The Afghan War has entered its tenth year and shows no sign of abating. Furthermore, the Afghan War has the dubious distinction of being America’s longest conflict surpassing U.S. involvement in Indochina. However, military progress has been made in wrestling significant portions of the country from the Taliban and eliminating Al Qaeda elements. Despite these gains there is widespread doubt that the war can be successfully brought to a conclusion. What gains have been made are increasingly tenuous and any military successes could be reversed once some American troops begin to leave in July 2011 as scheduled.
Additionally, there are concerns that the war could prove to be a colossal waste of effort and lives once the U.S. military completely evacuates by 2014 with the exception of support units. There are legitimate concerns that U.S. and NATO forces are propping up the Afghan government which will be unable to hold onto major population centers without a direct American troop presence. Continuing Western military involvement beyond 2014 depends on domestic political support on Capitol Hill and in many European capitals.
Public opposition to prolonged U.S. involvement hovers around 50 percent according to polling by Quinnipiac University. Congress is expressing displeasure with the war and because they approve the funding they could hold back dollars unless future guarantees are made. Particularly, transparent progress in the training of the Afghan Army and National Police and insuring that corruption in the Karzai government is dealt with effectively.
The Karzai government undercuts support in Washington by not dealing with internal Afghan problems like corruption and stamping out internal support for the Taliban. President Karzai fears that unless he attempts to negotiate secretly with the Taliban and once the West leaves Afghanistan, his government will essentially be on its own. Comparisons have been made to the example of South Vietnam. Once the U.S. left, the government of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu quickly fell to North Vietnam.
While Senators Liebermann, McCain and Graham continue to support the administration the House of Representatives is vocal in their opposition, particularly, sustained involvement beyond 2011. Sixty-one Democrats and Republicans cosigned a letter to the administration, “Mr. President, such an extension of US troops in Afghanistan is contrary to American public opinion and to the future of America…We believe that this Congress will not support efforts to extend our military operations in Afghanistan into 2014 and we call on you to reaffirm your commitment to begin a safe and rapid redeployment beginning in July 2011.”
Congressional opposition to military engagements has rarely forced their conclusions. It was only after years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the war was opposed by vast majorities of Americans was Congress able to force President Ford’s hand. Furthermore, while it is highly unlikely that President Obama or his Republican opponent will oppose the war during the 2012 campaign, the presidential elections in 2016 will see a significant portion of both Democrats and Republicans call for the U.S. to pull out entirely if a military presence in that country is still maintained.
Increased American and NATO troop deaths along with mounting Afghan security and civilian deaths raises doubts about the likelihood of a successful conclusion to the Afghan War. The original goals of the Afghan mission have tended to change as situations on the ground shift. The original mission in Afghanistan was to eliminate Al Qaeda and root out Taliban elements that had supported Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Since 2001, 1499 American soldiers and 359 British troops have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths between 2009 and 2010 number 2,537.
As the war continues, American objectives and goals have become more modest. Last year during an interview on CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” President Obama laid out the objectives of the United States, “What we’re looking to do is difficult, very difficult, but it’s a fairly modest goal, which is, don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region; don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the U.S. homeland with impunity.” The Bush administration was overconfident in the technological superiority of the U.S. military’s ability to pacify Afghanistan. Many states have attempted and failed to do so previously, the Soviets being the most cited example. As Vizzini suggests in the Princess Bride, “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”
The Bush administration is faulted for the lightening speed with which it defeated the Taliban by dispatching roughly 5,200 troops in 2002 under the assumption that this would be adequate. In subsequent years, troop levels were escalated by the thousands. Currently, there are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and over a 100,000 contractors who aid in the overall war effort. The number of contractors is expected to eventually number between 120,000 to 160,000. Besides providing private security for diplomats and Afghan officials, contractors perform more mundane tasks like working in mess halls. Additionally, there are around 40,000 German, French and Dutch troops under NATO command. These numbers fluctuate as troops rotate in and out of Afghanistan. Some countries have removed their troops entirely.
The war has been difficult for the U.S. military to wage successfully in part because the central government under President Hamid Karzai is recognized as incompetent, weak and prone to graft. The reelection of Karzai in August of 2009 was widely perceived to be the result of vote rigging and fraudulent ballots although Mr. Karzai agreed, under pressure from the U.S., to a runoff after declaring that he had legitimately won. Later, Karzai’s challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah withdraw his name.
