Was the Afghanistan withdrawal a ‘responsible’ finale?
All indicators point to a continuous fight for power in Afghanistan with the Taliban getting stronger by the day
In September 2009, I interviewed Saifullah Jalali, the Kabul front commander for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, at a time when the Taliban were at the peak of their activities since the fall of their government in 2001.
With a lot of ongoing regional efforts and the U.S. blessings to initiate dialogue with the Taliban, Jalali sarcastically commented, "How can someone without a will start talks and negotiations with us (hinting at the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai)."
Jalali at that time explained the reasons behind these efforts; firstly, the United States had started feeling the cost of war in terms of human and financial loss and the second being the U.S. realization that it is impossible to finish off the Taliban.
Today, the war in Afghanistan has reached a vague conclusion but U.S. President Barack Obama, in his speech on December 28 at the end of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, chose to call it a 'responsible conclusion'; a responsible conclusion perhaps for attempting a withdrawal with as much minimum losses as possible.
A ceremony for the victorious?
The silent and coy ceremony for the NATO forces behind heavily fenced walls and closed doors was not in any way the ceremony of the victorious. In fact, it has shown once again that Kabul is still sans stability. In November 2014, just a month before the ceremony, Taliban intensified it attacks on Kabul going for high significance targets.
If it is indeed a “responsible conclusion,” then a question arises over how the $1 trillion was spent? According to a recent study by the Financial Times, the United States spent $1.1 trillion, which is approximately $9 million per hour during the past 13 years of the Afghan war. This is figure could have turned Afghanistan into Singapore.
All indicators point to a continuous fight for power in Afghanistan with the Taliban getting stronger by the dayBaker Atyani
On the political front, the solution presented by Secretary Kerry to come out of the Afghan presidential election quagmire was by creating a new position that did not exist in Afghanistan's political system. The chief executive's position was created to satisfy presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah who would not have settled for anything less because he believed his competitor Ashraf Ghani won the elections through blatant rigging.
Based on this settlement all the key ministries were divided amongst these two candidates. This is not the whole story. Behind the scenes, Kerry discussed with both the candidates their readiness to sign the bilateral security agreement that allows the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan after 2014 once the NATO ends its mission.
This was important for the United States after former President Karzai had refused to sign the bilateral security agreement allowing 13,000 foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan including a 10,000-strong U.S. force under the name of trainers and experts. In less than 48 hours of Ghani and Abdullah officially resuming their posts on Sept. 29 2014, the Ghani signed the agreement.
Serving U.S. interests
According to many experts on the Afghan issue, the United States has adopted a policy based on bringing a political set up that can serve its interests in Afghanistan ignoring all illegitimacies and incompetence, therefore creating a very weak political system and turning Afghanistan into a corporation limited among certain Afghan individuals known earlier for their corruption and war crimes.
According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report in March 2014, the U.S. strategy was based on an alliance with warlords that had encouraged corruption. General John Allen, the ex-NATO commander in Afghanistan, has also remarked; "Our first enemy is corruption not the Taliban."
A grim picture
According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is fourth on the list of most corrupt countries in the world. Recent U.N. reports state that $1.2 billion were bribes in Afghanistan during the year 2014 alone. A common man in Afghanistan needs to pay 20 percent of his income in bribes in order to facilitate his daily life. At the same time, Afghanistan is the biggest opium producing country in the world. According to the UNODC's 2014 report, Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's opium. Interestingly here, the U.N. report also confirms that opium cultivation increased over the last 13 years reaching twofold in 2014 of what it used to be under the Taliban government.
The economic indicators also paint a grim picture. According to World Bank estimates, Afghanistan's GDP decreased from 13.5 percent to 3.2 percent in the last 13 years with a per capita income of $670 per annum which means $56 a month. All this is coupled with a serious lack of sustainable developmental projects energy, education, and healthcare sectors, which were paid less attention compared to telecommunication and transportation industries.
According to Asia Foundation, only 10 percent of Afghans have access to electricity today.
What can possibly be the future of Afghanistan after this war, which mainly focused on military and security policies? No doubt, Afghanistan today has its own national army comprising of 200,000 soldiers but it lacks training and ability to fight. According to a report presented by the U.S. special forces, the Green Berets, to the U.S. CENTCOM in October 2014, the Afghan soldiers 'hide behind rocks during fight' and 'sometimes quit fighting' altogether with an 'inability to operate at night'. The report concluded that the Afghan National Army cannot stand in front of Taliban, raising questions about the future of Afghanistan after 2016.
Under the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the cold war, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups emerged from Pakistan and Afghanistan and spread throughout the region once the Cold War ended. This time, after 9/11, this war gave birth to other wars and more militant groups like Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) and al-Qaeda in Iraq, North Africa, Somalia, and Syria with new names today, like ISIS. All these groups and sub-groups have now become a real threat in the eyes of the United States and international community to an extent that everyone has joined hands to fight this threat. The question here arises: Is the United States and international community safer after spending a trillion dollars in this war?
All indicators point to a continuous fight for power in Afghanistan with the Taliban getting stronger by the day while the strategic alliance between Taliban and al-Qaeda still exists even if al-Qaeda was weakened in this war.
The whole region will once again become busy chasing its old interests in Afghanistan; a game which always fluctuates whenever the United States enters or leaves the region. More importantly, this conflict is very much ready to attract and hatch new militant groups. Experience shows that new groups are mostly always more extreme and violent, which will draw U.S. presence to this region once again.
The conversation with Jalali, both on record and off record, concluded that the United States and NATO are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan while the Taliban are preparing to come to power. We may not know Taliban’s ability to gain power again but they will still remain a real threat for the Afghan government and its national army. Concluding that this war has reached a “responsible conclusion” may not be supported by ground realities.
Baker Atyani is Al Arabiya News Channel’s bureau chief in South and East Asia. He is a veteran journalist, covering conflict zones in Asia for the past 16 years and is an expert on militant groups in Asia. He has produced numerous documentaries, articles, and investigative stories and was the last journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. He has been honored by MCF with "Exceptional Courage in Journalism" award.