The 2013 death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, confirmed this week, should have marked the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But the fates of the two main leaders identified as responsible for the 9/11 attacks—Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar—are only milestones. Thanks to the destructive nature of the U.S. war, many newer and more formidable enemies have emerged.
America’s first post-9/11 war, launched in Afghanistan in October 2001, is a grand symbol of our foreign policy failure. Fourteen years ago, Afghans were caught between two brutal and fundamentalist factions: the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Today they are caught between four: the Taliban, government warlords who morphed from the Northern Alliance, U.S. forces and Islamic State.
But just a few months ago, Afghanistan’s first transition of power within an ostensibly democratic system took place, offering the promise of a better future under the U.S.-educated President Ashraf Ghani. The U.S. was to withdraw its forces and NATO nations had already begun doing so. Government-sponsored peace talks with the Taliban were meant to herald a stable future for the war-weary nation. But that future never came and what appeared as progress was only a facade.
A motorcycle carrying a suicide bomber tore through a crowded marketplace in the northwestern province of Faryab on July 22, killing at least 25 people and wounding dozens. The attack bore the hallmarks of a Taliban operation and is part of a violent trend. It comes just weeks after a brazen Taliban attack in the capital, Kabul, aimed at the government’s intelligence agency, in which one person was killed and several injured. Overall, Taliban violence has risen sharply this year.
But the group is supposedly engaging the government in peace talks that began in July (which Mullah Omar was reported to have lauded earlier this month, despite having died two years ago). A second round of negotiations, sponsored by neighboring Pakistan, is about to launch. Details of the discussions have been kept secret, although there are reports that Taliban leaders want travel restrictions on them lifted and the establishment of an official headquarters in a Gulf state. Throwing a bone to feminists, there is apparently a single female delegate who is expected to take her place at a table dominated by misogynist fundamentalists.
The Afghan government, whose forces are under enormous pressure, plans to ask the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire during the negotiations. President Ghani boasted in an interview in March that “Not a single province has fallen; not a single battalion has deserted; not a single army corps has refused to fight. They secured the election; they have borne the casualties, and they’ve moved from defensive to offensive.” But soldiers of the Afghan National Army and local police forces have suffered tremendous casualties. So far this year, more than 4,000 Afghan troops have been killed, mostly by the Taliban. Some are so desperate to save their lives that they are reportedly maiming themselves to obtain a discharge. At an Afghan army base in Badakhshan province, 100 police officers surrendered to Taliban forces. But it’s not just the Taliban—soldiers and police officers are also being killed by U.S. forces. A July 20 strike by U.S. helicopters in the eastern province of Logar killed eight Afghan soldiers.
Citing the losing battle that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul is fighting, Ghani is turning to old warlords for help. The New York Times rightly called the plan a “strategy fraught with risk.” The very same warlords—who were armed and trained by the U.S., who plunged the country into a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, and who were never held accountable for their crimes—were able to whitewash themselves with government positions. Now, they are expected to unleash their informal power again. They are perhaps best represented by Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is leading the recapture of Faryab province from Taliban forces with the backing of local militias. Dostum has been implicated in numerous atrocities and mass killings. It appears that a repeat of the same internal war the U.S. stepped into in 2001 is starting to play out, as criminal elements fight one another.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has dramatically upped the pace of its airstrikes, with no prospect of drawing down the war. Airstrikes were reportedly twice as numerous in June as in previous months. It was one such airstrike that killed the eight Afghan soldiers previously mentioned. Another strike killed a top Al Qaeda leader, Abu Khalil al-Sudani, in Paktika province. In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter boasted that the U.S. “continue[s] to counter violent extremism in the region and around the world.”
The U.S. also took credit in early July for killing Hafiz Saeed in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Saeed was considered a senior Taliban leader before defecting to the Islamic State. Three other Islamic State leaders were also apparently killed by U.S. drone strikes. With little formal acknowledgement, the U.S. has seemingly acquired a new enemy in Afghanistan—just as it was meant to be withdrawing.
The emergence of Islamic State has opened a terrifying new chapter in Afghanistan. The group burst onto the scene last September when its members fought alongside the Taliban in Ghazni, killing 100 people and engaging in its signature beheadings. But despite sharing a Sunni Muslim identity with the Taliban, Islamic State is now unwelcome in Afghanistan. In an open letter in June, the Taliban warned Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that his “meddling” would “cause ... bloodshed.”
Clearly, the Obama administration miscalculated the effect of its policies in Afghanistan. Somehow, U.S. strategists imagined that after spending more than a decade provoking violence and backing undemocratic figures in Afghanistan (for which the Bush administration is equally responsible), the U.S. could simply walk away, leaving some sort of tolerable peace and stability. In March, President Obama announced a delay in the U.S. troop withdrawal, saying that 9,800 soldiers would remain in the country through the end of this year. Today the situation has devolved into such chaos that the U.S, departure will foment just as much violence as its continued presence.
In the 14 years it has occupied Afghanistan, America’s longest war has achieved mostly bloodshed. Despite spending billions of dollars—the U.S. offered its largest share of foreign aid to Afghans last year—there is little to show for it. Nearly $10 billion was spent on arming and training Afghan forces. But as the dismal state of the Afghan National Army shows, that money may as well have been poured down the drain. Investigative journalists with ProPublica found that the U.S. has spent tens of millions of dollars building sophisticated warehouses that no one has used: “[A] familiar pattern emerged with the military’s construction projects: They were routinely over budget, past deadline and often never used.” In fact, “[It’s unclear whether the Afghans want or have the money to make use of” a newly built $14.7 million warehouse complex in Kandahar.
Ordinary Afghans, whose well-being has always been left out of the calculus of war, continue to suffer as they have for decades. Announcing the troop withdrawal delay, Obama said, “America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over but our commitment to the Afghan people, that will endure.” But all that has endured has been Afghan misery. The site of the renowned, ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan that captured the world’s attention (and disgust) in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed them, now host an impoverished population of homeless Hazara Afghans. Those who have the means are fleeing poverty and violence, forming a large portion of the migrants who wind up on boats in the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe. Afghan women, who were promised relief from the Taliban’s strict edicts, now live in fear of falling victim to mob violence of the kind that killed a Kabul woman named Farkhunda or being imprisoned for so-called moral crimes.
Time and again we have failed in Afghanistan. By continuing to repeat the policies that created the failures in the first place, the U.S. has little chance of leaving Afghanistan in better condition than when the war began.