Afghanistan has always been the graveyard of empires, and it will be no different this time for the US. It is just that successive American administrations have refused to concede defeat, believing that by maintaining a presence on the ground they can safeguard America’s broader strategic interests.
In the end it will drain their resources and weaken their ability to maintain global dominance. This is already America’s longest war, and over the past 16 years it has already cost US taxpayers over a trillion dollars. This year it is estimated the war will cost US taxpayers $50 billion - almost a billion dollars a week.
The Soviet Union only managed to occupy Afghanistan for 10 years from 1979-1989, and when it was routed by the CIA-backed Mujahadeen, it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the Russians it was the British that had a hard time occupying the country for long, thus keeping their interventions short, even at the height of the British empire. Before the British it was the greatly feared Mongols of Ghengis Khan who had war victories in Afghanistan but were unable to control the territory for long. All the way back to Alexander the Great, the resilience of Afghan warriors have always fought off foreign occupation. The one thing that has always unified the Afghan tribes is their pride in independence.
Today it is the Taliban, who were originally the students of the CIA-funded Mujahadeen, who say “the Americans have the clock, but we have the time". After a decade and a half of war, estimates are that the Taliban controls 45-50 per cent of the country, and the central government controls minimal territory outside of the capital Kabul. Despite US training to Afghan security forces, they are unable to defeat the Taliban which uses the rugged mountainous terrain to hide and then attack.
America has lost over 2,404 soldiers in Afghanistan, with 20,000 suffering injuries. This pales in comparison to the 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, who are estimated to have been killed in the conflict.
It is no wonder that in 2013 Donald Trump tweeted, “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first.” But that strategy was tried by President Barack Obama and failed.
It was President George W. Bush who decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks, in “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Within a year 10,000 US soldiers had been deployed to Afghanistan, and by 2008 there were 48,500 American soldiers on the ground.
These were soldiers who didn’t know the language, the culture, the religion, the ethnic and sectarian divisions, or the country’s history. The U.S. strategy has been to train an Afghan army that can fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban and then largely withdraw.
The target of a 216,000-strong Afghan army and police force under the Bush presidency in 2007 was not met. The Afghan security force included no serious air force, artillery, logistics or medical services, and the US advisory presence in the army was small. Part of the problem was that US forces and resources were being diverted to the war in Iraq, meaning that the US was operating on multiple fronts.
The Americans also did nothing to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, but instead installed a puppet government in Kabul with no legitimacy. The money earmarked for nation building never reached the people, and perhaps most importantly, there was never a political dialogue with the Taliban on the future of the country.
Then came Obama who pursued a new approach of surging US troops to 100,000 by 2010. His generals promised to break the stalemate, and with the additional NATO troops on the ground the Pentagon thought their objectives were realizable.
But the Obama administration only grudgingly provided the resources necessary to avoid outright failure. The strategy of trying to build an Afghan security structure that could successfully combat the Taliban was undermined. Virtually every aspect of US training provided to Afghan forces was rushed and under-resourced.
Not having come any closer to defeating the Taliban despite the massive number of US troops on the ground, the goal of the Obama White House then became to withdraw US troops involved in active combat by 2014. The Afghan forces were incapable of countering the Taliban, but in a rush to wind down the US mission, Obama declared, “We are no longer at war with the Taliban."
But as Obama’s term drew to a close last year, it became increasingly evident that the Taliban was resurgent, and that the remaining US troops were only enough to prevent immediate defeat. Obama pledged to maintain a presence of around 10,000 US troops on the ground, and now President Donald Trump intends to make the US military presence in Afghanistan permanent.
The flawed rationale for the US remaining in Afghanistan is the subject of part 2 of this 2-part series on failed US policy in Afghanistan. Part 2 can be read in this weekend’s Sunday Independent/Sunday Argus/Tribune.
** Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.