By Oliver Tang
Sun Tzu proclaimed in the Art of War that, “The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace…is the jewel of the kingdom”. The circumstances involving the US’ entrance into the affairs of the Middle East and its subsequent management (or rather mismanagement) of the region have arguably left us appearing as anything but a jewel in the eyes of the international community. However, all things must come to an end and the US has another opportunity to redeem itself through its pullout from a conflict that’s been protracted for far too long. Or does it? Is the United States handling its dwindling days of the war better than it handled the war itself or is it moving even farther away from the jewel of the international community it once was?
A story doesn’t have an end without a beginning and middle; thus, it is best we examine the past 13 years before delving into the pullout. Born out of the tragedy that was 9/11, the Afghanistan War fundamentally differed from its younger sibling, the Iraq War, through the circumstances of the invasion. Rather than a solitary trot led by a unilateral United States, the USA and Britain were both behind the initial invasion of Afghanistan, a mission dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom that has since grown to include 41 other countries (1). The governing Taliban, who had refused to hand over bin Laden, were easily routed but rather than being erased from the Middle East as intended, survived and scattered to desert/mountainous regions such as Pakistan. Two notable developments followed. First, in an event that happens once in a blue moon now, the 15 permanent and nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council unanimously voted to maintain security within the country and to train Afghan National Security Forces through a task force named the International Security Assistance Force (2). Second, Hamid Karzai, an early leader in the anti-Taliban movement, was elected to head the Afghan Interim Administration in 2002, a title that has evolved into a presidency and has held on to this day with popular election victories in both 2009 and 2014. Had history ended in 2002, Afghanistan would have become the poster child of interventionism and the glorious, progressive powers of the West. Unfortunately for everybody, history did not in 2002.
If American popular opinion is any indicator of efficacy, with disapproval of the war hovering at Iran war-levels of 52% (an undecided response from 10% of Americans leaves support for the war at a low 37%) and the opinion that getting involved in Afghanistan was “the wrong decision” doubling in popularity among Americans over the past 10 years, the US has (at least appeared) to fulfill the ambitious goals it came into the region and the ones that sprung up over time (3). But what went so wrong? The first explanation may be the constant shadow looming over the reality that is war: war crimes. Amid the unfortunate existence of collateral damage evidenced by the Nangar Khel incident or the near remorseless slaying of innocents that can only be attributed to prejudice or debilitating mental conditions in the Maywand District murders, just last year more skeletons in the closet were revealed through the form of 10 bodies found just outside a US army base. Even generous estimates find that at least 17000 soldiers have lost their lives (4). With recent estimates finding that Afghanistan may boast a trillion dollars worth of mineral reserves, not only does the potential of abuse for the sake of profit comes into play too, the West might not be leaving anytime soon. That leads into a second explanation: the West has more than overstayed its welcome. All the way back in 2010, the Afghanistan war had the honor of becoming America’s longest war, surpassing Vietnam. Obama ran on the relatively popular platform back in 2008 of pulling out, remarking, “I will give my military a new mission on my first day of office: ending the war” (5). Within a year, 30000 more troops had been deployed to Afghanistan, marking everything but an end to the war. A third explanation may justify why Obama had to go back on his word: the initial invasion didn’t work and the Taliban still pose a threat. In the years following 2002, this has unfortunately been the case. Not only has the conflict spilled over into Afghanistan, the Taliban has reasserted its authority in the more rural areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan (7). This ties back into Karzai’s administration, one that ranks as one of the three most corrupt countries in the world on the Corrupt Perception Index. This also ties back into the ever present and sometimes abusive presence of the West, which have stoked the flames of anti-Americanism and terrorism. What complicates this quagmire further is the Taliban’s nasty habit of resorting to asymmetric warfare, guerilla raids, ambushes, and suicide attacks, methods of combat the US is historically unable to handle (I’m looking at you Vietnam). With these three issues in mind, a situation that looked to be convincingly improving became protracted in a thirteen year affair, a burden we have been carrying with us up to now.
