By Enrique Román
THE war in Afghanistan has the strange property of frequently disappearing from the headlines, despite being the longest waged by the United States and, to date, having cost half a trillion dollars, the lives of 2,000 U.S. soldiers and close to 1,000 of the accompanying coalition forces. And the lives of tens of thousands or more of Afghanis, combatants and civilians.
Undertaken to dismantle the Al Qaeda forces and locate Bin Laden, it became a giant operation to defeat the Taliban movement – not anti-U.S. – and, for its followers, a liberation movement of longstanding against the Soviet occupation and for restoring the power lost by the Pashtun ethnicity, to which it belongs, among the many others in Afghanistan.
With the retreat of the Taliban and Hamid Karzai, a minor Pashtun leader, in power, and the goal of finding Bin Laden unfulfilled, the war, subsequently involving the presence on the ground of 100,000 U.S. troops and a further 40,000 from other countries in a sudden armed coalition (including soldiers from New Zealand, Iceland, Tonga, and Luxembourg), the war became virtually bogged down and forgotten: Iraq was the real goal for the neoconservatives of the Bush administration.
This oblivion had its costs. When Barack Obama became President, the Taliban had reemerged and controlled more than half of the country, the Karzai government was sinking in a mire of accusations of corruption at the highest level and, although Al Qaeda had disappeared from the map of Afghanistan (reappearing in other countries like Yemen), Bin Laden and his whereabouts continued to be a mystery.
It was no longer clear what the objective of the war was: to combat terrorism, prevent the return of the Taliban? Or more illusory: to build a centralized state, an unnatural state in a multiethnic country subject to influences from Pakistan, Iran Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and even China and India? Nevertheless, Obama decided to dispatch an additional 30,000 troops there, NATO extended its presence in the country through 2014, and the permanence of a good part of the occupying forces until 2020 or beyond.
Given the above, the real situation and future prospects do not encourage the presidential candidates to talk about Afghanistan.
While military operations – accompanied by scandals such as the insults directed at President Obama by General McChrystal, commander of forces in Afghanistan – have ousted the Taliban from certain regions, there is no sign whatsoever that its forces have diminished or that they would be prepared to lay down arms. Their contacts with the United States – they are not disposed to talk with Karzai – have not produced any results and Taliban leaders have promised that the armed struggle will increase.
According to U.S. sources, the degree of violence this year has increased by 15% in relation to 2011. Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan are virtually intact.
The new Afghan army, the training of which is the principal justification for a prolonged foreign military presence, comprises an enormous fragmented mass, given its ethnic and tribal structure, forces which will define their future loyalties once left to themselves, and whose members are being trained by foreign forces who have no understanding of the country’s cultural complexities. While there has been news about Afghanistan in recent days, these items have focused on the death of U.S. soldiers at the hands of elements within this army.
The withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. soldiers is scheduled for the end of 2012. Approximately 100,000 American and NATO troops will remain. The war will continue to drag on. Stephen Biddle, professor of political science at George Washington University, states that the possibility of the United States bringing the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is zero at this point.
In one of his few references to the Afghanistan war, on June 22, Obama spoke reluctantly but with realism about the issue. In essence: Bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda is being disbanded in the country and the troops can begin to withdraw.
At one rate or another, it could be added. A false victory could be declared and this strange and cruel war declared over. Afghanistan would continue immersed in an interminable civil war, which foreign intervention has done nothing but foment. And it would return to its condition as a forgotten country, with its population decimated, devastated by more than a decade of occupation and more than 30 years of diverse wars.
The silence of the two presidential candidates on the subject announces that, for the United States, Afghanistan will once again become the remote and impoverished country it always was, and whose only vital interest was its having harbored those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And the troops of the United States and its allies will become yet another of the many foreign armies who have had to withdraw with their dead from this seemingly undefeatable country.
September 13, 2012