War in Afghanistan: Ten years and counting

Any success? The War in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001.

Questions:

1. According to the recent CBS poll 50 per cent of Americans do not consider the war to be a success. What do you think, is it a success or not? And what defines success in this case in your opinion?

2. Ten years ago, international forces and Northern Alliance won what seemed to be a decisive victory on the battlefield. What went wrong since then and what do you think was a turning point in the war?

3. What is your prediction for the future development in Afghanistan, both short and long term?

Answers:

Andrea Lopez, Associate Professor, Political Science, Susquehanna University

1. Frankly, it is still too early to tell. A success would be defined as a stable Afghanistan that is not unfriendly to the United States. It would be an Afghanistan that does not provide support for al Qaeda.

There are positive signs. The surge–the large increase in manpower targeted at the southern regions of the country–put forward by President Obama in 2009 has largely worked. The Taliban no longer controls large swathes of the country. Recent attacks on high ranking officials (e.g., Rabbani) resemble last-ditch efforts more than concerted efforts at weakening their opponents or gaining more supporters.

Nonetheless, the members of this organization remain a significant threat and the Afghan military is still limited in its capacity to confront them. There are other threats to the stability of Afghanistan as well, most notably the Haqqani Network. The inability of the Afghan government to control its country and win over the Pashtun population is worrisome as is the continuing view that the government is corrupt. (I’ll talk about this a bit more below)

2. What went wrong is that the Taliban and other groups mounted an insurgency that the US–and its allies–failed to respond to assertively enough. For most of the first six years of the war, the US had fewer than 30,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan–a country roughly the size of Iraq. NATO and other ISAF members had similar numbers on the ground. The failure of the United States and its allies to place large numbers of troops on the ground led to a power vacuum that the Afghan military and police were unable to fill and that the Taliban and other groups took advantage of. This had two effects: it created the opportunity for rebel groups (e.g., the Taliban and Haqqani Network) to gain recruits, control territory and participate in the drug trade (thereby earning funds) and it also reduced citizens’ trust in the central government. If a government is unable to provide security, it has little legitimacy.

The turning point–though whether it is truly successful is still in the air–was the decision to focus attention on Afghanistan. The increase in manpower to nearly 100,000 by the US and to roughly 40,000 by NATO and other states provided the ability to regain territory that had been under the control of the rebel groups. It provides a window of opportunity for the Afghan government to extend its ability protect the population and to provide the basic elements of governance to regions that are predominantly Pashtun. This is key as it is this segment of the population from whom the Taliban arises.

3. Short term, I’m optimistic. While violence, especially against civilians, has increased, other indicators are going in a positive direction. Opium production is down from about three years ago, the size of the Afghan National Army and police has increased and their preparedness has improved, the number of children attending school and other quality of life indicators have also seen improvement.

Longer term, is still in question. Whether this conflict is a success (creating a stable, not unfriendly Afghanistan) is very much in the hands–not of the US and its allies–but of the Afghan government. Does the Afghan government make a concerted effort to win over the various ethnic groups and unite them under an Afghan flag? To do this, the Afghan government under Karzai must control the perception of favoritism for particular tribes and ethnic groups. To gain the support of the average citizen, corruption must be limited. The perception that the government acts fairly and is accountable to all of its citizens can only strengthen the hand of the government against the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other groups. Yet, this is not something the Americans or its NATO and other allies can do. This is up to the Afghan government.

Sanjoy Banerjee, Chair, International Relations Department, San Francisco State University

1. The war could very easily have been prosecuted far more successfully than it has been. The neglect of the war effort and of the rebuilding of the Afghan state during 2002-2005, due to the distraction of the Iraq war, allowed Pakistan to reestablish the Taliban. The only realistic option available now is to build up the Afghan National Army by paying higher salaries. That way the US can at least withdraw its ground forces.

2. After the ousting of the Taliban, the Bush Administration attacked Iraq and began to neglect the effort in Afghanistan. The US did not follow through on several key promises it made in Afghanistan. It neglected the economic revival of Afghanistan and the building of a reasonable Afghan army and civilian administration. Salaries paid by the Afghan government, which came from the US aid, were extremely low by Afghan standards. Meanwhile, Pakistan carefully rebuilt the Taliban. The turning point came in about 2005 when Taliban attacks increased sharply. That forced the Afghan state and the NATO forces into a vicious cycle. Resisting Taliban attacks led to civilian casualties, which led to more support for the Taliban and more Taliban attacks. When Obama came in, he had to increase US forces massively, bringing on an expensive phase of the war. Obama has raised Afghan army salaries somewhat, but the policy remains penny-wise and pound-foolish.

3. The most hopeful scenario is that the US builds up the Afghan army to about 400,000 before starting to withdraw. The Afghan army can then be deployed along the border with Pakistan to disrupt attacks by the Afghan Taliban and by Pakistani outfits like the Haqqani Network. If the US begins to withdraw while the Afghan army is smaller, very likely the situation that existed in Afghanistan before 9/11/01 will be restored.

Victor Asal, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Rockefeller College, University at Albany

1. I think it is too early to tell. Success means a stable and functioning government and the Taliban reduced to a nuisance at most. American efforts have not delivered this yet and at the moment it looks like a very hard effort ahead. Is it possible that it will be successful in the future? Yes. Is it likely at this point. Unfortunately it is looking less and less likely.

2. What went wrong was that the President took his focus off Afghanistan and the key challenge of beating the Taliban and AQ to focus on Iraq. Making the fight in Afghanistan a low priority was horribly damaging and led to the troubling position we are in today.

3. I will defer on this question.

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