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America’s Road to Nowhere in Afghanistan

‘Afghanistan is a total disaster. We don’t know what we are doing.’ This was one of a volley of tweets in 2012 by Trump. In 2013, the drumbeat continued, ‘Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train, and we waste billions there.’ Five years later, as the third President in five Presidential terms to have presided over one of the longest wars in US history, Trump has his deal-making instincts clearly nudging him to strike a deal with America’s nemesis in Afghanistan. Reports suggest that a push for a ‘face-saving’ exit is in the offing, and a major official announcement could come by April this year.

So how did the world’s only ‘hyper power’, aided by NATO and just about every country in Afghanistan’s vicinity, end up creating for itself a situation reminiscent of Vietnam in the most impoverished country on earth. The answer to this question would probably require an exhaustive treatise, but what we can briefly offer here is a quick overview of the magnitude of the disaster that Afghanistan has been for the United States.

After shoving close to a trillion dollars down a bottomless pit, American military presence in Afghanistan is restricted today to 9 military bases, 7 airports and 5 land transit bases. The war effort in Afghanistan has cost the American taxpayer over a whopping 715 billion dollars, at a rate of approximately 3.9 billion dollars per month since 2001. Yet after 17 years of experimentation in military tactics and ‘strategy’ (if there has ever been a coherent one for Afghanistan), beginning with a full scale invasion and then shifting gears to counter-terrorism, massive troop surges, and all shades of counter-insurgency tactics, today, the Afghan countryside has been almost completely overrun by the Taliban. According to the US watchdog agency, SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction), during the previous year, the Afghan government’s control of territory declined to 55% from 71%, while the ratio of contested areas went up by 11%. Figures provided by the Long War Journal state that the Afghan government controls 145 districts, the Taliban are in complete control of 52 districts, while 199 districts- 50 percent of Afghanistan- is ‘contested territory’.

On the ground, ‘contested territory’ in Afghanistan looks something like this: the district center- an island of security surrounded by barbed wire and a network of military posts- is controlled by the American sponsored government. Around this island is a sea of Taliban-controlled country side, where the entire population of the district resides. It is here that the Taliban mix freely with the population, roam around unchallenged, and, as a de facto shadow government, provide a law-and order-oriented governance structure. The district center is normally a strongly fortified military base with nominal, and at times none at all, civil government presence. Securing the district center is generally a network of isolated posts which guard the entry-exit routes. Depending on the situation on the ground, the district center may or may not have a secure rear, a land route for reinforcements from the provincial capital. In some cases, reinforcements and logistics are solely from the air. Where a land bridge to the provincial center does exist, it tends to be mine-infested, with ANA convoys regularly coming under ambush from the Taliban, or a military vehicle being blown up by a pressure mine every second day. In some of these ‘contested districts’, the center may have changed hands several times over the course of recent years, with the Taliban overrunning it with relative ease, only to be pushed back by intensive air strikes. In the majority of these districts, the district headquarter represents the frontline, with the populated areas being the Taliban’s secure rear. The Taliban, in spite of possessing the ability to overrun the district center, in most cases avoid to do so, not because of any lack of offensive capabilities, but out of fear of civilian casualties and losses in their own ranks due to heavy American airstrikes that normally follow such victories on the ground. Instead, they remain content with a slow-death-by-a-thousand-cuts policy of pricking at the peripheries, nibbling at the edges, taking out the small isolated posts meant to guard the district center, and laying artfully planned and prolonged sieges. As the saying goes in Afghanistan, the Americans have the watches, and the Taliban time.

After the district center changes hands twice or thrice, the ANA leadership on the ground, exhausted materially, morally and psychologically by an extremely resilient, illusive and adaptable foe, inevitably decides to abandon the district center, adding in the process another complete district to Taliban-controlled territory. The most remarkable feature of this strategy is that the Taliban have kept their lines of communication and logistics open from the north to the south, creating geographically contiguous pockets of liberated areas as they cut off and isolate each pocket of government controlled territory from the other. This is the familiar pattern that has been recurring across Afghanistan as the Taliban slowly but surely advance, consolidating their gains, district by district. This verse of the Quran captures the essence of the Taliban’s war strategy, ‘Do you not see how We approach the earth from its edges, gradually eroding it.’

On the other hand, the linchpin of America’s strategy in Afghanistan has been creating a viable Afghan ‘National’ Army (ANA) by the lure of money alone. In a country deeply divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, this is a wildly ambitious and questionable proposition to begin with. After spending a massive 70 billion dollars on arming and training the ANA, the Americans have essentially brought together some of the world’s best fighters to form the world’s most useless army with the highest desertion rates in the world, an unprecedented achievement indeed. From 2011-2014, the 350,000 strong ANDSF lost 40-50 thousand troops to desertions. By 2018, force strength had dropped to its lowest levels since the war began, the attrition rate being so embarrassing that the US government stopped SIGAR from releasing the figures. It has been widely reported that troop strength today is at its lowest levels ever since 2012, with a drop of 8827 personnel since the beginning of last year. Between May and October 2018, the ANDSF witnessed the greatest number of casualties suffered during the same period in preceding years. The launch of the Taliban’s spring offensive in May alone accounted for 26% of the total casualties. According to official Afghan government figures, around 25,000 Afghan Army and police officials have been killed in battle since the inception of the ANDSF. Security experts believe that the actual casualty figures are way higher.

For the Americans, a viable ANA was the pivot of their Afghan war strategy; for the Taliban, it represented the weakest link, and one they went after relentlessly. The ANA as a concept has come to represent an abject failure partly because it is an ill-contrived proposition laden with contradictions, and mainly because the Taliban have done everything possible under the sky to make sure that its potential for failure is realized. From financing desertions, bribing ANA soldiers and officers to provide weapons and information, to infiltrating ANA ranks and organizing an endless run of green-on-blue attacks, the Taliban strategy has torn down the edifice around which America’s half-hearted state-building efforts revolved.

From a state-building perspective, Afghanistan under American occupation stands out as one of the worst failures in Western imperial history. America has thus far spent more than a 100 billion dollars on Afghan ‘reconstruction’. To put things in perspective, after adjusting for inflation, this is more money than was spent on the Marshall Plan! The results speak volumes for how corruption-ridden and mismanaged the ‘reconstruction’ effort has been. Since 2001, the US government claims to have spent 759 million dollars on education in Afghanistan. Yet Afghanistan today has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world: below 50% for the general population, below 20% for girls, and an appalling 14% for women. Out of a population of 35 million, 6 million have zero access to education. According to the UNICEF, ghost schools are endemic in Afghanistan. More than half of the schools have no actual buildings. Of those enrolled in primary schools, only 10 percent go on to complete high school. The unemployment rate is 60 percent. Among university graduates, it is a shocking 80 percent. These perhaps are the bitter fruits of a National Education Strategic Plan (NESP III), drafted by Western ‘experts’, with Western donors dictating the outlines of the educational policy and the contents of the curriculum. In the context of education, the only notable achievement of the occupation has been the establishment of the American University of Afghanistan, a factory for churning out butlers of the West who can neatly fit in a Western-style bureaucracy tailored to implementing imperial agendas dictated from Western capitals.

Afghanistan under America boasts of the 18th lowest HDI (Human Development Index) in the world. The 17 countries under it in the list are all in sub-Saharan Africa. Thirty-nine percent of the Afghan population lives below the poverty line. According to Western aid agencies, rural poverty in recent years has risen from 14 to 44 percent. Afghanistan today is a land of at least 2 million orphans, with the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the world. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is 165 out of every 1000, while the under-five mortality rate is 257 per 1000, the highest in the world. Twenty percent of Afghan children will not live to see their 5th birthday as per a report of the UN. Less than 40 percent of Afghan children receive vaccination, while 60 percent of child deaths are due to intestinal, respiratory and vaccine-preventable diseases. Western aid agencies describe Afghanistan as the most dangerous place in the world to give birth, with a maternal mortality rate of 789 for every 100,000 live births (Global Burden of Disease Study). The Red Cross claims that 770 hospitals have been shut down in Afghanistan due to war damage and lack of facilities. The only notable hospital in Afghanistan that can boast of something close to international standards is the ‘Jamhooriat Hospital’ in Kabul- a gift from China, and not from the occupiers. One is justified in wondering just where did the 1.5 billion dollars that the USAID claims to have spent on health in Afghanistan since 2001 vanish?

In the year 2000, after a successful and well-documented poppy eradication campaign by the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the United States dropped Afghanistan from its Narcotics Blacklist. In 2001, immediately after the American invasion, opium production saw a rapid surge to 200 tons. By 2009, opium production had risen to 6900 tons, a shocking 35-fold increase. In just the past two years, opium production has increased by 63 percent, while the acreage devoted to poppy production has quadrupled since 2002. Farmlands dedicated to opium production in Afghanistan today exceed, in terms of cultivated area, total acreage dedicated to cocaine production in Columbia, Peru and Bolivia combined. Today, Afghanistan accounts for 77 percent of the world’s heroine supply. The drug trade generates a business of 200 billion dollars annually at the global level. However, inside Afghanistan, opium production does not generate more than 4 billion dollars of economic activity. Clearly, there are international rackets that have a vested interest in the booming drug trade, much more than the ordinary cash-starved poppy farmers in rural Afghanistan. One would hardly be surprised if, sometime in the future, it comes to light that Western Intelligence agencies had been using the opium and drug trade all along to sponsor their illicit undercover enterprises. The 8 billion dollars- at an average of almost 1.5 million dollars a day- purportedly spent by the United States so far on anti-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan is perhaps only a convenient smokescreen for a story that demands deeper investigation. An interesting angle to the drug trade is its lethal impact on Russia. Every year, opium and heroin, originating mainly from Afghanistan, kill approximately 20,000 thousand Russians. This is more than the ‘official’ Soviet death toll for its entire war in Afghanistan: 15,000 dead. No wonder the Russians bitterly complain of a Western-sponsored drug offensive that has Afghanistan as its strategic base.

On the strategic plane, America has tried, for seventeen years, to use Afghanistan as a forward operating base to counter the spread of Russian and Chinese influence in Eurasia, and to influence geo-political developments in Central and South Asia by the sheer weight of its presence in Afghanistan. But to what extent have American strategic goals been served by its presence at a strategic crossroads sensitive not just for China and Russia, but for immediate neighbours like Iran and Pakistan as well? The Americans pushed their way into Afghanistan with the assumption that, under the shade of Pax Americana, they would be able to connect the energy-rich Central Asian Republics with Afghanistan and southwards with Pakistan at the mouth of the Arabian Sea, creating a network of gas and oil pipelines with massive investments from Western energy corporations, secured by permanent American military presence in the region. This pipeline dream was supposed to be the counterweight to Chinese and Russian exploitation of Central Asia’s immense oil and gas resources. Afghanistan, being the strategic corridor in the region, was to occupy the center stage in the 21st century’s energy great game. The energy dream never materialized, thanks mainly to an unrelenting countrywide Taliban-led insurgency, and partly to the complexity of bringing some semblance of order and governance to a deeply fractured war torn land. Newly established American military bases in the Central Asian Republics didn’t do much in the long run to counter deep-rooted Russian influence or weaken China’s strong economic grip in the region. Iran- an old adversary of the Taliban and an active abettor in the collapse of its government in the wake of the American invasion- also recognized the winds of change and grabbed the opportunity to weaken American influence in the region. And after years of obediently, almost ‘selflessly’, ‘doing-more’ and still more for America at the expense of its national interests, Pakistan too has finally preferred to quietly align its interests and policies with China, becoming, in the process, a strategic partner in the OBOR (One Belt, One Road) program.

Inside Afghanistan, the biggest investor in mineral extraction is not the United States, but China, whether at the Aynak copper mines or the Hadjigek iron ore deposits near Kabul. Afghanistan holds one of the biggest deposits of rare earth minerals that are in high demand in high-tech industries and the space sector. The country has been dubbed ‘the Saudi Arabia of Lithium’. And this is what hurts Trump, the businessman. Early on in his presidency, he is reported to have said in a National Security Council meeting, ‘I am not making a deal on anything until I get the minerals.’ Of course, in a country crippled by war, and possessing one of the weakest infrastructures in the world, ‘getting the minerals’ won’t be as easy or as profitable a proposition as it sounds from the comfort of the White House. However, from an American perspective, it surely is frustrating how unprofitable and deeply damaging this war has been for America. Back in America, the only winner in Afghanistan, it seems, is the defense-industrial complex that thrives on the business of war, and that has no prestige to lose on the global stage.

In a war presided over by three American Presidents, six Secretaries of Defense, and five Chairmen Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the United States the only viable endgame imaginable, it seems, is to pull out from Afghanistan, and let regional powers- Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India- jostle and be at loggerheads with each other in the emerging power vacuum. The idea perhaps is to make Afghanistan someone else’s, or preferably everyone else’s, headache. As far as Trump is concerned, a withdrawal equals instant gratification in the form of greater popular appeal at home. It strongly resonates with his popular support base in which military families are heavily represented. As an October poll by the Charles Koch Institute shows, 69 percent of veterans support the idea of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, whereas over fifty percent of Americans believe that there is no strategic purpose in remaining in Afghanistan. In the words of General Nicholson, ‘It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.’ Wars, unfortunately, are not ended. They are either won or lost.

History shall judge who won and who lost in Afghanistan…

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