On October 7th, 2001, the first NATO airstrikes hit Kabul. A correspondent reflects on how the war has changed Afghanistan and its occupiers, and whether it was worth it.
As a general rule, the longer outsiders spend in Afghanistan the more depressed they become about the place. Though there are not many foreigners who can boast of more than a few years' experience here, the West’s decade-long adventure has made the army of diplomats, aid workers and development people positively funereal.
Hardly a conversation starts without a dark-humoured joke about the ultimate failure of the NATO mission. Everyone has their own particular reason to be glum. NGO types are disinclined to see glimmers of hope as they struggle to get anything done in a country where year after year the Taliban-led insurgency has strengthened and expanded, making it progressively harder to move staff around safely. There is rarely a week when human-rights officials don’t have some cause to tear their hair out—perhaps a Taliban stoning video or the discovery that the Afghan government is viciously abusing prisoners. And the diplomatic corps must deal with the daily frustrations of doing business with a government led by Hamid Karzai. It was his behaviour during the 2009 presidential election that seemed to tip many people towards despair: a million of fake ballots cast and a messy post-polling dispute that dragged on for months. The country’s four post-2001 elections have seen increasing fraud and falling participation. Western electoral experts are usually the most despairing of the lot.
Many Afghans too are disinclined to see anything but a bleak future. The vast change that the last decade has brought to Kabul, a city that has experienced a ten-year boom and which now enjoys almost round-the-clock electricity, will not last, says the manager of a high-end shop selling office computer supplies. He points out that when the torrent of money flowing through the Afghan capital in the wake of the foreigners stops, so too will the mad construction of grandiose concrete palaces that now encroach on almost every neighbourhood. Ditto the ludicrous rents and high prices for almost everything that has to be hauled up to this mountaintop plateau, making Kabul one of most expensive cities in the poor world. “The 9/11 kids,” he says, pointing to a gaggle of male teens sporting spiky gelled hair, the hippest of threads and flaunting mobile-phone technology that would have given the Taliban regime’s vice and virtue police heart palpitations. “They will all go back to wearing shalwar kameez.”
His business, which has thrived off contracts with commercial development companies who need computers and printer toners, is already feeling the squeeze as aid budgets are cut. He is resigned to having to do something rather more humble in the future. “I will sell bolani,” he suggests, picturing himself as a roadside vendor of greasy, potato-filled bread—which is what he was doing as a refugee in Peshawar in 2001 before the war started.
Although foreign soldiers tend to be much more upbeat, in recent years there has been a noticeable fading of their zeal. These days it is not hard to find American soldiers simultaneously doing some of the most ambitious and sophisticated counter-insurgency operations ever attempted, while failing to see the point of them.
I got my first taste of this two years ago, on a rainy evening in Bala Murghab, an outpost of fierce insurgency in the otherwise relatively Taliban-light north-west, from a couple of young US Army specialists (9/11 kids too), chatting as they manned a gun emplacement in a wide valley where their expensively carved out “security bubble” was merely a few kilometres wide. They understood that the point of the whole agonising business of endless foot patrols and engagement with the local community was to win them over to the Afghan government. But they did not think it had much to do with America's national security. “The people here are no threat to me or my family,” one said, before explaining his reasons for joining up: a lack of other employment opportunities and a young man’s general enthusiasm for guns and violence.
Older soldiers are often more willing to accept the logic of a grand strategy, in this case one that is supposed to keep America safe by preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a jihadist free-for-all. But after three or four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan many say they are tired and fed-up with the strain that the 12-month stints put on their family lives.
With the mood apparently gloomier than ever, is there any reason to think the Afghan adventure may not end in failure? Sitting in his windowless office, a man who insists on being cited only as a “senior Western intelligence officer” thinks Kabul’s chattering class (not least the cohort of journalists who have realised the bleaker their copy the more prominent it is in newspapers back home) has become too depressed and is thus ignoring some areas of progress. He and his team of colleagues, including a German theoretical physicist, pore over vast quantities of data gleaned from soldiers spread across the country.
The endless charts they use to track things show fighting seasons (the summers) becoming more intensive every year over the past decade. Only this year things were slightly different. This summer is set to be slightly less deadly that the last, for the first time: the level of violence in the south has plunged downwards. Although those gains have been partly offset by increases in violence the east, where NATO has turned its attention, across the country as a whole things are at last turning for the better. It may not look much, but the after so many years of relentless strengthening by the various insurgencies racking Afghanistan, this is a remarkable achievement.
“The numbers [of attacks] are still high, but the trending is unmistakable,” he says, waving a bar chart. “Every year we have seen dramatic increases in violence—now we are seeing that trend reverse.” He does not claim victory is nigh, and is careful to state the gains are fragile, but he’s maddened by the widespread failure to recognise the change. “This is our frustration: everyone says you have to get the violence down, and we get the violence down and then apparently for the media and sometimes some people in government it doesn’t matter, it is irrelevant.”
The transformation of the American mission in Afghanistan in the past few years certainly has been remarkable. Four years ago, when your correspondent first arrived, the NATO effort was drifting along with little American leadership. The headquarters of the NATO mission felt like a particularly cosmopolitan holiday camp, with a good bar. Wandering around were precious few Americans but Europeans from every conceivable nation, including countries with trivial troop contributions.
After the remarkably quick overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001, and then the distraction of Iraq, the Americans felt comfortable having fewer than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. The British made the intellectual running, producing daring plans for tribal defence forces, including teams incorporating former Taliban fighters, who, the British ambassador of the day thought, could be coaxed into swapping sides. The American general in charge wasn’t convinced and publicly squashed the idea of militias, while Washington's ambassador persisted in believing the “only good Taliban is a caged Taliban”. And bold ideas were nothing without American firepower anyway. The commander of British troops in Helmand, a huge province that produces more opium than any other place in the world, admitted as much when he told me the efforts of his overstretched force were just a “holding exercise” until the Americans could re-engage themselves.
The Americans did get serious in 2009 with a new commander, Stanley McChrystal, and two troop surges. Special-forces operations, particularly night raids directed against mid-level insurgents, were greatly increased. “We have never been better at taking bad people off the battlefield,” says John Nagl, an American counter-insurgency expert. Extraordinary efforts, including restrictions on air power, were made to reduce civilian casualties—which are now overwhelmingly caused by the Taliban.
Serious effort was put into trying to train up a half-competent Afghan Army and to overhaul the country’s prisons which, General McChrystal’s people soon discovered, were often taking in criminals and putting out insurgents. And plans remarkably similar to the old British idea were put in place for local defence militias. A team was set up to try to help persuade insurgents to lay down their weapons, so far to little effect.
General McChrystal’s tiny headquarters in Kabul took on a very different feel. The notoriously ascetic generally personally lambasted European soldiers spotted idling in the garden. He also closed the bar. Privately he would point out that most insurgencies take about a decade to beat. In his view, Afghanistan was at year two of that effort, at best. He also said victories were usually impossible when the enemy enjoys the sort of sanctuaries that the Taliban have in Pakistan. Helmand has benefited the most from the full-bore counter-insurgency campaign that came with General McChrystal, as the classified charts and tables drawn up for the senior Western intelligence officer attest, marking the sharpest fall in attacks by insurgents.
The Afghan Army has also made remarkable gains. In many areas it is now logistics and resupply that worry its international mentors, not the Afghans' capacity for fighting (which they are evidently rather good at).
But these gains are not enough for the doubters. That’s partly because of a deep-seated distrust of anything said by the military commanders, who have announced too many turning points in the past. But it is also because they argue that military gains are ephemeral without improvements in governance, rule of law and the economy.
And yet there are plenty of other examples of poor countries that manage to bodge along, misgoverned by corrupt elites. They just don't have to live with a threat to their existence the size of the Taliban. In my first 24 hours in Dushanbe, the capital of Afghanistan’s northern neighbour, Tajikistan, my wallet was lightened more than four times by traffic police and border guards. I’ve never been asked to pay a bribe in Afghanistan. For all the complaints about Afghanistan being uniquely corrupt, the problem is not so much the government, which certainly is predatory at times, and more that the dirty spoils of an out-of-control war economy are snapped up by factions or tribes, to the anger of other groups.
The gloom might lift if the cynical observers of this war were to accept that the bar for success is now far lower. The rhetoric and aims of late 2001 evaporated long ago. The plan is no longer for a modern state with clean courts, a functioning bureaucracy and a commitment to human rights that would lead to the locking up of the warlords, as many observers still seem to hope. As David Petraeus said, no one is trying to create Switzerland. Ten years on, success will simply be the holding of ground in a grinding counter-insurgency that will increasingly be fought by Afghans and be paid for by Americans. What is often described as a “withdrawal” in 2014 is really a troop reduction. American troops will fall back to probably around the 30,000 level, with most of them involved in mentoring, training and supplying air support the Afghans lack. There will no doubt be quite a bit of special-forces activity. Most of the non-Americans will simply leave.
A much expanded Afghan army and police, numbering around 350,000, will have to do most of the fighting against an insurgency that fluctuates between around 25,000 to 30,000 strong. Their mission for the army and police will be to hold on to the bits of Afghanistan that matter the most: the cities, where increasing numbers of Afghans now live, the north, and as much as the rural south as possible.
Ten years on, the best Afghanistan can hope for is quite depressing. There will not be the happy ending that most people hoped for in 2001, but nor will there be the total defeat that many now expect.