However, are we any closer to dislodging ourselves from this predicament? If international action and Obama have anything to say, the answer is yes. Just this month, the UK (our original partners in starting the war) has reduced their troop presence by 60% in an operation defense correspondent Jonathan Beale calls “complex and well-planned” (9). Unlike the surge of unpopularity gripping America, Britain came in with much less ambitious goals and has left with a sense of satisfaction, with Prime Minister reflecting that the ultimate goal was always only “a basic level of security”, a goal “that has been accomplished and our troops can be proud of” (9). Britain’s sister under the Commonwealth of Nations, Canada, has also undergone its own process of withdrawal, following under the footsteps of fellow ISAF members “Holland, Denmark, Australia, Poland, and Spain” (10). The departure of a task force numbering 100 just last week marks the end of the nation’s 12-year involvement in the war. Of the goodbyes sending off these soldiers, some have not been too pretty. The Taliban has already taken the liberty of releasing press statements to rural areas of Afghanistan “celebrat[ing] victory and freedom from the Canadians” (10). An imperial force that was apparently forced to retreat in failure, Canada is now portrayed as a country that “came with dreams of colonization, dreams that have been shattered by [the Taliban’s] powerful explosions and iron-fist attacks” (10). 7 countries have now begun or completed the process of withdrawing their presence from the “Graveyard of Empires”, but what of the USA? As established earlier, Hamid Karzai’s leadership over Afghanistan has been questionable at best and his governance, both domestically and internationally, has been exacerbated by a certain agreement known as the Bilateral Security Agreement. Drafted last year and agreed by the general countries involved (America and Afghanistan), the BSA creates a framework for international policy ensuring policy in Afghanistan once America is gone as well as plans for continued anti-insurgency fighting. However, even after endorsement from fellow leaders back in November, Karzai has staunchly refused to sign the treaty, citing a “lack of peace process under way with the Taliban” or “contingency plan” for cooperation with insurgents in place, afraid that any havoc wreaked by the Taliban should the West tone down their presence would be traced back to and blamed on him (11). America was not amused. The White House has already stated in a press release that Hamid’s reluctance would prove deadly in the long run, rendering any “post-USA mission in Afghanistan smaller in size and ambition” (11). In a recent phone call with Karzai, Obama has already directly expressed plans to the leader for an “orderly withdrawal” of troops by the end of 2014. Although candidates running against Karzai in the 2014 elections rolling along soon have promised cooperation with the BSA, it’s looking like the Obama administration is not willing to take that chance; the USA has warned since last October that “it would not protect Afghanistan from external attack because it could get mired in a war with Afghanistan” (11). While actions may speak louder than words, in this case, the words make it loud and clear that America’s presence in Afghanistan may not be lasting any longer.
So we have the question of whether a withdrawal is happening out of the way, but the more important question is: Are we going about this the right way? First and foremost, will we being see a collapse in security? Some say an adamant yes. Marine General Joseph Dunford warned just this month a withdrawal means “abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavor that we’ve been here on for the last decade” and would subsequently create a “huge moral factor” that would allow al-Qaeda to regroup (16). A recent nonpartisan study corroborates that a lack of US means would leave “systematic gaps in capability”, literally opening the door to the country for the Taliban (17). Army Corporal David Thorpe argues the opposite, stating that Afghanistan is “much more secure” and certainly much better off than an Afghanistan without Western involvement (18). Af this point, policy evaluations are scattered: should we leave things up to the international community, safeguards left by the Afghani people, or still maintain a small presence in the region? Furthermore, one of the biggest forces we are relying on to maintain security are the police: can they be trusted? This issue becomes extremely important given the fact that an estimated 97% of all security operations are now being handled by the Afghanistan police force (13). Only 2 years ago, police specifically trained by America were found guilty of 7 counts of abuse, including but not limited to ransom, rape, and murder (12). The BSA and placeholders left behind by NATO specifically has measures to further train the police and address these egregious concerns. However for the time being, the consensus seems to be that the overall functionality of the police has “been growing steadily since 2007”, with one trainer arguing, “They are going to have challenges…but they also have confidence” (9). Additionally, as even a terrorist organization can’t succeed without public cooperation to some extent, have we successfully appealed to the “hearts and minds” of the people? When we take a look back at Canada, it seems like we don’t have too much to worry about. Despite Taliban propaganda, testimony from a district elder in Panjwali reveals that the general consensus in the rural region is that the West were a powerful force “who scared the Taliban and often forced them to hide”; he concludes that “people do recognize the Canadians came to help” (9). Moreover, with 57% of Afghanis believing that their country is heading in the right direction (ironically nearly the same percentage of Americans who believe the opposite), it seems that the West has left to some degree a positive effect, at least in their eyes. Finally, are there any logistical or pragmatic concerns? As the 7 countries before us have demonstrated, the process is not difficult as we are making it out to be. Besides, there’s only one thing more expensive than pullout, and that’s prolonged war. One extremely questionable decision that America has been making is its consideration of handing over used American military material to Pakistan. With Pentagon figures estimating a cost of $100000 to ship back an individual vehicle, $7 billion of our military equipment might just be dumped into the hands of Pakistan. This deliberation is questionable at best, given Pakistan’s role not only as a geopolitical region of instability (and most notably the preferred safe haven of Taliban over the course of the Afghanistan war), but also as a historical squanderer of American aid (look no further to intelligence estimates that Pakistan has wasted a good 70% of military aid it has received from America). On the bright side, this consideration remains as it is in the status quo, just a consideration. However, the existence of such problems indicates the depth of policy evaluation that must go into organizing a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
13 years. 33600 soldiers. 2313 deaths. America has and continues to make a heavy commitment to the hotbed of stability that was, and arguably still is, Afghanistan. The nature of Obama’s choice, motivated by a lack of understanding with Karzai, to leave the country in the first place holds heavy implications for our country. The void we inevitably leave behind, the potential repercussions, and the inevitable costs that come with removing a force that’s been present for 13 years also hold heavy implications for our country. Every story and must come to an end and it looks like the tale that is the Afghanistan War is finally drawing to a close. Only time will tell if America is going to get that storybook ending or one full of crushed dreams and dashed hopes.