Vol. XLI No. 01 January 01, 2017

Afghanistan: 15 Years after the American Invasion

Yohannan Chemarapally

THIS year marks the 15th anniversary of the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. A decade and a half ago, America had invaded the country overthrowing the Taliban government in Kabul. It did not take much time for the American military to drive out the Taliban from the capital and other major Afghan cities with the help of the Northern Alliance and an assorted set of warlords. The Bush administration was quick to declare victory and wasted no time in preparing for the next invasion – that of Iraq in 2003. Fifteen years later, after expending billions of dollars of the American tax payers money, both Afghanistan and Iraq are in deep political and military turmoil.

In Afghanistan, within a span of few years, the Taliban had rebounded, despite the American government having spent more than $800 billion in the country since 2002. Before the American intervention, there were very few cases of terrorism related incidents in Afghanistan. But after the American intervention in 2002 there were cases of over 9000 terrorist attacks till last year. The majority of the terror attacks took place after President Barack Obama ordered his “military surge” in Afghanistan in 2009. 

The US has spent $113 billion in reconstruction efforts alone. But there is nothing much to show about the results. Much of the money has been diverted to projects in urban areas, lining the pockets of politicians and warlords. Many projects were never completed. The rural areas, where 70 percent of Afghans live, was mostly ignored. This has fueled resentment and helped the Taliban. More than two thousand Americans have lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed during and after the American invasion of the country. In all, according to most estimates, more than 3,00,000 Afghans have lost their lives as a result of the American military intervention and rise of warlordism and crime since then. After the Obama administration embraced “drone warfare” in a big way, Afghanistan now has the distinction of being the “most drone bombed” country in the world. The drone attacks have resulted in a lot of collateral damage with the civilian population facing the brunt.

Today, it is only the continued American military presence in the country that keeps the Taliban from taking over major cities. Around 10,000 American troops still remain in Afghanistan, along with 5000 more troops from allied NATO countries. Their presence was crucial to the removal of the Taliban from Kunduz. The Taliban has managed to capture the city of Kunduz twice from the central government in Kabul since the end of last year. Only two-thirds of the country today is under government control. The southern province of Oruzgan, according to recent reports, is on the verge of being overrun by the Taliban. The numbers of Afghan soldiers and police leaving their posts and surrendering to the Taliban have increased in recent months according to a report submitted to the US Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. The Afghan army is now at only 87 percent of its authorised strength of 1,70,000. The American Inspector General's report confirmed that 33 out of Afghanistan's 400 districts were under the control or influence of the Taliban. 116 districts were hotly contested.

The warlords aligned to the government, like the vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, are straining on the leash. Dostum, who claims the leadership of the Uzbek minority in the country, is now openly threatening rebellion from his base in the city of Mazhar-I-Sharif. He has fallen out with the president, Ashraf Ghani, alleging that he has been politically sidelined in Kabul. President Ghani on his part, has reminded the notorious Uzbek warlord that he could be made accountable for the war crimes he has committed since the early 1990's. Dostum was the man who had betrayed the last progressive president of the country, Mohammed Najibullah, to the blood thirsty Afghan Mujahedin after the country fell into their hands in 1992.

The Mujahedin had won the Afghan civil war of the 1970's and the 1980's with the support of the Americans and their regional allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. On July 3, 1979, President Jimmy Carter had first authorised the delivery of covert aid to religious fundamentalists and tribal warlords fighting against the Left wing government in Kabul. The Americans had also trained and financed the hordes of fighters from Muslim countries who had converged in Pakistan to fight the “holy war” in Afghanistan against the secular government that was in power in Kabul.

Among the fighters trained by the CIA were Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former and current head of the al Qaeda. After the Taliban took over Kabul in the mid-nineties, it offered the al Qaeda leadership refuge on Afghan territory. The Bush administration had gone to war in Afghanistan blaming the al Qaeda leadership based in Afghanistan for the 9/11 terror attacks, the biggest staged so far on American soil. It was in a way blow back for America's original intervention in Afghanistan, which was then viewed as an anti-Soviet and anti-communist crusade. Osama was killed under dramatic circumstances by US Special forces in Pakistan. Zawahiri is said to be hiding somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border in the tribal areas.

According to American military experts themselves, the al Qaeda had ceased to be a serious threat in Afghanistan for some time, their numbers having been significantly reduced. After the American invasion, most of them had fled to more hospitable climes in the Arabian peninsula and beyond. However, now there are reports that many of them are trickling back to the Af-Pak border as the fighting in Afghanistan intensifies. Many of the al Qaeda fighters and supporters have switched allegiance to the Daesh. 

