Afghanistan: a war without reason

The US has lost what was always an unwinnable war.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics USA World

The deal the US has struck with the Taliban confirms what many have long known. That the US and its Western allies, after nearly 19 years of attritional combat, have well and truly lost the war in Afghanistan.

How else to frame an ‘agreement for bringing peace’ that effectively states the terms of America’s retreat? Yes, demands are made of the Taliban, too. It must not allow al-Qaeda or any other terrorist groups to operate in the areas under its control, for instance. But it is the US promising to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners later this month. It is the US pledging to withdraw all troops within 14 months. It is the US that is desperate to get out. Perhaps the biggest indication of Washington’s unwillingness to prolong the inevitable came this week when Trump said he had had ‘a very good talk’ on the phone with a senior Taliban official, despite the ongoing Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces. One wonders what the Taliban would have to do to violate an ‘agreement for bringing peace’.

If the White House will not admit defeat, at least the Taliban is willing to declare a victory. ‘Even if we don’t say that the US is defeated in Afghanistan, it is an open secret now that they are defeated’, said Anas Haqqani, a senior figure in Taliban’s most formidable militia, the Haqqani network

Truth be told, the Trump administration has long known the game is up. Upon entering office in 2017, Trump did announce a new strategy for Afghanistan, promising to ‘fight and to win’, which itself was a surprise given his long-standing calls for the US to extract itself from the ‘waste’ of the Afghan conflict. But the new strategy seemed to consist of little more than escalating the aerial bombardment, which contributed, in 2019, to the highest quarterly civilian casualty toll (4,300) since tracking began in 2009.

But there was no real political or strategic commitment to the war in Afghanistan. And no sense that Trump ever thought it was a conflict worth US troops dying for. The new Afghanistan strategy, then, was just another piece of superpower PR for a domestic audience.

Indeed, despite more munitions than ever being emptied on to Afghan towns and villages, Team Trump had already decided that the only way forward was to retreat. In September 2018, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, was appointed Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and tasked with leading talks with the Taliban in Qatar. The very public breakdown in negotiations last September didn’t halt the behind-the-scenes momentum.

And last week, the deal was finally struck: the prosecutors of the ‘war on terror’ had given in to an Islamist insurgency that harbours terrorists.

There is no dressing this up as anything but a defeat for the US. And it was an entirely predictable one, too. For this was always an unwinnable war.

Partly this is because of Afghanistan itself. This is one of the poorest, most underdeveloped nations on the planet. The regime-changers who prevailed in Western foreign-policymaking at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, may have talked in terms of an Afghan nation state, but this was and is a largely agrarian society, in which a considerable amount of power is wielded tribally, through localised networks of elders. Indeed, it was the very weakness of the Afghan state, and the breakdown of law and order as rival mujahideen groups fought for control after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1988, that provided the very conditions for the rise of the Taliban in the first place. Its promise to impose stability and rule of law, no matter how brutally and strictly, was to win it a degree of popular support, and, as it turned out, a period in control of Afghan territory between 1996 and 2001.

What precisely were the US and its friends in NATO hoping to achieve by taking on the Taliban in 2001? Liberate a people that didn’t actually exist as such? Build and defend a state that few in Afghan territory recognise as legitimate? If regime change proved a tragic folly in Iraq, it was to prove a bloody nonsense in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the Taliban were never simply going to disappear, as the US well knew. After all, the Taliban was an Afghan, Pashtun faction of the mujahideen, the Islamic fighters the US Central Intelligence Agency, and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), cultivated and backed in their ultimately triumphant struggle against the Soviety Union in the 1980s. The Taliban, like the mujahideen, were hardened, committed, and willing to die. Many had taken on the Red Army. They were more than willing to take on the US. Of course, the US, such is its military strength, could have beaten them. But it would have taken a huge military commitment, and a willingness to risk many more troops’ lives than it already was doing.

And this brings us to the ultimate reason why this was always an unwinnable war. The commitment and willingness just wasn’t there. Proxy armies from northern Afghanistan were initially used, as the US pursued a low-risk strategy of aerial bombardment. Then, when more soldiers were drafted in, they were herded up in fortified bases. Even when the US, under President Obama, attempted to roll back Taliban gains in 2009-2010, boosting troop numbers to over 100,000, this was presented as merely one stage in what was to be timetabled withdrawal, something for the Taliban to wait out.

This was not because there was an unwillingness to die for a cause. The problem with the whole war in Afghanistan was that no one in Western political circles ever seemed to know what the cause was. Initially, of course, the objective was to hunt down al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, in retaliation for 9/11. But that objective soon blurred and mutated, as the ‘war on terror’ acquired an ever more abstract, infernal form. Soon the objective had become the elimination of the Taliban per se. Then it was to liberate women from the strictures of an Islamic state. Later still, it was to stop the drug trade, and even to promote democracy.

