The United States initiated Operation Enduring Freedom on the 7th October 2001 less than a month after the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Taliban had been sheltering Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of those attacks, and refused to extradite him. The conflict was swift with Kabul falling on the 13th November to the Northern Alliance, a group who had been fighting the Taliban and had US help. Bin Laden however evaded the United States and escaped to Pakistan but has since been killed.
There was however a need to keep the peace and the International Security Assistance Force was established in Kabul on 20 December 2001. NATO took over command of ISAF on 11 August 2003 and its mission was expanded to include the whole country. Unfortunately the United States and NATO did not succeed in destroying the Taliban who managed to regroup in Pakistan and begin fighting again in Afghanistan in 2003. Losses for NATO and US forces in Afghanistan reached a peak of 711 in 2011 and so far there have been a total of 3340 fatalities. Casualty rates for civilians are of course many times higher with at least 14728 since 2005. NATO however is now getting out; on the 18th June the control over military operations in Afghanistan was handed over to the Afghanis and on the same day the Taliban indicated a willingness to negotiate indicating that perhaps an end is in sight. Regardless of whether these negotiations go ahead NATO intends to have mostly left the country by the end of 2014. So it is a good time to consider if NATO has been successful.
What constitutes success for NATO in Afghanistan? There are several different threads to what might be considered a success. The most obvious are whether there has been success in the objectives set by the United States at the outset of the conflict and whether NATO has succeeded in the remit of its mission in Afghanistan.
George Bush initially stated that US actions were “designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taleban regime.” This is a very limited objective that could be said to have been rapidly met but it is not really the objective for having NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Annex I of the Bonn agreement in 2001 that established the international force in Afghanistan recognised that “the responsibility for providing security and law and order throughout the country resides with the Afghans themselves”. The NATO force was to “assist in the maintenance of security for Kabul and its surrounding areas” and was later expanded to the rest of the country through UN Security Council resolution 1510 in 2003. The only non-security element mentioned for the force was at the end “it would also be desirable if such a force were to assist in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s infrastructure.”
But while it is clearly the most important element just limiting the question to security does ignore other justifications for NATO’s mission that have at various times been given; to ensure human rights, to enable the growth of democracy, and rebuilding the country all of which should be at least considered.
“NATO’s primary objective in Afghanistan is to enable the Afghan authorities to provide effective security across the country and ensure that the country can never again be a safe haven for terrorists.” The invasion of Afghanistan was initially about destroying al-Qaeda and with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Pakistan this objective has been met. There are still efforts to destroy al Qaeda but these have mostly moved out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan and other countries such as Yemen.
NATO has also brought Afghanistan to the point where the Afghani’s can look after themselves and exercise their own security. On 18th June Afghanistan took over the lead from NATO on security nationwide having previously been taking control district by district. Handing over security also itself improves security with Afghanis in Kandahar saying “Now that the foreigners are gone, the security situation in the city and in the districts is much better”.
The conflict clearly is ongoing in Afghanistan; in 2012 there were 245 drone strikes in Afghanistan compared to only 44 in Pakistan and 28 in Yemen. Even if those drones are not being used to attack al Qaeda but instead the Taliban in Afghanistan it is impossible to say that peace and security has been brought to the country.
It is also impossible to say that the handover to Afghan forces shows that the NATO mission has been a success; a handover could occur no matter how peaceful or otherwise the country is. In Vietnam the United States declared victory by signing the Paris Peace Accords and handing over to South Vietnam only for the country to be overrun two years later in the spring of 1975.
NATO is also ensuring that peace and security remain in Afghanistan as they draw down by opening up negotiations with the Taliban. Peace can only be assured by bringing together the sides so that almost everyone accepts the status quo and does not want to destroy that status quo through force. United States officials say “We have long said this conflict won't be won on the battlefield” with the deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, adding “The United States will be supporting a process that is fundamentally Afghan-led” meaning that NATO is no longer key to the process. NATO handing over control to the Afghans and eventually withdrawing entirely will make peace more likely to succeed as the Taliban “considerers it its religious and national duty to gain independence from the occupation” with this goal it wants “to support a political and peaceful solution”. Lasting peace is then only possible when NATO leaves.
Peace talks starting just 18 months before all NATO forces have left is clearly leaving it too late to ensure success. There will be little to persuade the Taliban to compromise as they believe their situation is only going to get better when there is no fear of military defeats. The Taliban has walked away from talks before and could easily do so again. It is notable that a Taliban spokesman says “There is no ceasefire now. They are attacking us and we are attacking them” which makes the chances of breakdown in the talks high. To make matters worse the Afghan government has only been lukewarm about the talks complaining that allowing the Taliban an office in Doha “gave the Taliban an official identity, something we didn't want” and responded by suspending negotiations with the United States on a security agreement that would determine how many US soldiers stay in the country after the NATO mission has ended.
Some of the biggest benefits of the NATO occupation have been through the increase in democracy and human rights. While these were not specific aims of the NATO mission they were among the goals set out by the United Nations. There have been two Presidential elections, one in 2004 the other in 2009, and two parliamentary elections, 2005 and 2010 none have been perfect but it is a clear advance from no elections at all. The most notable human rights increase has been in women’s rights. Under the Taliban Afghanistan strictly limited the activities of women but today 27.3% of the representatives in the Parliament are women (better than in the UK or US) and the first female governor is in office. The literacy rate is still low but they now make up 36.6% of those in primary school up from almost nothing. There have been similar gains in other human rights such as a reduction in the use of corporal punishments such as amputating hands for theft.
