It’s the most repeated maxim in all the reporting on Afghanistan: “The Americans have the watches, the Taliban have the time”.
Dead right! This is America’s longest war ever, 16 years and counting. President Donald Trump, admitting he was reversing his campaign call for pulling out, has now decided to stay in, sending to Afghanistan another 3,900 troops to reinforce the 8,400 there now.
Trump doesn’t claim it will do the job of defeating the Taliban. In fact he lays out no long term strategy at all. It’s not difficult to imagine that in a decade the same stalemate will exist.
President Barack Obama, blind-sided by the generals, he confided later, pumped up the numbers to 100,000. Before very long, Obama came to realize that even if he did a Lyndon B. Johnson and sent in half a million troops it would end up as it did in Vietnam with stalemate. He ordered the troop numbers down to their present total, the minimum to secure Kabul and provide training for the Afghan army. Unanswered was why, after 16 years and more than $120 billion dollars spent, the Afghan army wasn’t trained already. (One could ask the same question in Iraq.)
The argument of the American high command that if the US gets out the extremists might take over is exaggerated. If the US and NATO left Afghanistan the Taliban would take over
Meanwhile, the Taliban gain territory, the number of civilians killed rises as does the number of Taliban. An affiliate of ISIS is now getting itself established. Kabul seems more vulnerable to attack. The government is unable to get on top of the country’s three curses- vicious infighting by the warlords, corruption and poppy growing for heroin manufacture (it is now at an historic high and is 95% of the world’s traded opium). 580,000 people fled their homes last year. A thousand schools were closed because of security concerns- most of them the hard work of western government aid programs and NGOs. The cynics wonder if the US and its Nato allies hang in only because they have their eye on the apparent $1 trillion worth of minerals waiting to be mined.
Eventually, wearied by failure, Obama and his generals came to believe that the only hope was reconciliation- negotiation among the Taliban, the government and the US, to find a compromise. The Taliban showed what they thought of that idea when they sent a missile in the direction of the visiting Secretary of State, John Kerry.
It is the same as it was in Vietnam. If the insurgents are not losing they are winning. This is their home. The US and NATO are far from home. This is what the Soviet army found in its war in the 1980s. Only when Mikhail Gorbachev became president did the Kremlin have the guts to order a retreat. If one wants to know how terrible things came for the Red Army soldiers one should read the Nobel Prizewinning author Svetlana Alexievich’s book, “Zinky Boys”.
Currently the US is at war in at least seven Muslim countries. Non-Muslim forces fighting on Muslim land angers even moderate Muslims
The US and NATO are being undercut by Iran which is supplying the Taliban with weapons, funds and fighters. Trump’s hostility to Iran ensures this will grow. Russia, which for so long has supported the Americans, even allowing war materials to be transported on its railways, is now hedging its bets and making overtures to the Taliban. Pakistan plays both ends against the middle. On the one side it is the main logistics route for America. On the other it tolerates the Taliban operating in parts of its northern territory. This dualism reflects its obsession with the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan which Trump has just added to by announcing what Richard Nixon would have called a “tilt” towards India.
Currently the US is at war in at least seven Muslim countries. Non-Muslim forces fighting on Muslim land angers even moderate Muslims. In Somalia, US support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia provoked the earth-scorching Islamist al Shabab group whose influence has spread far and wide outside Somalia. In Yemen US and Saudi Arabian bombing (with planes and armaments from the US and the UK) has increased the number of fighters recruited by al Qaeda.
The argument of the American high command that if the US gets out the extremists might take over is exaggerated. The North Vietnamese are not extremists. In the 1980s, the US military was in Lebanon fighting Hezbollah. A truck bomb blew up the US barracks, killing 241 soldiers. Not long after, President Ronald Reagan, realizing that his troops were not improving the situation, withdrew his forces. Lebanon calmed as Syrian diplomats and troops took over, though infighting among Lebanon’s factions continued.
If the US and NATO left Afghanistan the Taliban would take over. As happened after the Red Army left there would be internecine warfare, with warlords competing for territory. Maybe girls’ schools would be closed. But, as before when the Taliban ruled, poppy production would be banned.
Plus one and minus the other. Not a good or tidy solution, but is Trump’s?
For 17 years the writer was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune/New York Times.