Afghanistan: what the hell happened there?
Two weeks ago the NATO forces in Afghanistan handed over formal control of security to local Afghan forces, with the US aiming to withdraw a big majority of troops by the end of 2014.
The Afghan state is corrupt and weak, with authority barely extending beyond Kabul. By contrast, the Taliban must be extremely disciplined and committed to have survived 12 years of heavily armed suppression by the US military. To the extent that the US withdraws, it is likely that the Taliban will retake control: their cohesion still puts them in the unique position of being able to provide some level of security. Hence, as the US starts to disengage, they are preparing for direct negotiations with the Taliban through their embassy in Qatar. If they want to withdraw military forces, without the state falling to Taliban fighters, they need to bring the religious movement into some sort of negotiated settlement.
The US spent many hundreds of billions of dollars on the Afghan war over the last 12 years. Many tens of thousands of lives were lost and lots of rubble was rearranged. The political situation that they leave behind them will not be substantially different to that which preceded their arrival: a weak state, fragmented ethnic groups and a well-organised Islamist movement. So, what the hell was it all about? Why did the US go to war in Afghanistan?
I've just added an old article to my archive, which I wrote back in September 2001, criticising the coming war on humanitarian grounds. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s very difficult to argue that the 12 years of war have had anything but an overwhelmingly negative impact on humanitarian measures. However, it’s equally difficult to take seriously the idea that humanitarianism was a significant motivation.
If anti-Islamic fundamentalism is considered a motivation for the war against the Taliban, the achievements on that front have been very limited, to put it mildly. On the plus side, the Taliban are no longer in control of a state, with all the capabilities that brings. On the negative side, it would seem that the war has contributed to a broad cultural rise of Islamism and the Taliban have survived and must be extremely battle hardened at this stage.
However, the evidence suggests that anti-fundamentalism is not a very strong strategic goal for the US, sufficient to motivate a long and expensive war. Over the course of the Afghan war, they have allied with radical Islamists in the region whenever geo-political strategy has demanded it (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria). Great power imperatives – whether that be containing Iran, toppling Ghaddafi or isolating Hezbollah – seem much more influential in dictating US decisions.
In the run up to the war in 2001, some critics suggested that commercial motivations were driving the build-up to invasion: for example plans to build pipelines for Central Asian gas. If commercial goals were important then the war must be considered as a very poor return on investment. However, there has been little evidence in the intervening years to suggest that the US had major economic plans for Afghanistan, or at least I have not seen any such evidence.
Others have suggested geo-political motives – gaining central Asian bases, encircling Russia or Iran. It's hard to evaluate such goals from the outside, but it's hard to see military bases in insecure Afghanistan being strategically important enough to motivate the investment.
To me, the most persuasive explanation of US motivations in the war in Afghanistan is in some ways the crudest: a punitive expedition, “pour encourager les autres”. The war was launched a mere 27 days after September 11th 2001, America’s “Holy Fucking Shit” moment. Somebody dared to attack the heartland of the global super-power. They needed to forcefully discourage such attacks. The Taliban were the best exemplary target – a fundamentalist regime whose territory was home to a variety of armed Islamic groups.
Looked at from that point of view, the war was at least partially successful. Afghanistan does serve as an effective deterrent to other governments who might be tempted to be insufficiently cooperative with US security imperatives. The Taliban declared themselves willing to hand over Osama Bin Laden, but only in compliance with International law. To what extent they would have complied is rather a moot point - it is hard to imagine that there would not have been many quicker and more cost-effective diplomatic routes to capturing Osama than a 10 year long war and manhunt.
Obviously, the US would have prefered if the Afghan war had been shorter, cheaper and less messy. However, from the point of view of deterrence, they demonstrated that they are willing to destroy those who are not compliant with their wishes, regardless of the cost to themselves.
The US government is currently facing a new security threat in the form of a sequence of damaging security leaks, most recently from Edward Snowden. They have made it clear to the international community that they will consider any attempts to assist him to be hostile acts which will attract retaliation. Countries have gone so far in their demonstrative compliance that they have been willing to provoke major diplomatic ructions and throw the international law book away in doing so. Good compliance often relies upon strong deterrents.