Some elections may be better than no elections but where the west has control there really should have been exemplary elections. The 2009 Presidential elections in particular have been accused of having been riddled with fraud. The election observers from the National Democratic Institute said “polling was marred by widespread fraud” and the opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the run off pointing to there being no measures taken to prevent the fraud recurring. If Afghan elections are so marred by fraud when the US and NATO still have a lot of control over the country how bad will it be when there is no outside check? And if democracy may not survive the transition from NATO control what hope is there for human rights and particularly women’s rights?
The ‘rehabilitation’ of Afghanistan’s infrastructure has not been an immense success due to the continuing bombing campaign which inevitably damages infrastructure but there have been big economic benefits from the NATO presence. There have been more than 4,000 schools built and 175,000 teachers trained, although more is needed this is an immense boost to education in Afghanistan. Another benefit of increased stability is a renewal of outside investment, from China in particular. China has been investing billions, Several mining firms have made a $4.4 billion investment in one project; an immense undeveloped copper reserve in Aynak. In total there is more than $20 billion being invested in infrastructure by Afghanistan’s Asian neighbours, as these investments are looking for profit they are clearly believed to be sustainable, by comparison the United States has only funded $1.6billion since 2006.
There are still immense problems with infrastructure in Afghanistan, more roads and railways are needed if large scale investment by China and others is to be made a success. There is little point in huge investment in mines if the product of those mines then can’t be transported out of the country to the markets as a result of either poor infrastructure or security concerns. There are also cases where infrastructure built by the US military has been allowed to deteriorate when handed over to Afghan control; there have been problems maintaining almost half the infrastructure projects built by the US in Laghman province.
Peace talks or no peace talks, NATO military leadership of Afghan would all appear to make no difference. Only hours after the Taliban said it would hold peace talks and the United States handed over control of military operations to the Afghan National Army four US soldiers were killed in a mortar attack at Bagram Airbase one of the centres of NATO operations. Clearly then NATO has not brought peace and security to Afghanistan. The effect of handovers to the Afghans have already been seen; August to October of last year saw a 28% spike in killings from the same period the year before at a time when NATO was handing over control implying that the Afghan army is not yet ready to protect civilians.
In a country where the insurgents are more opposed to the foreign occupiers than their nominal opponents in the Afghan government the complete withdrawal of troops will actually be good for peace and security. Yes Afghanistan is still dangerous but the aim is not necessarily to provide security through NATO forces but to train Afghan forces to do it.
Even if they are willing to negotiate a peaceful US exit this does not mean the Taliban will not wish to use force when the United States has left. In their statement on peace talks they highlighted “the establishment of an independent Islamic system and true security which is the want and aspiration of the nation.” They also style themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan clearly showing their political goal is regaining power in Afghanistan which would mean overthrowing the democratically elected government. Some Afghan experts such as Gilles Dorronsoro believe that this is what will happen “After 2014, the level of US support for the Afghan regime will be limited and, after a new phase in the civil war, a Taliban victory will likely follow” though this would have the advantage of bringing stability as the Taliban did before the US invasion it would represent a complete failure for the US.
There is little reason to believe that the Taliban will succeed in rapidly forcing the Karzai government out of power. The Taliban has been failing to retake the ground they have lost after offensives by NATO forces so even if the Afghan National Army fails to take more ground it seems unlikely the Taliban will quickly succeed in driving on Kabul. In the unlikely event that the Taliban does begin winning the US and other NATO states are not going to sit back and let the Afghan government fall. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister has said “The clear message is to the Taliban that you can't just wait this out until foreign forces leave in 2014. We will be firm friends and supporters to Afghanistan long beyond that.”
While some progress has been made on the economic and development front in Afghanistan it is difficult to consider it a success. There are still 20% of households who are chronically food insecure and another 18% in need of assistance in some of the year with the result that nearly 40% of children under three are malnourished. Afghanistan is immensely dependent on aid for its economic progress with foreign aid to the country representing 100% of GDP in 2011 which makes the country vulnerable to a change in priorities. Clearly the withdrawal will represent such a change; when NATO goes aid, and spending as a result of the military occupation, will drop at the very least constraining growth and likely taking the Afghan economy with it. Already the International Labour Organisation has been warning that this will mean increasing child labour in the country as lower profit margins force families to use their children to boost incomes.
There will still be aid after NATO leaves and Afghanistan is not simply going to be abandoned as the troops go home. Economic growth since the fall of the Taliban has been spectacular with average growth of 9.1% of GDP since 2009 while it is true that this has been in part fueled by aid there are more sustainable sources of growth in the form of the mineral wealth of Afghanistan which can go to the giant and growing economies of India and China.
Under the Taliban up to the US invasion Afghanistan was at least united. Today however there is little central control beyond the NATO forces; the Taliban clearly controls some areas but there are also powerful warlords. Appointments are based on nepotism and tribal affiliations not on merit or education and those who were part of the northern alliance that fought on the US side (Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras) are taking advantage of the opportunity of the overthrow of Pashtun dominance in the country to grab power and resources. Already the conflict has an ethnic dimension as almost all of the Taliban is made up of Pashtuns. The Taliban meanwhile believes that the other ethnicities want a partition of the country through a very decentralised federal state. In almost any peace scenario with NATO gone there is a large chance that one faction will walk out setting off a civil war and fragmentation of the country.
In a country as rugged as Afghanistan there is always going to have to be a lot of decentralisation and at the moment this means warlords having a lot of power in individual areas. However this is better than the alternative of a centralising Taliban which would still have many factions and elements but these would be much more extreme than today’s warlords. It is also difficult to see how this impacts on the success of NATO in Afghanistan. They can be bad but can also bring benefits as they have an incentive to deliver stability and reconstruction to their local areas.
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