On Sunday, October 7, 2001 just four weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush announced the beginning of a military campaign against the Taliban government of Afghanistan. The initial action involved air attacks against Taliban military targets and Al Qaeda training camps. This was in response to the Taliban's refusal to comply with Bush's earlier demand that Al Qaeda operatives be handed over to the U.S. and their training camps be shut down. Bush described the action as "carefully targeted," and said its aim was to "cut the military capability of the Taliban regime."
Now after ten years, $455 billion and thousands of battle deaths and casualties retiring Secretary of Defense Gates recently said: “We’ve still got a ways to go, and I think we shouldn’t let up on the gas too much, at least for the next few months.”
Gates cites "progress" in the diminution of Taliban forces and the extent of their geographical control of areas of the country and his hope that this progress will encourage the Taliban to "negotiate" an end to the conflict. But this cautiously worded statement is essentially an admission that the best case military scenario after ten years, is stalemate. Time, as it always has been, is on the side of the Taliban. Known as the mujahideen before an offshoot known as the Taliban was organized, Afghan insurgents fought the former Soviet Union to a ten year defeat from 1979 to 1989.
Over the years the strategy of the U.S. has changed from Bush’s announced goal of cutting the Taliban’s military capability and harboring international terrorists, to a combined strategy of counter insurgency and “nation building”. In theory this would create a changed cultural and economic environment that would be resistant to the harsh Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban. But nowhere on the planet are the raw materials for nation building less available than in Afghanistan. The policy was misguided from its inception. The Taliban government was quickly overthrown in 2001 and a year of vigorous ground based military action would have imposed significant damage to the Taliban’s “military capability” and incentive to provide a safe haven for international terrorists. But the Afghan mission took a back seat to the 2003 Iraq invasion and until General Petraeus’ thirty thousand man troop surge under President Obama, nation building seemed to be the preferred broad strategy.
A few facts highlights the improbability of remaking Afghanistan into a stable, liberalized even quasi-democratic nation.
From the first influence of the European powers in Afghanistan in the early 1800s, centered mainly around British and Russian competition, through the defeat of the Taliban by U.S. led NATO forces, Afghanistan has never experienced anything but tribal based authoritarian governments of kings and dictators. There is no politically liberal or democratic tradition or even failed experiments, to build on.
There are seven major ethnic groups and numerous tribes speaking three major and thirty minor languages. Afghan cultural/political self identification is based more, in varying degrees, on tribal, extended family, and regional identification than on national identity.
Seventy-seven percent of the population resides in rural areas with a literacy rate of 28% (literacy among females is 12.6%). Gross Domestic Product (the annual value of all domestically produced goods and services) per capita is just $900 which is 217th out of 228 in the world. The economy produces little for export except opium and imports much, which results in a trade deficit currently of $2.475 billion financed largely by international aid.
The current government of Hamid Karzai is widely accused of being corrupt, and without U.S. financial support and military protection would (and will) almost certainly fall. U.S. policy seems to be one of holding on until the Afghan military is able to stand on its own to resist the Taliban insurgency. The military however has been infiltrated by insurgents willing to carry out suicide attacks on both NATO troops and Afghan government troops and police. The Taliban may well decide to “negotiate” some kind of power sharing scheme in order to expedite the withdrawal of U.S. forces, (our NATO partners are already facing political realities both domestic and in Afghanistan and withdrawing). The Taliban might also let these same political realities play out in the case of the U.S., knowing that as President Obama faces a tough reelection in 2012 he will be under enormous pressure from both the Democratic Left and the war weary independents and political conservatives to withdraw.
The current Obama timetable for beginning to withdraw the “surge” forces is July of this year, the process that Gates wants to delay. Whenever the process of withdrawal begins the overall strategy has no “victory scenario” as Gates’ hopeful forecast of negotiations makes clear.
The time for withdrawal has come. It is no longer a matter of liberal vs. conservative politics. The military response to Taliban participation in the 9/11 attacks was proper and justified. The short term goals of the overthrow of the Taliban government and diminution of their military strength were accomplished long ago. The efforts since then have ignored history, the difference in cultures and political realities. No more young American men should die in pursuit of a tenuous political compromise with a political bloc built around a pre-medieval religious based ideology.
One day after this commentary was posted, an article appeared in the NY Times regarding a report on U.S. aid to Afghanistan prepared by the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Below are pertinent excerpts from that article.
"Foreign military and development funds now account for such an overwhelming share of the Afghan economy — equivalent to 97 percent of its gross economic product, by one estimate — that there is a real possibility of a “severe economic depression when foreign troops leave,” according to the report.
Too much money spent with too little oversight has fueled corruption and waste, the report says. For example, one program authorizes the payment of up to $100,000 a month to Afghan provincial leaders for local projects, “a tidal wave of funding” that can be difficult to efficiently and fairly absorb, it says.
". . . they question some key assumptions behind the nation-building work, specifically the notion that poverty, joblessness and lack of education have fueled extremism and insurgency.
Indeed, World Bank figures quoted in the report seem to contradict that assumption: Some of the most insurgency-plagued Afghan provinces, like Helmand and Kandahar, have relatively low poverty rates of less than 30 percent, while more peaceful provinces in central and northern Afghanistan have poverty rates as high as 58 percent, as in Balk Province.
“It is generally not the case that a lack of schools or roads drives conflict,” the report quotes Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAID, as saying. “Often the situation is far subtler, having to do with local power dynamics or long-held grudges.”