US military families bemoan ‘endless’ Afghan war

US announces it will slow American forces drawdown in Afghanistan amid increasing fears of Taliban-led civil war.

United States
Obama shakes hands with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Washington on Tuesday [AP]

New York City, United States – Pat Alviso, the mother of a US marine who was left half-deaf after five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, keeps close tabs on US deployments overseas.

A White House decision on Tuesday to slow the US troop departure from Afghanistan came as no surprise.

“We figured that [Afghan President] Ashraf Ghani coming to the White House – and him being very public about wanting continued US military help – was a sign they’ll make a deal and continue our troop presence throughout 2015,” Alviso told Al Jazeera. 

“We’re disturbed and worried. It’s like a downward spiral for us with these endless wars.”

On Tuesday, the White House announced plans to maintain its current posture of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2015 – rather than follow an original drawdown schedule that would have roughly halved the US presence by the end of the year.

 Afghan president in Washington 

“We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed, so we don’t have to go back,” US President Barack Obama said, amid fears of an Iraq-style backslide into the chaos of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the US pullout there.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Ghani, Obama said the timeline for drawing down had not changed from his previous goal of 2017, when some 1,000 US forces will stay as a “Kabul-based embassy presence”.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he would seek to keep funding Afghan security forces at a planned peak level of 352,000 personnel at least into 2017.

Obama has promised to end the longest US war, which began in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington – and get the remaining troops out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in January 2017. 

His decision to slow the drawdown came amid concerns that vacating US forces from Iraq in 2011 left that country prone to blitzkrieg attacks by ISIL, a Sunni Muslim militia that has seized vast areas on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Ghani had asked for an extension of US support in the face of weaknesses in the Afghan security forces, heavy casualties in the army and police, an anticipated Taliban spring offensive and fears that ISIL fighters will gain footholds amid the turmoil.

Civil war fears

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security analyst at Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, said Obama made the “right decision”, which would boost morale among Afghan security forces battling Taliban fighters.

“The White House has moved away from a timeline-based approach, which was US policy since ‘the surge’ of 2009, towards responding to conditions on the ground,” Felbab-Brown told Al Jazeera. “Sadly it comes vary late in the policy and is driven by IS and fears that Afghanistan was on the verge of civil war.”

During his five-day US visit, Ghani – a former World Bank official who formed a power-sharing government with his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, after a disputed election – repeatedly stressed the sacrifice of the 2,215 US servicemen who have died in Afghanistan.

Ghani’s manner was a welcome change for a White House that had grown frustrated by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who blamed Washington for prolonging the war and refused to sign a security deal needed for US troops to remain in Afghanistan. 

An Afghan policeman adjusts his weapon at the scene of a suicide attack [AFP]
An Afghan policeman adjusts his weapon at the scene of a suicide attack [AFP]

Instead, Ghani showed appreciation for the $60bn the US has spent on Afghanistan’s military, saying: “The train, advise and assist mission is a vital part of our collective interests and collective endeavours. Tragedy brought us together; interests now unite us.”

On Wednesday, he will address Congress in an effort to win support among the lawmakers who control aid and military budgets, before heading to New York and speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank.

Dangerous enemies

Michael O’Hanlon, a former security analyst for the US Congress, said the US should maintain military bases in Afghanistan in order to continue drone strikes and other counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda – the architects of the September attacks that drew US and international forces into Afghanistan.

“Instead of leaving by a given date, we should plan to stay and build an enduring partnership to finally provide a real payoff for all our investment there – in durable bases allowing our forces to continue to target our most dangerous enemies,” O’Hanlon told Al Jazeera.

Others were sceptical.

Matthew Hoh, a former State Department official who quit in 2009 over Afghan policy, described a war that has failed in its goal of defeating the Taliban and yielded a “kleptocracy of warlords and drug barons sustained by US cash and soldiers”.

“Obama will maintain substantial US forces in Afghanistan to keep Ghani in power for as long as Obama is in office,” said Hoh. “This is to stave off domestic political embarrassment and criticism in light of the renewed civil war in Iraq, and the failure of policies on Libya and Yemen.” 

Anand Gopal, author of a book about the Afghan war called No Good Men Among the Living, agreed citing a death toll of Afghan civilians that grew to 3,699 last year – the highest figure since the UN started counting in 2007.

“These White House decisions imply there’s a foreseeable time when Afghanistan will have a functioning government, and that’s just not the case,” Gopal told Al Jazeera. “On one hand, Ghani is beholden to foreign aid, and on the other he is constrained by warlords and powerful strongmen in the countryside.”

We can't even figure out where they're going to go next. There's talk about Yemen, there's talk of everywhere - endless wars.

by Pat Alviso, mother of wounded US Marine

Ghani’s presidency has sparked some optimism, but Afghans remain wary as foreign forces and aid workers vacate. Opium farmers still produce 90 percent of global supply and the country ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt, according to watchdog Transparency International.

Nearly four in 10 Afghans said the country will get worse when foreign troops leave, and about half said the Taliban presence will increase, according to a January Gallup poll. More than two-thirds of Afghans said economic conditions were getting worse.

‘Endless wars’

For Felbab-Brown, Taliban leaders will continue peace talks with the government, but simultaneously battle national forces well into 2016 in the hope of gaining more political influence once the US has withdrawn to its diplomatic outposts.

“Three years down the road, we could have an Afghanistan that has collapsed into a vicious civil war, despite the investment of the international community, or we could have a country that muddles along, is still not a great place to live, but does not fall apart,” she said.

For Alviso, the mother of a first sergeant in the Marine Corp who also coordinates the US campaign group Military Families Speak Out, the US departure cannot come soon enough. The costs of death, injury and mental trauma among servicemen is too high, she said.

“If you count the first Gulf War, we’ve been bombing and putting our loved ones out there, on the line, for 24 years now. And it’s not getting any safer,” said Alviso.

“We can’t even figure out where they’re going to go next. There’s talk about Yemen, there’s talk of everywhere – endless wars.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera