Oct. 7 marked the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. It has been a bitter decade. The initial success in driving the Taliban from power quickly turned to stalemate as U.S. attention shifted to Iraq. The hope that the war-torn country, a proxy battleground of great power conflict for over a century, might finally know peace and stability, gave way to despair and fear that the Taliban might return to power. A war that once looked simple and directed now invokes memories of Vietnam, and raises questions about U.S. commitment, strategy and purpose.
The United States led an international coalition of 49 nations into Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001 in retaliation for the Taliban government’s support for al-Qaida after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. Then U.S. President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over al-Qaida members, including Osama bin Laden, for their role in the attacks. When they refused, the U.S. and other nations launched Operation Enduring Freedom. More than a half-million coalition servicemen and women have served in Afghanistan in the decade since. During that time, 2,748 coalition service members have died, another 15,000 have been wounded. The number of civilian casualties is not known; there was little inclination or ability to keep track. But estimates could exceed 31,000 civilian deaths. According to the Pentagon, the war has cost U.S. taxpayers about $450 billion; other studies suggest the total could reach $1.28 trillion.
And for what? While the Taliban government was driven out of office in weeks and al-Qaida’s infrastructure quickly destroyed, the U.S. government soon shifted its attention to Iraq. U.S. forces drew down and planning focused on the invasion of Iraq. Not surprisingly, insurgent violence in Afghanistan flared and the Taliban reasserted itself. Slowly, the internal situation deteriorated. The sense of drift and loss of control was compounded by the corruption that accompanied the billions of dollars of aid money that flowed into Afghanistan in the wake of the coalition victory. A public that three years after the invasion defied extremists with a massive turnout in the first direct elections in a generation has lost faith in its government and elected officials.
When U.S. President Barack Obama took office he recognized that status quo in Afghanistan was insupportable. After a policy review, the U.S. borrowed from its “surge” strategy in Iraq and 30,000 troops were sent into the country to neutralize the enemy, protect civilians and help build the legitimacy of the government of President Hamid Karzai. Today, the U.S. has 10 times as many troops in Afghanistan as it did when it first invaded.
The results have been mixed. There have been gains, but the Taliban have not been defeated. The insurgency has spread to once peaceful parts of the country — the group has its origins in the south of Afghanistan — and it has committed several high-profile attacks and assassinations in recent weeks. It greeted the 10th anniversary of the war with a vow to keep fighting.
The U.S. has promised to withdraw all its combat troops by the end of the 2014, a promise that was quickly matched by other members of the international coalition. (Troops will stay on to train their Afghan counterparts.) Setting a date certain is designed to force the Afghan government to step up and take control of the security situation in the country. It often seems like Mr. Karzai’s government only controls the capital, and at times, not even all of that. Setting a deadline should focus the attentions of the government. It also, however, provided the Taliban with a target date by which it can resume a full-scale offensive.
A decade in Afghanistan makes this the longest war the U.S. has ever fought — U.S. forces were only in Vietnam for nine years. There have been some marked achievements during that time. The repressive reign of the Taliban has ended. Democracy has been introduced; it is flawed but it has been planted in shallow soil. The Afghan people seem determined to exercise their rights. A nation that was once known best for its repression of women has carved out roles for them throughout society. When the Taliban ruled, less than 900,000 children were enrolled in schools; today the number exceeds 6.2 million, one-third of whom are girls. Health care has improved as have living standards.
Terrorists have lost their sanctuary and support. The invasion of Afghanistan was the start of a deliberate U.S. strategy to take the fight to extremists around the world. The killing of Osama bin Laden and other top officials in al-Qaida and its offshoot organizations is part of that strategy.
Yet stability has not returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban insurgency remains active and the government has not bridged the tribal and ethnic divisions that have long ruled the country. Even if the Taliban does not return to power, there is no guarantee that Kabul can maintain control over the entire country. Those difficulties are compounded by the fact that regional governments see themselves having a vital stake in Afghanistan’s future and that they are inclined to see that future in zero-sum terms.
Combine the extraordinary toll the decade has taken on U.S. credibility and the drain on its finances and its military, and it should come as no surprise that many consider this a most bitter anniversary.
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