US gains in Afghanistan fragile, uncertain

What has been gained in Afghanistan a decade after the US invaded the country as part of Bush’s ‘war on terror’?

Afghan attack
A recent attack on Kabul’s military enclave resulted in a 20-hour battle [Reuters] 


Most Americans – indeed, most of the western world – are done with memorialising the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The presenters have left the Ground Zero site in New York, and interviews with family members of those killed in the attacks are no longer on prime time.

For another country, half the world away, it was nearly a month after the attacks that their skies turned dark. As of October 7, it will have been a decade since the US and its allies invaded – and by some accounts, occupied – Afghanistan.

But what has been achieved?

George W Bush, then in his first term as US president, ordered the attacks on Afghanistan because, he said, of the Taliban’s support of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, seen as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

The primary goal of the campaign, according to President Bush, was to show “the oppressed people of Afghanistan… the generosity of America” via aid for the “starving and suffering men and women and children”. 

But 10 years after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, with Bin Laden finally killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan is still considered a failed state. The war, now considered the US’s longest, continues with civilian deaths increasing  and attacks -suicide bombings or assassinations of officials – still part of daily life in the country. 

President Barack Obama announced in June that the US would withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and pull out an additional 23,000  or so by the end of the following summer. Withdrawing troops in the midst of conflict seems an odd strategy for victory. But the idea is to transfer security duty to Afghan forces by some point in 2014.

Whether the struggling Afghan security forces are ready for the handover – crucial to maintaining delicate gains   remains unknown.

US now aims for ‘managed instability’

The US public’s interest in the war continues to decline as the years wear on – according to the Pew Research Centre, the percentage of Americans closely following the war has dropped from 40 per cent to 25 per cent over the past two years. As the war continues, at great fiscal and human cost, the question of what the end of it will look like and what security goals have been met remains open.

Ronald Neumann, who was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, told Al Jazeera that the notion of deteriorating security is “a popular impression”.

“[But] that is an overgeneralisation of situations that are very different from one place to another.”

Still, he concedes that it’s “hard to make sense out of what’s going on”.

Read more of our coverage of the 9/11 Decade

“Things are more secure now, in some areas that saw heavy fighting, than they were two years ago. The attacks and targeted assassination attempts have more of a psychological effect than [an] actual impact on security since they rarely reach important people or institutions,” said Neumann.

Obama’s decision to pull out a significant number of troops by next summer will increase the risks of a failed handoff, Neumann said. “I think people are acting as though the strategy has already been tested and putting it on an automatic timetable… Conditions matter more than timelines.”

Robert Grenier, the former director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Centre, said that while he feels the US has “largely succeeded” in its aim of removing a terrorist safe haven, he thinks that it “has greatly scaled back its aspirations for Afghanistan, although it hasn’t formally admitted it”.

“The new goal is managed instability.”

But even that view is more optimistic than the way many Afghans see it.

“There are concerns that after the full withdrawal of the international forces Afghanistan will again fall to the situation it was in the 1990s,” said Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan researcher. 

“But this time the civil war would be more bloody and will claim much more lives and [cause more] devastation than it did in the 1990s.” 

The biggest fear, she added, is that “the international community will forget Afghanistan once again and will turn their back to the people and this is the fear of the majority Afghans there.”

The key, it seems, is to somehow strike a balance between withdrawing troops while maintaining sufficient support for Afghan security forces, said Matt Southworth, legislative associate for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a non-profit public interest group with links to Quaker peace-makers.

“Security in Afghanistan means more than just military bases and a trained Afghan army. When the US leaves, physical security in some areas of the country will improve, while in some areas security will deteriorate,” said Southworth, who recently organised an under-the-radar trip for Congressional staff to Afghanistan looking to investigate “ground truths” there.

“We must have a full spectrum transition, which includes economic and political transitions, if true – not absolute -‘security’ is to be achieved.”

Talking to the Taliban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in June that peace talks with the Taliban were in the works – a remarkable turn of events considering that the Bush administration refused to negotiate with the Taliban when they offered to hand over Bin Laden in 2001.

So, what changed? The country is no longer under Taliban rule, access to basic services has increased and the country’s GDP has grown. Despite this, much remains the same.

The heavy attack on key security targets in Kabul on September 13 –  which has been blamed on both the Taliban and the Haqqani network – is just the latest reminder that anti-government groups continue to flex their muscles in the Afghan capital. 

So can the US deliver on its promises of freedom and democracy for Afghanistan with the Taliban, who Bush equated with “barbaric criminals” for supporting al-Qaeda, having a legitimate role in the country’s governance?

“As an Afghan educated and working woman I really don’t feel safe under Taliban,” said Heela Barakzai, a human rights worker from Kandahar.

