15 years in the Afghan crucible

Carlotta Gall

THE recent American military drawdown from Afghanistan has been drastic — from over 100,000 troops a few years ago to a force of 8,500 today. Thousands of Afghans have been made jobless as bases and assistance programs have closed. Afghan forces have been bearing the brunt, suffering unsustainable casualties. Communities talk of hundreds of coffins returning from the front line. Civilians have suffered no less — thousands of families have been displaced anew by fighting, and aid workers warn that their access is deteriorating. Business executives have been leaving, selling off their property, and whole families have swelled the refugee columns heading to Europe.
Since the Taliban temporarily overran the town of Kunduz last fall, many Afghans have lost confidence that the government can protect them. Over the years, Afghanistan has received one of the highest amounts of foreign assistance per capita, on a par with the West Bank and Gaza and Liberia. The United States alone has spent close to $500 billion on its Afghanistan mission since 2002, most of it on military operations but roughly a fifth — $113 billion — on reconstruction, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Yet it remains one of the poorest countries in the world — more than 10 million people live below the poverty line, and three-quarters of the population is illiterate, according to the World Bank. It looked easy enough at the beginning. The Taliban were swiftly defeated in 2001 and fled in disarray, as did Al Qaeda’s forces. I saw thousands of their fighters — including hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters — surrender in northern Afghanistan, and there was no doubt they were at the end of their strength and had lost popular support.
Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, is still believed to be living in Pakistan, alongside the top Taliban leaders — and continues directing mayhem through his adherents across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. American Special Operations forces have been raiding Al Qaeda groups infiltrating back into Afghanistan over the last two years. Watching so many deadly attacks continue over the years with little done to prevent them at their source has been one of my hardest experiences as a reporter. And it is increasingly difficult to answer Afghans when they wonder how America could have been so blind or careless to ignore Pakistan’s role in sponsoring terrorism.
Yet Afghan friends and acquaintances rarely hesitate when asked whether the American intervention was worth it: “No question” is the usual response. There have been many painful mistakes, of course, but the building, the education, the defence and diplomatic support have all helped Afghanistan rise from the ashes. Women especially have gained confidence. There is still a great disparity between the city and countryside, and in many areas women are struggling to feed their children. Nearly a quarter of the country’s districts — 90 out of a total of nearly 400 — are under Taliban sway.
Despite many complaints about the dysfunctional government, there is still hope that President Ashraf Ghani has the ideas to lift the economy. Most Afghans say they will need American support in defence and diplomacy to counter the continuing threat of terrorism and to protect them from predatory neighbours beyond the 2017 deadline that President Obama has made for the drawdown. There is a real danger the Afghan Army could collapse next year if the fighting and casualties remain as intense, and so a continued United States military commitment will remain essential.
If the United States could go a step further and redouble efforts to secure peace in Afghanistan with the Taliban and with Pakistan — a process started in 2009 by Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and still sputtering along — it would avoid a gigantic failure of having the country relapse into Taliban control. Peace will be a tall order and require a high level of American commitment for years more. But the result would be welcomed overwhelmingly by Afghans who have endured decades of war, and serve as a lasting tribute to the families of the American soldiers who died there. The writer, a senior foreign correspondent for The New York Times, spent nearly 12 years reporting in Afghanistan since 2001. — Courtesy: The New York Times

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