Originally published 30/10/2015
When President George Bush Jr. announced in 2004 “the men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror, and America is proud to be their friend,” one could’ve been forgiven for thinking the Afghan conflict was nearing an end. 11 years later, after immense civilian casualties and Western expenditure exceeding USD$800 billion (AUD$1.1 trillion), a Taliban resurgence threatens to push Afghanistan back into the political, social and economic turmoil which ravaged the nation for the previous three decades. President Obama’s latest delay of the U.S. withdrawal beyond 2017 could stall the militant group’s plans to challenge for power for the meantime, but U.S. boots-on-ground are no assurance of future regional stability. Without a concerted push for Afghan development over the next two years, Afghanistan will become a forgotten victim of Western interventionism in the Middle East.
Flanked by a furled flag and flanked by Capitol Hill, Bush warned acts of “enemies of freedom” had drawn the United States into a fully-fledged war. Behind him, beyond the tall White House perimeter fence, traffic traveling behind continued to flow peacefully.
But far from the order and polity of Pennsylvania Avenue, Afghanistan’s cities, towns and villages would soon be drawn into a conflict neither the U.S. nor any participating nations were willing to commit themselves entirely. In a war which neither invader nor defender was willing or prepared to resolve, the Afghan people would become the first victims of the gung-ho warring culture which characterised Bush’s second Presidential term.
Afghan public life, a decade ago shrouded in mystery to the outside world and – to its own people – restrictive on human rights, has improved since the fall of the Taliban. School attendance figures are 30 times higher than in 2004, and as many of 25% of those are girls. International trade, once highly restricted under the dictatorial rule of a militant Taliban government, is more than 200 times greater than in 2001. The democratic transfer of power from interim president Hamid Karzai (2002-2014) to Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah (2014-present) was the first case in Afghan history the people have had the opportunity to choose their leader. Public access to telephones has risen to more than 10 million Afghans, and 85% of people are able to access healthcare – an enormous growth over the reputed 10% under Taliban rule. But Afghanistan remains a vast, barren landscape where blood has spilled near daily from international and domestic warfare for the previous three decades. For the West the now-14-year conflict will also go down as one of the costliest wars in modern times, and the longest in United States history. With Taliban presence in the country growing strong once again, dire social, educational, economic and security conditions in Afghanistan remain. These are the numbers kept hidden by army generals.
Former Senior Adviser to Defence Minister and Prime Minister of Australia from 1985-1991, the soft-faced, bearded, oval-glasses wearing Hugh White, now Professor at Australian National University, has a lifetime of national-level strategic military operations planning behind him. “The immense scale of resources that would’ve been required to give you any reasonable chance of achieving [success in Afghanistan] would’ve been greater than I think any countries in the West were willing to expend,” he says. White estimates the number of military personnel necessary to maintain order in a disruptive foreign country is approximately one per 100 civilians, but “even if it was only half that, [the West would have] needed to put in much, much more than double the amount of resources than [it] did and for much, much longer periods of time.” Figures following the end of the Second World War and the Gulf War 2 are not far from his estimate. In Afghanistan, however, personnel on the ground never surpassed than one-per-300 civilians, with less than one-per-500 from 2010 to 2012. It’s undeniable that governments were hesitant to commit themselves to this foreign war against a largely unknown militant enemy and apprehension meant the war against the Taliban was lost before it began. “Western governments would have had to be willing to commit much, much larger forces for much, much greater length periods of time than they ever showed any preparedness to do,” says Professor White. Western aid helped developed the Afghan National Security Force, the nation’s 352,000-strong police and military arm, but the ANSF failed to regularly challenge and defeat Taliban militants without foreign support. In Kunduz in September, as few as 500 Taliban militants challenged some 7000 ANSF personnel; poor communication, insufficient training and a lack of preparation forced the ANSF forces to abandon the nearly half-a-million residents living in the city to the nation’s north, surrendering the first Afghan city to Taliban militants since 2001. 2015 has been a particularly bloody year for the organisation as it faces an organised Taliban force for the first time without direct foreign involvement. Casualty rates for the ANSF have risen by 70% in 2015, and as many as 4000 Afghan soldiers and policemen are being killed each month by insurgent forces. Unsurprisingly, Afghan families are becoming hesitant to send their sons to fight with the ANSF, a development which will only help Taliban morale and their chances of success on the battlefield.
On top of the more-than-37,000 deaths estimated on both sides of the fighting, as many as 92,000 civilian deaths have been recorded throughout Afghan cities, towns and villages. With the insurgency growing, and with civilian casualties up eight percent from 2014, Dr Susanne Schneidl, who researches contemporary Afghan culture at the University of New South Wales, admits conditions for Afghans are “probably worse than it’s been for some time.” Christopher Stokes, Medicines Sans Frontieres General Director, says nearly half of the people who reach hospitals say they had “faced fighting, landmines, checkpoints or harassment on their journey”. The previous decade of fighting “has not made Afghanistan safer for anybody except the fundamentalist warlords in the Afghan government, and the Taliban,” says Reena, a 23-year-old Afghan refugee. The Western intervention to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban, “has not helped Afghan people in any way,” she adds, and Hugh White agrees. “It’s not clear the women and children of Afghanistan are better off today than had we not intervened at all … The best policy approach is to recognise the reality is that we have no capacities to change.” 85% of Afghan women remain illiterate, and women make up only 18% of university classes. Despite improvements in Afghan maternal mortality rates, a woman dies in labour once every half hour somewhere in Afghanistan. While the West propounds the idea it is able to defeat the insurgency, the harsh realities of health services – or lack of health services – in Afghanistan is all too often forgotten in the drive for more kills and more victories on the battlefield. Continued violence only exacerbates the many faults in the organisation and operation of Afghan health services.