“Giving a seat to Taliban in government is really a big concern to Afghan women and we don’t feel secure and confident for having our basic rights to education, employment, health and anti-harassment and violence under the Taliban.”

Mosadiq, meanwhile, points to incidents such as last year’s stoning of a couple in Kunduz as well as the execution  of a widow in Badghis province as reasons why the thought of giving the group legitimacy is alarming to some Afghans.

But it looks like the options are limited at the moment.

“The Obama administration has concluded that we are unable to produce permanent stability in Afghanistan at a price that the American public is willing to bear. And so rather than pursuing an ideal outcome, we’re trying to avoid a disastrous outcome,” said Grenier.

“The 2014 presence will be designed to ensure that the Taliban cannot defeat the regime in Kabul, and secondly to provide the US with a platform to strike at terrorist bases.”

When asked if he thinks that the US can achieve bringing security, democracy and more rights for women in Afghanistan while considering dealing with the Taliban, Neumann simply replied with, “Would you settle for a very strong maybe?”

Pakistan’s security threat

Upon leaving his post as the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff last week, Admiral Michael Mullen said what has been obvious to many for years – that stability in Pakistan holds the key to stability in the region.

I continue to believe that there is no solution in the region without Pakistan, and no stable future in the region without a partnership,” Mullen said. This followed what he said last week, which was that Pakistan exports instability and violence into Afghanistan.

The country shares what can at best be described as a soft border with Pakistan through which fighters and weapons seem to flow, including support for the fierce Haqqani network.

If by some chance Afghanistan does not fall into some sort of tribal civil war after the troop drawdown, destabilising forces in Pakistan will wreak havoc there, Neumann said.

“If the state collapses, not only will you have a civil war, but Pakistan’s fear of India [the two countries have been locked in a bitter dispute over the Kashmir region] will lead to increased support for extremists,” said Neumann.

“So you not only have destabilisation of Afghanistan, but further destabilisation in Pakistan,” Neumann said.

Indeed, Grenier, who was also Chief of Station in Islamabad from 1999 to 2002 (where he had responsibility for Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban) said that there is a direct relationship between the spikes in violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Events in one place have an immediate effect in another,” said Grenier.

“Militants are launching attacks back and forth. The army in Pakistan is concerned with groups that pose an immediate threat to them as opposed to in Afghanistan.”

In other words, over-extended Pakistani security forces are reluctant to take action against a group of fighters if it could prompt further cohesion between anti-government groups there and in Afghanistan.

A decade’s worth of tough lessons

Just what the US should glean from its drawn-out experiences in Afghanistan is up for debate.

Barakzai and Mosadiq place emphasis on things like the need to improve how information is collected on insurgents – who they are and where they really come from – as well as focusing on urging the Afghan government to improve women’s access to healthcare and education while restoring justice and accountability there.

Southworth also feels that the US has failed in what he calls “the soft side” of its operations in Afghanistan, such as “development and human needs projects”.

“I hope the US has learned that an adequately funded State Department not under constant threat of budget cuts is the key to fulfilling these kinds of obligations,” said Southworth.

Grenier takes a more tactical view of US missteps in Afghanistan.

“The major mistake that the US has made in Afghanistan was in thinking it could fundamentally change the nature of the Afghan social and political system very rapidly. We’ve been trying to produce an American solution rather than an Afghan solution,” he said, adding that such a solution would be a decentralised, not necessarily coming from the capital.

But when did things start to go wrong?

“I think two things happened. I think the initial victory over the Taliban came too easily. Our victory was deceptively easy. And slowly, as the Taliban came to reassert itself, US impatience with the limited abilities of the government in Kabul lead the US military to try to take the lead itself, and that was a huge mistake,” said Grenier.

Despite having varied opinions of what could be learned in the fog of war that has been a decade – thus far – in Afghanistan, everyone interviewed by Al Jazeera for this story agreed that the US did not properly articulate its goals in Afghanistan to Afghans themselves.

In fact, 10 years on, they’re still not sure what the US is really doing there, so much so that Neumann recalled how on a recent trip to Afghanistan, Karzai said to him, point-blank, “we don’t know what you Americans are planning.”

“So what you really have is a question of where Afghan will is going to be over the next year or two … it is confused by fact that a lot of Afghans have difficulty figuring out what our intentions are,” said Neumann.

Some Afghans see the US as occupiers, while others believe “they are here as donors and relief workers and some think of them as peace keepers,” Barakzai said.

If looking back for lessons seems difficult, its nothing compared to trying to figure out how things might shake out in the future. But whatever happens, there will be more pain for Afghans.

“It’s very hard, especially from a distance, to measure this…Afghans have been through so much blood that there’s a pretty high pain threshold,” said Neumann.

“What do you do about hope? Foreigners are always excessive in their judgment of other people’s hope.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera