14 Years and Counting: Afghanistan and The Longest U.S. War

October 7, 2015 marked the 14th anniversary of US direct intervention in Afghanistan in the aftermath of attacks perpetrated by the terrorist group Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001. Osama Bin Laden used the failed state of Afghanistan (under the control of Taliban) to hatch the plan of attack on the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon. Our objective at the time, under the banner of global war on terror, was to dismantle Al Qaeda and bring its leaders to face justice. We were able to rout the Taliban and Al Qaeda in a rapid manner over the course of several days. We accomplished this blitzkrieg with our overwhelming airpower, Special Forces and the participation of militias mostly from the Northern Alliance warlords.

Rank and file Afghans were overjoyed and came out in the streets, many shaving off the beards imposed on them by the Taliban as a religious edict. People believed that the US led intervention, followed by the participation of other countries, was a ticket for Afghanistan to put its devastating troubles of the prior 20 years behind. But what ensued dashed these hopes and was instrumental in a resurgent Taliban insurgency, active again by 2006. As the perceived or actual king makers of Afghanistan, we gave the warlords and their militias legitimacy instead of pressuring the Afghan leaders to clean house and marginalize them. The warlords and their militias who eventually became the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) reinstated the culture of impunity and corruption. As legitimate leaders and members of the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) they took corruption and lawlessness to even higher levels. ANSF was seen again not as protector of people, but predators prying on people's property, money and helpless sons and daughters. This is the narrative that the Taliban have used so successfully to become resurgent again.

I watched the testimony of General John Campbell to the Senate Armed Service Committee on October 6. He testified that given the situation in Afghanistan, the US should not reduce its presence in Afghanistan to a Kabul centric embassy presence by the end of 2016. This plan was announced by President Obama last year. General Campbell indicated that ANSF is making progress, but they still need our help in the form of training, advising and assisting. We have been at it for the past 14 years with little to show for it and I am not sure continuing this course of action will produce the desired results.

The sad state of the ANSF recently became abundantly clear with the fall of the fifth largest city, Kunduz, to a ragtag terrorist Taliban bunch on motorbikes on September 28th. Although the city has been partially retaken by the ANSF, they would not have been able to do so without our help. The ANSF (about 350,000 soldiers and police) outnumbers the Taliban (estimated 25,000 fighters) by 14 to 1. Yet the ANSF is not able to fight the Taliban because they are undisciplined, sectarian, the commanders and the civilian leaders are incompetent and they don't have the moral and political legitimacy to fight effectively. The Taliban don't have air power, so why would it be necessary for the ANSF to have air power to defeat the Taliban?

Regardless of how much more we pour into Afghanistan, without forcing major political changes we are not going to see the desired results we have been seeking in the past 14 years. All we are doing is protecting the corrupt and incompetent ruling power brokers within and outside the government who are the cause of the resurgent insurgency. While the current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is an educated technocrat with no previous baggage, he won the fraudulent presidential elections with the help of notorious former warlords such as Dostom who is now serving as the country's first vice president.

Ghani was forced to share power with Abdullah Abdullah, who is serving in a precarious post as the chief executive in the Government of National Unity (GNU). This power sharing, full of suspicion and devoid of a goal for national good, has contributed to further sectarianism. Ghani, a Pashtun, has filled most of his staff jobs with Pashtuns. At the same time Abdullah, not to be outdone by his rival Ghani, has been busy appointing personnel from the ranks of Tajiks. This modus operandi does nothing to heal the divisions created by years of internal strife. On the contrary it will exacerbate sectarianism leading to the fracturing of Afghanistan.

The situation on the ground is changing all the time. We have to also worry about the emergence of former Taliban groups now supporting ISIS. These groups, who are not necessarily in sync with the Taliban, further complicate an already very complex situation. If our continued presence is required to counter these new threats as some advocate, we need to make it clear to the Afghans to step up to the plate. We have to demand that the Afghan leadership clean house and bring about reforms so that people support the government and give it legitimacy.

Not holding the Afghan leadership accountable to do this for their country will negate our continued investment in terms of blood and treasure. Afghanistan is not Germany or South Korea where we have had a presence for decades. Those countries did not have a resurgent insurgency, the governments were not made up of former warlords concerned about their own interests, and they still had educated citizens to build in the case of Korea and rebuild in the case of Germany. We helped, but our help was not wasted.