America’s war in Afghanistan, now into its seventeenth year, is the longest war in US history according to the most widely accepted metric. The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 with the aim of defeating the ruling Taliban for supporting Al-Qaeda leaders, whom the US accused of perpetrating the 9/11 attacks. As per the CNN, “The Taliban offered to hand over [Al-Qaeda leader] Bin Laden for trial, but only to a third country, rather than directly to the United States. Washington refused the offer and launched air and ground attacks, joined shortly thereafter by US allies.” While the official rule of the Taliban ended within a few months of the invasion, the war is far from over even today, with the situation becoming even more complex in recent years.
As always, it is the citizens who have borne the brunt of the war. Over 31,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the war, with an additional 42,000 injured, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project, although the figures stand much higher as per various other estimates. Suicide and bomb attacks at mosques, funerals, bazaars, and other public places have been common in Afghanistan since the US invasion, and show no signs of subsiding. Lawlessness is rampant in much of the country, the infamous narcotics production is perhaps the only thriving industry, and the level of corruption in US-backed Afghan governments remains high.
In recent months, there has been an alarming increase in deadly attacks in Afghanistan – an obvious indication of America’s failed policy in the country. For example, in January 2018, gunmen attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing 22 people, followed a few days later by an ambulance packed with explosives blowing up in the capital, killing 103 people. Similar attacks have occurred with increasing regularity since then, as the Afghan government and US forces miserably fail to curb terrorist attacks. In fact, a recent air strike by the Afghan government targeting a madrassah in the north of the country – where Taliban leaders were allegedly present – killed over 100 people, including dozens of schoolchildren.
To add to the chaos in Afghanistan, the attitude of US and NATO troops present in the country over the years has been nothing short of atrocious. For instance, in 2012, US troops in Afghanistan blasphemously burned about 100 copies of the Quran, leading to riots across the country. In another infamous episode, US Marines filmed themselves urinating on the corpses of enemy fighters. During the same year, an American soldier went from house to house in rural Kandahar, shooting men, women, and children to death, before dragging their bodies out of the houses, and setting them on fire; he killed at least 16 people, including 9 children and toddlers, in this brutal terrorist act. In 2016, a probe in the USA revealed that US troops had resorted to “war crimes of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape” in secret detention facilities run by the CIA in Afghanistan.
A further indication of US failure in Afghanistan is the huge losses it has incurred in the war. Over 2,400 US military men have died in Afghanistan since the invasion, with another 17,000 Americans wounded. America has spent over $783 billion in direct war appropriations in Afghanistan, while the total cost of the war for the US has been over $1.8 trillion – without much to show for it either. As per the latest data released by the US military, the US-backed Afghan government can claim to control or influence only 57 percent of the Afghan territory – down from 72 percent in November 2015. This deteriorating situation in the country is not lost on the Afghan people – over 61 percent believe their country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a recent survey by Asia Foundation.
The military stalemate between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban factions has allowed other militant organizations to find safe havens in the administratively vacant lands of Afghanistan. Daesh, in particular, is fast establishing a stronghold in the country despite its recent defeats in Iraq and Syria. Such militant organizations have not only consistently targeted Afghan citizens, but have also used Afghan soil to conduct terrorist attacks across the border into Pakistan. While the US is shamelessly blaming Pakistan for allegedly harbouring militants – thus making Pakistan “a scapegoat for its own failures”, as noted by Pakistani officials – the fact remains that US cannot hope to achieve much in Afghanistan while half the country is controlled or contested by anti-US elements, coupled with a deep distrust of US presence among most Afghan civilians.
It is worth noting that Pakistan has also suffered largely from America’s misadventures in Afghanistan, with the war spilling over into the neighboring country, and militants crossing the porous border back and forth. Over 74,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives due to terrorism – almost non-existent in Pakistan prior to 2001 – while the country has incurred over $123 billion in economic losses over the past 14 years. The US has routinely conducted drone attacks into Pakistan that have killed thousands of civilians. According to one estimate quoted by the Costs of War project, about 3,800 Pakistanis were killed by the US through drone attacks between 2001 and 2014, while the total number of war casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan in this period was 149,000.
Moreover, Pakistan’s efforts for a peace process involving the Afghan government and the Taliban have been repeatedly foiled by the USA. For example, days after Pakistani and Afghan officials met in Islamabad in 2016 as part of such a reconciliatory process, Americans killed the then Taliban leader, Mullah Mansoor, in a drone strike, thereby derailing the peace negotiations, and vanquishing any hope for stability in the region for some time to come.
The mess created by the US in Afghanistan is more evident today than ever before. Through its poorly executed policies and military adventures, the US has facilitated the rise of new militant groups that never existed prior to its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. An expert with the Institute for the Study of War, Caitlin Forrest, states, “The Afghanistan war is almost old enough to vote, and we have more groups that want to launch attacks against the U.S. operating there than we did when we started.” Furthermore, US Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, was forced to admit that “the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018…” This statement is an acknowledgment of the obvious – America’s inability to control or redeem the situation it has largely contributed to causing in Afghanistan.
With only about 9,000 US troops presently in Afghanistan to help “win” the war – something 140,000 US and NATO troops failed to achieve in 2010 – there is absolutely no hope for the Afghan government defeating the militants on the battlefield. Therefore, the most realistic hope for the government lies in renewing the peace process with the reconcilable factions of the Taliban – something Pakistan has long been calling for. It is only through negotiations and diplomacy that the region can gradually be de-militarised, and life can once again begin returning to normal in what is known as the “Graveyard of Empires” – Afghanistan.