It is America’s longest war. And the United States does not appear to be leaving the Middle East nation anytime soon.
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What dragged America into a 16-year war in Afghanistan? Most point to 9/11, when al-Qaida wreaked havoc with hijacked commercial jets.
Yet events 48 hours earlier tell a different story.
On September 9, 2001, Afghan General Ahmad Shah Massoud sat on a couch alongside his translator. They were in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, preparing for an interview with a Moroccan reporter and cameraman.
The 49-year-old political and military leader successfully held off the Soviet Union decades earlier. For his efforts, he was named minister of defense in the newly formed Afghan government and fought to defend the nation from warring factions.
By the time the Taliban rose and began swallowing up Afghan territory in the mid-90s, General Massoud and his Northern Alliance were a significant force that stood in their way.
As the interview began, the translator asked the reporter what questions would be included. The response: “Why are you against Osama bin Laden?” and “Why do you call him a killer?”
Before the translator could interpret the first question, the cameraman detonated a bomb inside his camera and the reporter detonated explosives strapped around his waist, killing Massoud.
The fake reporter and cameraman were al-Qaida operatives.
On September 10, al-Qaida and Taliban-led forces attacked the Northern Alliance. The day after, an emboldened al-Qaida attacked New York.
Bin Laden, al-Qaida leader and mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, is said to have ordered the assassination of Massoud as a favor to the Taliban. The terror leader sought refuge in Afghanistan for himself and his al-Qaida forces and military training camps.
For this reason, America focused on Afghanistan at the start of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
After the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden after September 11, the world’s most powerful military hit Afghanistan hard. After just two months, U.S. special forces who had teamed with the Northern Alliance, toppled the Taliban government, drove al-Qaida into the mountains, and began reestablishing the Afghan government.
Yet nearly 16 years later—and counting—the Pentagon is preparing to send more soldiers into what remains one of the poorest, most corrupt nations on the planet. The Afghan government is losing its grip on the nation, the Taliban remains strong, and al-Qaida, long out of the world spotlight, is making a comeback.
The United States is facing a reality familiar to the Soviets and other world powers who tried—and failed—to control Afghanistan.
How is it that the U.S. is still stuck in Afghanistan? Even more, can America avoid becoming the next casualty to be buried in a region known as the “graveyard of Empires?”
Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union have all learned why CNN called Afghanistan a nation with “a reputation for undoing ambitious military ventures and humiliating would-be conquerors.”
“It’s a hard place to fight, to conquer and rule,” Patrick Porter, a lecturer in defense studies at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Kings College London, told the news outlet.
“The geography is very hard: It is a country of mountains and deserts, of quite severe winters and that makes it difficult not only to fight in, but also to operate logistically. It limits your mobility and it is difficult to project power,” Dr. Porter said.
The Soviets were bogged down in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The Afghan mujahedeen used guerilla warfare tactics to face down and ultimately defeat the powerful Russian army.
After the Soviets were dispelled, the Afghans understood they defeated a global military power. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the victors were further emboldened.
In 1994, the Taliban emerged and began seizing power and territory from various mujahedeen leaders. By 1996, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political group captured the Afghan capital of Kabul and set up a de facto government. They eventually held power over nearly three-quarters of the country. Meanwhile, tribal warfare in Afghanistan turned into a bloody civil war from the mid-1990s to 2001.
This is the turmoil into which America entered following 9/11.
Along with going after al-Qaida and defeating the Taliban, U.S. President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” sought to establish stability in Afghanistan. Yet America’s goal to install democratic institutions in a tribal and terroristic environment proved elusive, particularly after U.S. forces also focused their military and “democracy building” resources in Iraq.
After being voted into office by a war-weary citizenry, President Barack Obama attempted to breathe life into the flagging war with his 2009 decision to increase troop levels. Calling the conflict in Afghanistan “the good war,” the president sought to protect the Afghan population from continued Taliban attacks and help reintegrate insurgents into Afghan society.
Mr. Obama coupled his troop surge announcement with a public declaration to withdraw U.S. forces beginning in 2011, which some saw as a grave tactical mistake. Critics thought the move communicated to the Afghan people that America’s protection was limited, both in time and substance. To the Taliban, it said, “Hold on until we leave.”
As has happened repeatedly over the centuries, renewed efforts by the America to control Afghanistan ultimately failed. The U.S.-supported Afghan military and police forces were unable to hold off the Taliban and, by the time the mission in Afghanistan formally ended in December 2014, the 13-year war was the longest fought by the United States.