Another challenge for the U.S. has been the attempt to train Afghan security forces and prepare them to shoulder more of Afghanistan’s security. This goal has proven difficult. Some of the biggest obstacles to overcome are the creation of an educated security force because illiteracy effects a significant portion of the National Army and Police. Drug use is also endemic. Additionally, there have been several instances where Afghans have killed their American and NATO trainers. Broadly speaking, Afghanistan has witnessed decades of conflict. Particularly, civil war, ousting the Soviets and collateral damage caused by Taliban killings of women and other Afghans working for the government or the U.S. military. Significant numbers of Afghans who could have contributed to an Afghan civil society have fled the country in search of a better life.
Defeating Taliban elements in the outlying provinces, where allegiances favor the Taliban over President Hamid Karzai, have proven to be a monumental challenge to worn out American troops. Troop morale is increasingly low due to multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Many soldiers are on their third or forth deployments in Afghanistan while also having served previous deployments in Iraq. According to Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Surgeon General of the Army, these multiple deployments are causing health and mental health problems and the multiple deployments are the single biggest contributing factor for a loss of morale across the ranks. According to Lt. Gen Schoomaker, “Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face stress from multiple deployments into combat but report being more prepared for the stresses of deployments.”
When President Obama announced that he was escalating the U.S. involvement by injecting upwards of 30,000 more troops, he announced that a drawdown would begin in July 2011. Critics of the White House argued that the July 2011 date would allow the Taliban time to essentially wait out the U.S. military only to resurface when certain provinces were in the hands of poorly trained and inadequate Afghan National Army units. Secretary Gates explained that the July 2011 drawdown date was meant to convey to Kabul that they have responsibilities that must be met for their own security needs. Sec. Gates explained, “I believe that there is an important element here of balancing, sending a signal of resolve, but also giving the Afghan government a sense of urgency that they need to get their young men recruited, trained and into the field, partnering with our forces and then on their own.”
With the U.S. essentially carrying most of the burden and along with NATO, paying most if not all of the overall costs of the war, it is abundantly clear that the Afghan national government will have to improve its ability to function independently of NATO and the U.S. This independence will include providing Afghans with a competent and functioning government. Graft, which undermines the national government, is a major problem that must be addressed and reformed. Family members of President Hamid Karzai are implicated in having a part in Afghanistan’s lucrative drug trade and developing business deals with various actors. The national government will have to become more transparent and less corrupt if Afghans are going to trust their central government.
A key part of the NATO and U.S. counterinsurgency effort is to persuade Afghans that Karzai’s government can be trusted. Because bribery and corruption are integral parts of everyday life for many Afghans, they increasingly rely on the Taliban to provide security because they perceive the central government as unrepresentative of their interests. In many provinces Taliban backed shadow governments are pervasive and in order for Afghans to reject these shadow backed Taliban provincial governments, the Afghan central government will have to replace them with governors who can be trusted to provide essential services.
Cables from the American Embassy obtained by WikiLeaks describes the endemic corruption across all levels of the Afghan government. In one of the cables, Asif Rahimi, the agriculture minister, was described as “appears to be the only minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist.” When Afghan officials have attempted to halt corruption they are often imprisoned on trumped up charges. The mayor of Kabul, Abdul Ahad Sahibi, was sentenced to four years in prison for what is described as “massive embezzlement.” In cables obtained by WikiLeaks his trial and conviction are described as “kangaroo court justice.” Additionally, the concerns about corruption reach even the president. After meeting with the president’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry described the meeting as, “The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt.”
In other WikiLeaks cables, endemic corruption is illustrated by the example of the Transportation Ministry. In 2009, the ministry collected trucking fees of $200 million but only turned over $30 million to the government. As the Afghan summer months approach, it is expected that the violence will increase as fighting intensifies. In response, the central government will have to demonstrate major improvements across a range of issues. While the corruption is openly discussed among diplomats and policymakers and has been revealed through WikiLeaks cables, Washington will have to apply direct pressure on Karzai to sanitize his administration and the Afghan government as a whole.
President Obama, while mostly glossing over the corruption during the better part of his administration has recently been more open with his dissatisfaction of Karzai’s inability or lack of will to address the corruption in his government. In 2009, Obama said he is seeking, “a sense on the part of President Karzai that, after some difficult years in which there has been some drift, that in fact he’s going to move boldly and forcefully forward and take advantage of the international community’s interest in his country to initiate reforms internally. That has to be one of our highest priorities.”
The U.S. and NATO, for a variety of reasons, cannot be expected to shoulder such a heavy burden if the Afghan government is not able to meet its obligations. Firstly, the Afghan government will have to show major security improvements. Training and equipping the Afghan Army and the National Police will have to intensify. Secondly, the judicial system needs vast improvements. Finally, corruption and graft need to be addressed. None of these improvements can succeed independently because they are all interdependent. The U.S. and NATO cannot be expected to continue to shoulder such a heavy burden amid rising troop deaths without the full cooperation of the Afghan government.