On an abandoned lot, a small white building sits open, unguarded, to the public. Its white walls are littered with bullet holes, the floor around potholed and most of its windows smashed or missing. This vacant building, a familiar image in Afghanistan’s rural areas, was originally a school built with Western dollars. This school, in Deg-e Bagh, near of Kandahar in the nation’s south, is just one in a catalogue of schools across the country built and abandoned. This is the result of a fundamental failure by the new Afghan government and the West to develop a functional education system in post-war Afghanistan. A 2015 investigation revealed “at least a tenth of the schools [constructed with foreign aid] no longer exist.” The lies don’t stop just at school construction: the number of females in Afghan schools was exaggerated by about 40%, and for many people operational schools are simply too far away – and far too dangerous to get to – from their villages. The failure to develop an effective education system has much larger implications than just low literacy rates: a lesser educated workforces has a reduced capacity to work, and in Afghanistan the lure of militancy for unemployed youths is a cause of great concern. “Two-thirds of the population is below the age of 24,” says Dr Schneidl. “They can’t access schools, and [even] if they can access schooling then they can’t get jobs. If you don’t do anything on jobs [to give] some kind of future for the youth, they’re either going to leave the country – many are – or they’ll find alternative employment that we’re not going to be happy with.”
“If you pump money in[to Afghanistan] then we need to be very careful about … working with the government to hold it accountable. They can’t just keep giving it money,” she says. And it’s all largely down to political corruption in the highest offices.
Neither Hamid Karzai’s interim government, nor that of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have achieved legitimacy inside or outside its borders. “There is a … problem with the Afghan government,” says Dr Schneidl. “There’s high levels of corruption. They haven’t addressed nepotism.”
Nepotism in Afghanistan, the practice of favouring family or friends when delegating jobs in power, remains a major issue. A 2015 report by an anti-corruption body in Afghanistan revealed 23 Foreign Ministry employees were related to people in the highest offices of Afghanistan’s parliament. In 2015, it was revealed 48 qualified applicants who had completed tests to be considered for ministerial positions were rejected in favour of family members of those in government who hadn’t even applied for the positions. Special Representative for Reform and Good Governance, Ahmad Zia Massoud, blamed the practice of favouring kin over ability in the army for the loss at Kunduz. As for political corruption, under Karzai two Afghan fuel companies known to have supported Karzai’s presidential campaign received generous donations after he won office. One of them, fuel company Zahid Walid received $74 million in grants between 2006 and 2009. “Legitimacy is as low as ever,” says Dr Schneidl.
Hidden amongst ordinary Afghans, 60,000 Taliban still operate in the nation’s cities and rural areas. Despite initial the conflict ousting the Taliban from power, the group still controls or contests nearly 20% of the nation’s 398 districts. But Dr Schneidl says attempting to eradicate Taliban presence in Afghanistan will forever be a futile cause. “You’ll always have areas that [The Taliban are] controlling and that is already the case … they’ve clearly shown they have the forces to do so,” she says. Kunduz was a reminder insurgents maintain a strong presence in the region, and the loss displayed how unprepared Afghanistan is to defend itself without foreign support. Peaceful negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives were held in Doha in 2013, though no progress was made. After the insurgents raised their level of activity around the same time, the unofficial Taliban embassy was abandoned and no discussions have been announced since. Even while it was operational, many in the Taliban opposed any talks while Western troops were stationed in the country. Ultimately the political experiment – bringing the Taliban to a discussion table – yielded no results.
The failure of the ANSF to develop into a strong defence force has rendered all efforts by the West to rebuild Afghanistan futile, according to Hugh White. “We were trying to win a counterinsurgency [in Afghanistan] on behalf of a government in Kabul which was simply not strong enough to establish stable and effective rule over the country.” In July, more than 100 police officers surrendered themselves and their police base to Taliban forces in the country’s north. Kunduz and the cities and towns which in the coming months and years will be assaulted by Taliban forces highlight concerns surrounding the effectiveness of Afghanistan’s standing army. With a resurgence in Taliban activity in mid-2015, ANSF now average more than 300 casualties a week in the fighting and in some months have recorded as many as 4000 personnel losses; casualty rates were 70% higher in the first months of 2015 than in 2014. In the face of these numbers, White admits the chance of the West scoring any long-term success in Afghanistan against insurgent forces is very low. “The idea that there’s a middle path, that we’ll somehow use our weapons and our force and our money to build you a state when the ‘you’ you’re talking about is a disparate group of people who don’t agree on what that state should look like is a myth,” he says. As the war ravages on and no genuine progress looks to have been made, it’s a sentiment which has grown in popularity across the world. The conflict’s futility has become more evident as the days wear on, the dollars change hands, and the bodies pile up.
One of the 21st century’s more controversial conflicts, it’s necessary to acknowledge mistakes and failures in Afghanistan. One of the world’s most arid and remote nations, riddled with political, social and economic corruption prior to the U.S. invasion, any war in Afghanistan was from the outset a gargantuan challenge. Hugh White says “one of the problems of not acknowledging failure when you’ve failed is that it makes it much harder to avoid the mistake next time … the West has withdrawn from Afghanistan without admitting it’s been defeated. Nobody wants to admit that.” In years to come, the dust will settle on the Afghan war and the merits and follies of it will be fully revealed, but for the meantime it’s important to recognise similar conflicts will have the same result in the future. George Santayana wrote in 1905 that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; acknowledging our failures is vital to ensuring one more nation of people don’t yet become the next victims of misguided, mismanaged, and ill-conceived intervention.