Nothing More to be Done: Success or Failure, it is Past Time to Get Out of Afghanistan
On April 14 this year, US President Joe Biden formally announced the end of America’s longest war. The remaining 3,500 US troops stationed in Afghanistan will return home by September 11, 2021 — exactly 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Additional troops from allied nations still stationed in Afghanistan are also expected to withdraw within a similar timeframe. This decision brings an end to a conflict that has claimed well over 100,000 Afghan lives, as well as the lives of over 4,000 Coalition troops. But despite this devastating loss of life, there remains concerns that withdrawal from the country could lead to renewed violence and, in the worst case, the Taliban’s return to power. All of this begs the question: what was it all for?
The Endless War
The War in Afghanistan has become a textbook example of the problem of “Mission Creep”, where military objectives tend to broaden beyond their initial scope. Following the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda, topple the regime that harboured them, and prevent Afghanistan from being a future staging ground for terrorist groups by installing a stable, US-friendly government. For the most part, these goals have been achieved. The Taliban Government was ousted and a republican government took its place. Osama Bin Laden, as well as many other Al Qaeda leaders, have been tracked down and eliminated. Any terrorist groups that were operating in Afghanistan have been forced to relocate elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa region.
However, in the process of achieving these goals, the US and its allies have found their mission profile expanding rapidly. Building a lasting, stable democracy in Afghanistan has required investment in education and infrastructure, the modernisation of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the tackling of government corruption and even the reformation of Afghanistan’s prison system to prevent it from being a recruiting ground for the Taliban. The US and its allies have also gone to great lengths to empower women in a society that has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to ensure their equal participation in the democratic process. The results of these efforts have been mixed.
Success or Failure
Roya Rahmini, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, insists there has been a “shift in mindset” in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Rahmini maintains there is an increased willingness among Afghan citizens to participate in democracy, and greater acceptance towards equality of the sexes. Similarly, Professor Elise Labott claims that while the Taliban may hold sway over remote areas, in the central cities there is an entire generation of Afghans who have grown up living in a democracy. It would be harder to convince such a generation to give up their more liberal way of life.
However, the Afghan Government still lacks widespread appeal. The administration of President Ashraf Ghani remains a largely Pashtun-speaking aristocracy that lacks legitimacy outside the principal cities — particularly in the Tajik and Uzbek-dominated North. Regional governors are sent directly from Kabul, and with no stake in the area they are governing, tend to see their appointments as transitional. They govern with short time horizons and with no accountability to the local population.
Corruption is another problem. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, bribery and corruption consumes roughly 23 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP. This corruption extends to the ANSF. Officers frequently fill their rosters with “ghost soldiers'' who do not exist, and keep the additional salaries for themselves. Consequently, the Afghan National Army is chronically short-staffed yet, at the same time, hopelessly over-budget. Frontline units report having to ration ammunition and basic supplies, and individual soldiers and police officers describe not being paid for months. Many police and army personnel simply abandon their posts, taking their weapons with them and often selling these to the Taliban to feed their families.
It is these shortcomings that lead experts to worry that the current government will collapse soon after the withdrawal. John Bolton, National Security Advisor to former President Donald Trump, argues that the withdrawal could be costlier than staying. According to Bolton, US and Coalition forces have been out of the firing line for several years now and merely provide training and logistical support. Without this support, there is the risk that the ANSF could quickly collapse to the Taliban after the withdrawal.
Similarly, Steven Cook, from the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that the idea that Afghanistan has been a “forever war” is misguided and harmful. Cook argues that an enduring US presence in Afghanistan need not constitute an ongoing war, just as the enduring US presences in Germany, Japan or many African and Middle Eastern countries do not constitute “wars”. The “forever war" discourse fails to recognise that the US has been a constructive actor in the region, and can maintain a low-cost presence to keep the country from slipping into chaos.
Nothing more to be done
The problem with this line of argument is that if 20 years of Western involvement did not solve Afghanistan’s problems, what can a few more achieve? Widespread corruption and misappropriation of US aid has continued for 20 years unabated. Twenty years of US training and arms supply has not assisted a bloated and ineffective ANSF. Twenty years of a Western military presence and billions sent in economic aid has failed to soften the Taliban’s resolve — if anything, it has strengthened it.
There is nothing more the US and its allies can do. A return to power for the Taliban is not something that can be prevented by one, five or ten more years of American presence. The war in Afghanistan is, like all modern wars, no longer a challenge to be won by force but a messy, political struggle for a particular vision of the country. The last twenty years of US involvement has shown that a democratic vision of Afghanistan cannot triumph through the application of Western arms. While a better approach may or may not include US engagement, Biden’s withdrawal is clearly a step in the right direction.
Oscar Eggleton holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies (Honours Class I) from the University of Sydney. He is interested in political theory, environmental and digital governance, international political economy and security studies.