Mission Impossible: Afghanistan


On October 15, United States President Barack Obama stepped away from his campaign pledge to remove all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan. He said that the nearly 10,000 troops that were now in the country would remain and that by the end of the year they would be reduced to half that number. During Obama’s tenure, in other words, U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan. To be fair to Obama, he has cut the U.S. troop presence from 1,00,000 in 2010 to a mere 5,000 at the end of 2015. This is as close to a withdrawal as one might expect from the U.S.

One of the main reasons to retain a military force is that it provides the lever for the U.S. to expand its troops in Afghanistan if necessary. A total withdrawal would give it no standing to increase troop levels without new authorisations from the Afghan government. As it is, these 5,000 troops will provide the basis for an extension as and when the U.S. government wishes. Already the longest war in U.S. history, the Afghan campaign is not to end in the short term. It will extend for at least another few years.

The U.S. has two main strategic goals in Afghanistan—to prevent the return of Al Qaeda and to train the Afghan National Army (ANA). Nothing more is to be expected from the U.S., neither “nation-building” nor an anti-narcotics programme. If these latter form part of the U.S. brief, they only do so marginally. Investment in infrastructure and in social welfare of the population has been minimal. What are colloquially known as the Kabul Kleptocracy and the Poppy Mafia will be untouched by the U.S. presence. In fact, they have established themselves as major players in the very government that the ANA—trained by the U.S.—is pledged to protect.

How does one measure victory or defeat when an occupation force withdraws? If it leaves behind a friendly government and a vanquished enemy, then it is easy to see its occupation as a success. The U.S. occupation of Japan after the Second World War is a case in point. Japan remains a major strategic ally of the U.S. If the occupation force leaves only to find that its friendly government is weakened and its enemies return to power, then it is fair to consider the war a failure.

The United Nations now suggests that the Taliban at present fights for power in over half of the districts of Afghanistan. The seizure of Kunduz in the north-east comes alongside the failure of the ANA to secure Helmand province in the south through its Operation Zulfiqar. In both areas, north and south, the Taliban continues to be a serious force. The U.S. will withdraw its troops slowly, but nonetheless without a decisive defeat to the Taliban. In that case, the U.S. has been defeated in its Afghan war.

Two goals

Obama’s approach in Afghanistan went in two directions —a surge in 2010 that was poised to destroy the morale of the Taliban and a drone policy that was intended to kill Al Qaeda members and affiliated terrorists as well as key Taliban leaders who provided assistance to Al Qaeda. The surge initially cleared large tracts of southern Afghanistan, but the U.S. was not able to pacify the Taliban. As U.S. troops went back to their bases, the Taliban reasserted its positions. Like phantoms its forces emerged at night, able to hold their ground among pockets of the country that support their insurgency.

Two years after the surge, General John Allen looked back at data on Taliban attacks and found that they were down by 3 per cent. This was not “statistically significant”, he admitted. What was the Taliban doing just as the surge ended? Its most active operations were in Panjwai and Zhare in Kandahar and Nad Ali in Helmand. Nad Ali sits beside Marja, where the U.S. troops had begun their surge in 2010, and it is where, this year, the Taliban has made regular attacks at the ANA posts. The long-term effects of the surge have been minimal. Operation Zulfiqar conducted by the ANA in northern Helmand this year also failed to meet its objectives. This means that the first goal of the U.S. mission—to defeat the Taliban and to train the ANA to continue the fight against the Taliban—has not been reached.

The second goal—to vanquish Al Qaeda and its allies —seemed to have been met early in the 2001 bombing campaign. Al Qaeda members either were killed and captured or they fled to their countries of origin. The network appeared broken, with Osama bin Laden on the run and operational ties with its terrorists totally frayed. An intelligence analyst from one of the U.S.’ 17 agencies told me in 2004 that one of the outcomes of the heavy bombardment of Afghanistan was that it would scatter Al Qaeda members around the world. “If you smash the thermometer,” he said, “the mercury will spread everywhere.”

This is precisely what happened as Al Qaeda members got scattered over an extensive geographical range from the Philippines in east Asia to Libya in northern Africa. They brought mayhem to their home countries, particularly in Libya after 2011. Even within the region, Al Qaeda was not easy to defeat. Its members headed to northern Pakistan, where they got involved in local conflicts. The black flag of Al Qaeda could be regularly spotted in small hamlets in northern Waziristan.

The Obama administration built on the George Bush administration’s drone programme as the hammer to beat down the mercury. Between 2011 and 2013, the U.S. conducted Operation Haymaker to take out the main Al Qaeda and associated terrorists in northern Pakistan and in southern Afghanistan.

According to documents leaked to The Intercept, this programme killed few real targets and produced more bitterness and anger. Firstly, about nine of every 10 people killed in these strikes were not the intended targets. This was perhaps through poor intelligence. The source that leaked these documents explained that the U.S. designated “military age males” (MAMs) as reasonable targets and designated those hit as “enemy killed in action” (EKIA). Ryan Devereaux, who wrote one of the stories for The Intercept, said that the targets that did get hit in most cases were neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda “but also local forces with no international terrorism ambitions, groups that took up arms against the U.S. after American air strikes brought the war to their doorsteps”. In other words, according to the U.S. government’s own assessment, the drone wars had no positive strategic effect. In fact, they had the opposite—producing the conditions for the creation of more insurgents.

Kunduz hospital bombing

The prestige of the U.S. fell further with the targeted bombing of a charity hospital in Kunduz during the fightback against the Taliban. The hospital, run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, was hit over a considerable period. The U.S. admitted that it had hit the hospital knowing it was a hospital. That this is itself a war crime did not appear to bother the Pentagon officials, who seem oblivious to considerations of international law. MSF called for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (established by the Geneva Conventions), but this was not to be.

A U.S. tank lumbered into the destroyed hospital, essentially contaminating the evidence that should have been studied by a forensic team. The U.S. military later said that the tank contained its investigators. A U.S. State Department analyst, on condition of anonymity, said that this claim was specious. There is no unanimity in the administration on how to handle the bombing in Kunduz. It will wait until the next leak to The Intercept to establish the chatter inside the Pentagon and the White House over this bombing.

Obama’s team believes that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to emerge as a serious threat to the region. If the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, the view goes, not only the Taliban but also the ISIS will emerge as a serious contender in the country. Obama does not want to preside over that fiasco. It is far better to settle in for an endless war than have to declare defeat.

This article originally appeared in Frontline (India).

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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