are already rearming in the belief that the Taliban are “coming with weapons to take them over.”
“All of Afghanistan would welcome reconciliation but people are afraid,” he said. “Now people are rearming.”
Patrick Quinn is The AP’s news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has reported from the region for a decade.