As the U.S. began pulling out, the Taliban strengthened and the Islamic State terror group, which officially formed in 2015, gained a foothold in the nation.
Following the official end of combat operations, NATO planned on maintaining 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 9,800 Americans, in an advisory and counterterrorism capacity. U.S. troop levels were to be cut in half by the end of 2015 and all forces, with the exception of those needed for the embassy, would be withdrawn by the end of 2016.
A 2016 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction revealed that the Afghan government lost control of nearly 5 percent of its territory to the Taliban since the beginning of 2015. The report also showed that the area under the Afghan government’s “control or influence” decreased to 65.6 percent by the end of May 2016, from 70.5 percent in 2015. It amounted to a loss of 19 of the country’s approximately 400 governing districts.
The numbers are trending worse. According to the U.S. Forces Afghanistan, only 59.7 percent of the country’s 407 districts remain under Afghan government control or influence as of February 2017. This represents almost an 11 percent decrease from the same time last year.
ISIS has joined forces with the Taliban in certain instances to attack the established Afghan government and help gain more territory. The relationship between ISIS and the Taliban has been described as “complex”—sometimes they fight together, other times against each other.
But when ISIS and the Taliban cooperate, they are a formidable force.
“One of the things we are concerned about here in Afghanistan, the reason we think that the entire world needs to be focused on Afghanistan, is the potential for convergence among the various groups in this area,” said General John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of NATO and American forces in Afghanistan. (The New York Times).
It is natural for Americans to wonder why this is happening. Why is government control going in the wrong direction? After nearly 16 years devoted to this nation—and its people—what is going wrong?
In July, President Donald Trump, the third president to try and bring stability to Afghanistan, expressed frustration with the U.S. strategy.
“We aren’t winning,” he said, according to senior administration officials (NBC News). Some of Mr. Trump’s advisors were advocating for a very limited U.S. role in the war, while others recommended several thousand additional troops.
In August, the president unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy during a primetime address to the nation. In his speech, he said he would “shift away from a ‘time-based’ approach, instead linking [U.S.] assistance to results and to cooperation from the beleaguered Afghan government, Pakistan and others” (Tampa Bay Times).
“America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress,” Mr. Trump said. “However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.”
The president stressed a “‘regional’ strategy that addressed the roles played by other South Asian nations—especially Pakistan’s harboring of elements of the Taliban” (ibid.).
While Mr. Trump pledged that the U.S. would crush al-Qaida and obliterate ISIS, he notably did not include defeating the Taliban. Despite the hostile relationship, the president said that lasting peace in Afghanistan may require cooperation with the powerful group.
“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Mr. Trump said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added later that the U.S. would support peace talks with the Taliban “without preconditions.”
Though purposely vague on troop levels, the president hinted at agreeing to a Pentagon recommendation of sending an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to support the 8,400 already in the region.
Despite the increase, these numbers are significantly lower than the roughly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan under the Obama administration, which failed to gain control of the situation. The more recent focus on advising and training Afghan forces and on counterterror operations is not expected to dramatically change under the current White House plan.
President Trump asked the American people for time for his policy to take hold. Underlying his message was an unstated appeal to stay calm and objectively assess the war. After 16 years, the need for more time and objective analysis is hard for some to take.
In a region where empires have gone to fail, the best the U.S. may be able to do is hold crucial, populous and strategically important areas. The remainder of Afghanistan may have to endure as a “no man’s land,” aka tribal insurgent territory. After many years of lost lives, limbs, and taxpayer funds, America may not have much of a choice. The most powerful nation in the world has its own problems and being engrossed in a never-ending war is not helping.
Following the release of the president’s plan, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis addressed a few dozen American troops in the Middle East. His speech appears to echo the harsh reality of the current state of America and how it should proceed in Afghanistan.
“For those of you I haven’t met, my name’s Mattis,” he began. “Thanks for being out here, OK? I know at times you wonder if any of us know…but believe me, I know you’re far from home every one of you, I know you could all be going to college you young people, or you could be back on the block.”
“The only way this great big experiment you and I call America is gonna survive is if we’ve got tough hombres like you.”
“You’re a great example for our country right now. It’s got some problems—you know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, of being friendly to one another. That’s what Americans owe to one another…”
These motivational words describe both the military strategy—and the tenuous nature of American society.
Sixteen years into the “war on terror,” or the “good war,” Mr. Mattis’ words must be tempered with the reality on the ground. For America, holding the line after 16 years may be a viable military strategy—but at what cost?