Terror attacks linked to the group have registered an increase in recent months in the Af-Pak region. Hazaras were targeted in a Kabul attack some months ago. More than 50 were killed at a peaceful protest the Hazaras were staging against the government in Kabul. The Hazaras were targeted because they are Shias. The latest large scale terror attack took place in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. The Daesh has claimed responsibility for the raid on a police training school in the city which killed 63 people. The Daesh in Afghanistan has also been involved in turf battles with the Afghan Taliban. A faction of the Pakistan Taliban has already switched allegiance to the Daesh. This is ominous news for the subcontinent, especially as the political and military situation in the Af-Pak-Kashmir theatre deteriorates. After militant groups had consolidated their hold on Afghanistan in 1990's, they had shifted their focus to the Kashmir valley. 

The Afghan Taliban on the other hand has not only showed its staying power but also its military tenacity. Their deep rooted relationship with the Pakistani military establishment also has no doubt helped the Taliban to a great extent. The Taliban has also been able to keep on fighting because of the grass roots support they enjoy in Pashtun dominated areas of the country. Recent months have witnessed an escalation in fighting with the Afghan security forces registering very high casualty rates. From March to August this year, 4,500 Afghan police and soldiers were killed and more than 8000 wounded, according to figures provided by Afghan officials. The security services are now facing a serious recruitment problem. According to reports, the morale of the security forces, in the light of recent reverses, is not very inspiring.

The Afghan people are also terribly disillusioned with the rampant corruption and factionalism they are witnessing. When the Taliban was in power, they had drastically curtailed poppy cultivation and the opium trade. The Taliban government had in fact banned poppy cultivation in 2000, a year before the American invasion. The American invasion has witnessed a reversal. Now there is a boom in the illegal narcotics trade, with the Taliban using its share of the lucrative revenues to finance its struggles and the warlords and the politicians using their share to prop up private militias and salt away the excess revenues in Dubai and other safe havens.

The political establishment in Washington has been differentiating the “good Taliban” from the so-called “bad Taliban” for some time now, after the realisation that the Afghan Taliban could not be militarily defeated. At the height of the American military surge in Afghanistan, more than 1,00,000 American and NATO troops were deployed in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama however had to admit in the last year of his presidency that the “security situation remains precarious” in Afghanistan. He admitted that the Taliban remains a threat “having gained ground in some cases”. In the desperate attempts to find an acceptable end to the political and military impasse in Afghanistan, the Americans have again tried to get serious peace talks kick started.

Representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government met again recently in the Doha, the capital of Qatar. The two sides had first started talking in 2013, encouraged by the United States and Pakistan. The talks had broken down and the Taliban had suspended all contacts with the Americans after the killing of their leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor in a US drone strike in May, this year. A Taliban delegation is reported to have visited Islamabad in late October to brief the Pakistani political and military leadership about the progress made so far in the talks. The Taliban continues to insist that meaningful talks can only begin once all foreign troops depart from Afghan soil.

The Americans and the Pakistanis have also okayed the peace deal signed between the Afghan government and Gulbudin Hekmatyar, another notorious warlord with a lot of blood on his hands. Till recently, his group, the Hizb-I-Islami was an ally of the Taliban. He is probably among the most unloved warlords in his country. He was responsible for barbaric shelling of civilian areas in Kabul when it was in the hands of rival warlords in the early 1990's.  He is still known as the “butcher of Kabul”. A spokesman for the Hekmatyar group said that the Americans were aware of the negotiations between his group and the Afghan government. He expressed optimism that all the sanctions on Hekmatyar and the Hizb-I-Islami will be soon lifted by the American government.

The Obama administration seems to be keen to declare victory in Afghanistan by cobbling together a government of disparate political and ethnic grouping in Kabul. As recent developments indicate, groups like the Taliban and the Hizb-I-Islami will be encouraged to join. But with the Obama administration keen on retaining a military presence in Afghanistan in the form of permanent military bases, it will be difficult for America to extricate itself from the quagmire it finds itself in. Influential American voices like that of the former generals, Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, are calling for another American military surge in Afghanistan. Both of them were commanders of the American military forces in the country and were part of a group of American officials and experts who had issued a statement calling for an “enduring partnership” with Afghanistan.

The authors of the letter claimed that a continued American military presence was necessary to ensure stability in the region. They also argued that Afghanistan is critical for America for the conduct of military operations in the region. America's main enemy in the region is Iran. It, along with other countries like China and Russia, which have stakes in the region, will have reasons to be worried if America extends its military occupation of Afghanistan. Interestingly, India is among the countries, which would like the United States to stay on in Afghanistan. New Delhi fears that if the Taliban comes back, Islamabad will once again regain its strategic depth in the region.