A war without an end had become a neverending war. In many ways, by the time of Trump’s administration, the point of the war in Afghanistan had never been clearer. It was simply to end the neverending war.

The sheer number of retroactive reasons generated in the course of this near two-decades-long conflict was an indication of the absence of any real, material, strategic reason for being there. There was a void where a political, moral purpose – a casus belli – should have been. It was never even clear if the US thought the Taliban was an adversary or not. As then vice president Joe Biden put it in 2011, ‘the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy’. He said this as American forces were engaged in life-or-death gunfights with the Taliban.

A war without purpose it may have been. But it was not without consequence. It has cost the lives of 3,500 members of the international coalition forces; 58,000 Afghan security personnel; 42,000 opposition combatants; and, according to some estimates, over 30,000 civilians.

And what was it all for? It’s doubtful even those who prosecuted it know the answer.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Garreth Byrne

5th March 2020 at 8:19 pm

The Taliban seem to have ‘won’ the war, but the methods of fighting resulted in the deaths, by vehicle bombs planted in busy streets and near hotels and other buildings, of so many men, women and children who were not fighting. The USA has intervened in many countries by supplying arms and giving training and intelligence to client governments. USA airforce and ground forces have directly waged wars in the Middle East and South-East Asia. I don’t applaud the fighting spirit or immoral tactics of the Taliban. I fear that the battle-hardened men of this force will endeavour to reinstate the anti-woman social policies they ruthlessly implemented before 2001. Public executions in sports stadiums; widows and elderly women driven by poverty into becoming street beggars; girls being barred from even basic literacy schooling, and fanatical theocratic regulation of daily life are horrors that await the population of Afghanistan if the pre-2001 mentality of the Taliban resurges.

Matt Ryan

5th March 2020 at 9:00 pm

Like Bradford or Dewsbury then?

James Knight

5th March 2020 at 6:32 pm

I haven’t been keeping up and cannot tell if this is real or the plot to Homeland.

Dominic Straiton

5th March 2020 at 4:58 pm

As the collapse in recruitment shows you need a war now and again to keep the lads morale up. There doesnt seem to be much on telly at the ,moment so Mali looks next.

P Corless

5th March 2020 at 11:45 pm

La Légion étrangère in Mali do a fine job – no need to worry about Mali, Chad or Djibouti.

nick hunt

5th March 2020 at 3:06 pm

Is it just me, or are the comment sections getting rarer on Spiked?

nick hunt

5th March 2020 at 2:59 pm

Given all the horrors of war in Afghanistan which Tim Black describes at length, you’d expect a little more credit for Trump and his tireless efforts to pull out US forces and meet his electoral promises. So what about a piece on Trump’s revolutionary impact on US wars of intervention and his promise to end America’s role as ‘global policeman’, Tim? After all, Obama ended no inherited wars and started new ones, while Trump is doing precisely the opposite

Jim Lawrie

5th March 2020 at 4:53 pm

Yip. He also neglects to mention the 25 years before 2001, when the US was encouraging cross incursions into the Soviet Union by Muslim fundamentalists.

Kabul 1975;

Jim Lawrie

5th March 2020 at 2:21 pm

Gorbachev warned the US in the mid-80’s that in arming The Mujahideen they did not know what they were playing with and that it would come back to haunt them.

Geoff Wilson

5th March 2020 at 2:12 pm

The USA got into this war because it refused to acknowledge the simple fact that the ideology behind 9/11 was Islamic doctrine NOT terrorism. Yes, something needed to be done about the Taliban BUT in the wider context of confronting the Islamic doctrine of jihad generally.

Bush and Blair didn’t have the stomach for that. As this Islamic scholar said after Christchurch (article in Daily Telegraph, New Age Islam and several other places). The authors of this article need to read this and gives their heads a rattle!

“Among Muslims and non-Muslims, there is an urgent need to address those obsolete and problematic elements of Islamic orthodoxy that underlie the Islamist worldview, fuelling violence on both sides. The world’s largest Muslim organisation, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, of which I am General Secretary, has begun to do exactly that.

The truth, we recognise, is that jihadist doctrine, goals and strategy can be traced to specific tenets of orthodox, authoritative Islam and its historic practice. This includes those portions of Shariah that promote Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity towards non-Muslims and require the establishment of a caliphate. It is these elements – still taught by most Sunni and Shiite institutions – that constitute a summons to perpetual conflict.

