Two decades of failure to restore peace in Afghanistan
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
Exploring the shortcomings of the United States' approach to its longest war
analysis by: Ivan Kanev
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For the last 20 years, the USA has achieved its primary objectives in Afghanistan: eliminating Osama bin Laden and suffering no major terrorist attacks on home soil after 9/11. Hence, its troops had little incentive to fight a foreign civil war and secure lasting peace on the other side of the world.
Subsequent to US withdrawal in May, the Taliban, a Deobandi Islamist movement, have gradually recaptured the entire Asian state. Through sheer determination, endurance, and fortitude, their fighters lingered on until the right moment to attack arrived. In the aftermath of the Taliban victory, one question continuously springs to mind. How could an inferior adversary – in terms of numbers, training, equipment, supply, intelligence, and logistics – survive an extended period of conflict with some of the finest forces in the world supporting the Afghan Government?
Photo courtesy of Andre Klimke via Unsplash
Searching for an answer is no easy task, but three main reasons played a significant part: faith, national pride, and corruption.
The first two are most clearly indicated in a statement by Haji Hekmat, an Afghan district Taliban mayor:
"This is jihad, it is worship. We don't do it for power but for Allah and His law. To bring Sharia to this country. Whoever stands against us, we will fight against them."
Accordingly, the Taliban perceived the fight as defending their faith – resisting outside infidels and entering paradise. They felt a religious devotion and duty to re-establish Islamic fundamentalism. The terrorist organisation managed to place itself in the role of representing Islam to inspire people to join – by taking advantage of devoted Muslims to subscribe to an extremist version of Islam.
In reference to the Taliban reading of Sharia law, the urge to oppose Western occupation resounded with people's Afghan identity. Having regained plenty of control in the province since being ousted from power, the Taliban persuaded numerous people in rural lands that their version of Islamic justice is more legitimate than the foreign-supported Afghan Government.
Jihad, meaning struggle or strive, has been a mode of insurgence against outside oppression in the past – following British, Soviet, and, more recently, US occupation. As the Taliban linked with religious values and obligations, many Afghans chose to support them. The mere US presence in the country prompted resentment towards the Government. The coalition limited Kabul's capacity to unite by convoluting the prospects to risk one's life when battling alongside non-Muslim outsiders. In this respect, the democratically elected Government could not match the Taliban, which galvanised fighters with a sense of national pride and commitment to defend their homeland; thus, weakening the resolve of soldiers and police alike.
Moreover, as reported by HRW, US generals' indifference regarding crimes committed by allied units and under-reporting civilian casualties undermined potential backing in the countryside. In a similar vein to the preceding foreign superpower – the USSR, the Americans repelled locals; on the one hand, due to incautious and fatal military operations killing civilians. On the other, because Western political figures and troops looked down on Islam, continuously describing it as rigid and extreme, even though Islam's teachings preach – among many other benign values – justice, unity, and peace.
Also empowering the terrorists was drug revenue. Over 90% of the world's heroin – a substantial funding source for the Taliban – comes from Afghanistan. US efforts to eradicate the opium crop, effectively impoverishing farmers, made parts of the population more sympathetic to the Deobandi movement and hostile to the Government.
The third primary reason for the failure is corruption and, more precisely, soldiers' morale. Since the war began in 2001, the United States of America has spent more than $2 trillion on operations in Afghanistan. This massive budget led to corruption and graft in both the military and police, with reports that coalition forces' efficiency gradually declined due to US weapons and ammunition accumulation. Supplies were allegedly ordered with no other purpose than to be sold to insurgents – yes, their enemies – at checkpoints and in the black market. This development deteriorated commitment to the war for the United States and Afghanistan while strengthening the Taliban.
However, despite corruption, the army and police still had the vast resources to overpower guerrilla forces. What set the Taliban apart was the willingness to outlast their foe. Frequently, allied personnel lacked the desire to fight for a government susceptible to discount them. They did not go to the same lengths, showcase a willingness to die, and have high morale like the Taliban. Insurgence combatants demonstrated relentlessness on the battlefield – not to forget suicide bombers. In the long run, possessing a deep-rooted inspiration and readiness to perish overpowered material deficiencies and inferiority.