13 years in Afghanistan: What have we learned?

The U.S.-NATO led coalition in Afghanistan formally ended its combat mission. The West have spent 13 years in Afghanistan and the military operation continues, in different format though. We are hardly witnessing celebratory fanfares from politicians about the achieved victory. But would you say we have learned any lesson? Is it something the West should base its next presence in Afghanistan and what should we reject and maybe completely forget about?

Slovak soldiers in Afghanistan. Credit: Andrej Matisak

Slovak soldiers in Afghanistan. Credit: Andrej Matisak

David IsbyPolitical and defense analyst, Author of books and articles on military and security

The west’s failures in Afghanistan tell us more about the West in the post-modern age than about Afghanistan. We knew — or should have known — about Afghanistan going in. The West decided that Afghan realities were less important than their own multiple agendas.

In the final analysis, the US failure to change Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan is an order of magnitude greater than all the other failures, even those that helped bring corruption in Afghanistan to a world-class level. The failure to solve the problem in Rawalpindi Cantonment makes the effort expended to solve the problems in places like Kandahar potentially wasted.

Anand GopalFellow, New America Foundation, Author of the Book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

I do not think we have learned the lessons of the past 13 years, because the root of the problems lie in the American privileging of counterterrorism over state building and institution building–something which continues unabated. As long as the US continues to view Afghanistan as purely a vector with which to meet its perceived short-term national security interests, Afghanistan will have difficulty developing into a stable and responsive state. We can see this mistake repeating itself in Iraq and Syria, where the US’s narrow-minded focus on ISIS and “terrorists” has led it to target non-ISIS Syrian rebel groups that have popular backing. In the coming years, the US should reject the counterterrorism-first approach to Afghanistan, and instead help the country build real state institutions. This can be done by funneling aid flow to the state, not to warlords and non-state actors, and by helping the country become economically self-sufficient as opposed to utterly reliant on foreign aid.

Jorrit KammingaVisiting Fellow, Netherlands Institute for International Relations Clingendael

I think the West has learned several lessons in the past 13 years. On the military front, we have learned quite a bit about how to increasingly become more effective in our counter-insurgency operations at the local level, including in winning hearts and minds of the Afghan people – although admittedly the latter took us way too long. The question is whether we can actually make use of these best practices and lessons learned in future conflicts as the context may again be completely different. For many countries, including the Netherlands, it will even be unlikely that they will ever have the same type of large scale military troop deployment as witnessed in Afghanistan.

On the negative side, we learned those victories in local battles against the insurgency did not win us the war. The Taliban has even returned to some of the areas where international forces once waged some fierce battles. We have also been dividing up our military struggle too much in regional compartments, with the additional downside that the bilateral development aid efforts have also been too much focused on areas where countries had troops – instead of providing aid where it was most needed and most effective.

However, on a positive note, we also have seen that it is possible to build up and properly train a substantial Afghan army and police force that so far has shown that it can operate quite independently from international forces. The way they handles the security incidents during the two rounds of presidential elections is very positive. The progress they made with international support is impressive, but, of course, the sustainability of the Afghan National Security Forces will depend on two important conditions: a) continuation of foreign spending on the salaries of the Afghan police and army for the foreseeable future and b) a stable political climate, which is quite uncertain as the National Unity Government could quickly lose its ‘unity’ with two captains on the governmental ship and two very complex government priorities for next year: economic development in the midst of a looming fiscal crisis and peace talks with the Taliban.

About the presence of the international community from 2015 onwards: I think the military footprint is too small, especially as most foreign troops will only be available for NATOs new train, advice and assist mission, not for combat operations. In addition, most training capacity in the regions is planned to withdraw to Kabul after only one year. That means that – despite the progress the Afghan National Security Forces have made – they are left on their own quite rapidly. Another negative lesson learned from Afghanistan is that the West in 2011 chose a rapid security transition for reasons that had little to do with actual progress on security in Afghanistan. In this light, the problematic security situation we have seen over the past few weeks, is a worrying development.

Lastly, when looking at development cooperation, we unfortunately see a parallel drop in foreign engagement and funding. Another lesson learned in Afghanistan is that way too much money was poured in during the last 13 years. But the enormous budget cuts in foreign aid we witness now will mean we will need to increase aid effectiveness drastically to be able to support Afghans effectively during the so-called Transformational Decade (2015-2024). The West should be very serious about long term investment and after-care in Afghanistan on both the military and civilian front. Unfortunately, that commitment will not come cheap or without risks.

Péter Marton, Senior Assistant Professor and Research fellow, Corvinus University of Budapest

It tends to inspire lots of intuitive answers by observers that we cannot assess in terms of hard science really. There are simply too many impossibly complex counterfactuals to be able to conclusively argue that this or that doesn’t work in light of experience from Afghanistan or elsewhere. However, there is one very noteworthy trend: recently there is clearly less of the “lesson-taking” discourse on Afghanistan specifically. The strategic discourse about Afghanistan is dead, in that sense. We shall see if this changes eventually, as a result of some major development. We should not forget that the threat of terrorism made Afghanistan interesting to the West in the first place. That threat persists. It is true that to some extent even the jihadi movement has moved beyond Afghanistan and so both the West and its jihadi opponents are directing the limelight elsewhere for the moment. Al-Qaida is, however, still an important part of the jihadi movement, and it is present in the region. The ultimate lesson from a Western perspective may be that we should not forget about this.

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