It is our firm view that, if Muslims do not address the key tenets of Islamic tradition that encourage this violence, anyone – at any time – can harness them to defy what they claim to be illegitimate laws and butcher their fellow citizens, whether they live in the Islamic world or the West. This is what links so many current events, from Syria to the streets of London. There is a desperate need for honest discussion of these matters. This is why it worries me to see Western political and intellectual elites weaponise the term “Islamophobia,” to short-circuit analysis of a complex phenomenon that threatens all humanity. For example, it is factually incorrect and counter-productive to define Islamophobia as “rooted in racism,” as proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. In reality, it is the spread of Islamist extremism and terror that primarily contributes to the rise of Islamophobia throughout the non-Muslim world. That is why it is vital to challenge the prevailing “Muslim mindset,” which is predicated upon enmity and suspicion towards non-Muslims, and often rationalises perpetrating violence in the name of Islam. Otherwise, non-Muslims will continue to be radicalised by Islamist attacks and by large-scale Muslim migration to the West.”

SNJ Morgan

5th March 2020 at 1:26 pm

While understanding the full horror of 9/11, US chief of staff and the government should have known a war in Afghanistan would be unwinnable. The view of grand armies retreating from that quagmire of a country are legion, from the Russians to the British.

I think it was also highly questionable to have made this a NATO operation – NATO was never designed to fight what was a anti-terrorist action. They should have kept it to a CIA and Seals type operation, fighting terror with terror.

Winning against the Taliban was made almost impossible by the porous border with Pakistan (and indeed the actions of the ISI, which is far more interested in regional hegemony than in trying to stop it’s many terrorist organizations or the Taliban).

It’s good that Trump is getting us out of the hellhole, and one can only hope that the agreement not to let their land be used by terrorists who will attack Western interests will hold. It’s unlikely to hold for long of course, but we may get some breathing space.

etidretni noinipo

5th March 2020 at 1:04 pm

Excellent article. Surely the West is gonig to leave this basket case of a country to its own devices now. Which means we’re out of it, but it’s very scary news if you’re not a pashtun and/or don’t have a beard half way down to your knees.

In Negative

5th March 2020 at 12:41 pm

“If regime change proved a tragic folly in Iraq, it was to prove a bloody nonsense in Afghanistan.”

Everybody knew this at the time. I remember it well – endless news reports about how it was a war that couldn’t be won. This is barely worth mentioning really, so inevitable was it. Still, 19 years of arms manufacture must have done something for the GDP. Afghanistan, a pointless war. Gee, who knew?

Bill East

5th March 2020 at 12:26 pm

The Americans have always been warmongers, with their own death cult—Iraq, Korea, Chile, Central America constantly, Vietnam et al. They constantly try to impose their will on other people and mostly are beaten, as in Korea and Vietnam, now Afghanistan. They’re a clueless lot.

Vadar’s Hate Child

5th March 2020 at 12:58 pm

I don’t think Korea (if you mean the war) can be described as warmongering or a defeat.

What characterises most US military intervention is having no clear objective or the determination to do what’s necessary to achieve it. The last time they had one was WWII where they adopted the pre-existing British ones of the total defeat of the axis powers at almost any cost.

nick hunt

5th March 2020 at 3:02 pm

So do you fear Trump more than ISIS, or more than mass-murdering dictators with nuclear arsenals who imprison 1m Muslims in concentration camps and harvest their organs, like Emperor Xi?

Michael McHugh

5th March 2020 at 9:20 am

It seems that Afghani women’s rights and the rights of secular Afghanis could soon be washed away by Islamist fanatics in the Taliban. A sad end to two decades of effort on behalf of the West and the Afghani army.

But perhaps in the cities of Afghanistan (like Kabul), a semblance of modernity and secularism may survive. The Taliban are mainly a rural force, so they may focus on villages and the countryside to impose their ideology.

Of course the Afghani government will need to maintain a good army and security forces in order to protect the cities from possible Taliban incursions.

Afghanistan may become a country of two very different cultures. A highly religious, conservative, Islamist culture in rural areas. And a more secular way of life in the cities. This is the best case scenario.

Worst case scenario is that the Taliban overruns the entire country, and Afghanistan ends up just the way it was before 9/11.

Time will tell.

In Negative

5th March 2020 at 12:43 pm

Good grief…

Geoff Wilson

5th March 2020 at 2:13 pm

The 2nd option is the most likely.

Jim Lawrie

5th March 2020 at 2:23 pm

What you outline will have the left clamouring for progressive and caring intervention.

Asif Qadir

5th March 2020 at 7:56 am

Why do you insist on indulging the eastern death-cult, Dim Hack? Is you getting bribed, cos I’ve seen nothing but death-cultist indulgence from you on here so far.

Do attempt to pass urself off as some kind of death-cultist expert amongst ur loser-leftist peers? Is that what this is about?

Ha, leftist weirdo. Lisr.

Asif Qadir

5th March 2020 at 7:57 am

* Do you

* liar

etidretni noinipo

5th March 2020 at 12:59 pm

Afghan cannabis is as potent as ever I see.

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