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The Return of the Taliban

13 1 4

Project Syndicate · The Return of the Taliban | Ashley Jackson


Elmira Bayrasli: Welcome to Opinion Has It. I’m Elmira Bayrasli. Could the longest war in US history finally be ending? As the May 1 deadline for a full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan nears, the answer is probably no, at least for now.

Archive Recording: President Biden is providing new details on some of the administration’s foreign policy plans. He also gave an indication of when he might be prepared to bring back troops from Afghanistan.

Archive Recording, President Joe Biden: The answer is that it’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline.

EB: The current Afghan war began in 2001, within a month of 9/11.

Archive Recording, President George W. Bush: One month ago today, innocent citizens from more than 80 nations were attacked and killed without warning or provocation.

EB: The terrorist attacks had shaken the United States to the core. President George W. Bush was determined to dismantle the group that had perpetrated it: al-Qaeda.

Archive Recording, President George W. Bush: The attack took place on American soil, but it was an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world.

EB: Bush demanded that Afghanistan’s government, which had provided safe haven to al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, turn them over or face a US-led invasion.

Archive Recording, President George W. Bush: The world has come together to fight a new and different war. The first, and we hope the only one of the twenty-first century.

EB: Afghanistan’s government was led by the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamist sect. After it refused Bush’s ultimatum, the US and its allies took less than a month to topple its regime. And yet 20 years, and more than $2 trillion later, the US is still struggling to leave Afghanistan. And when it does withdraw, it will most likely be leaving the country where it started: in the Taliban’s hands.

Archive Recording: This morning, the long-running and costly war in Afghanistan for US forces took a major turn.

Archive Recording: After 18 months of talks and nearly two decades of war, the US and the Afghan Taliban have just signed a long-awaited deal aimed at paving the way to peace and the departure of foreign troops.

Archive Recording: Not part of the deal? Any commitments from the Taliban to protect the civil rights of people they so brutally repressed with lasting power.

EB: What does this mean for Afghanistan’s future? Here to help us answer this question is Ashley Jackson.

Ashley Jackson: Hi, how are you doing?

EB: I’m great. How are you?

Ashley is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute and a fellow with Foreign Policy Interrupted.

AJ: How are things in New York?

EB: She is the author of the forthcoming book Negotiating Survival: Civilian Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan. How are things in Oslo? You’re the one with a lot of new news.She joins us from Oslo, Norway. Ashley, I want to start by looking at America’s goals in Afghanistan. The Bush administration wanted to neutralize al-Qaeda, but promised not to get bogged down by nation-building. Barack Obama and Donald Trump echoed that pledge. And yet the United States has spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan since 2001 than in any other country ever. Why did the goalposts move?

AJ: I would say despite all of the rhetoric from each of the presidents who have presided over this war, the goals were never really clearly articulated. And furthermore, whenever there was a goal, the strategy backing it up was always fairly nebulous and ineffective. So you have Bush, saying we’re going to root out al-Qaeda and we’re going to leave. Well, you can’t topple a government and then just leave and expect there to be law and order. For it not to be a safe haven for terrorist groups, you have to ensure that there is effective governance, that there’s rule of law, that there’s some reconstruction, so that groups like al-Qaeda don’t come back. You can’t just abolish the existing order and pack up. And that was the conundrum that Bush found himself in. And so by 2006, you have an expansion of NATO forces. You have what had been until then a very meager aid budget for a country that had been devastated by decades of conflict. You start to see that creep back up, but at the same time, 2006 is when there’s a huge resurgence in the Taliban. And every year after that, violence has increased year-on-year, security starts to become a problem. The US feels itself drawn in deeper and deeper and deeper, so that by the time Bush leaves office, Obama is handed a real mess.

EB: After President Obama took office in 2009, he attempted to turn the tide by sharply increasing America’s troop presence in Afghanistan.

Archive Recording, President Barack Obama: I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.

EB: Obama intended to cripple the Taliban, train the Afghan military, ensure political stability, and bring all US troops home before his presidency ended. That turned out to be wishful thinking.

AJ: It so encapsulates this incredibly unrealistic ambition that Obama and his team had. Okay, we’re going to have this huge troop surge. We’re just going to clean it up. And by, three years from now, we can leave the country done and dusted, as though that’s ever happened. And so, when I was working in Afghanistan, I had just arrived, working for an NGO, when Obama announced the troop surge. Most people, Afghans and internationals alike, honestly said okay, well, we haven’t had enough troops. We haven’t had enough aid. This will be a good thing to deal with all of the problems that the Taliban is taking advantage of as they expand throughout the country. However, what happens ultimately with the troop surge is it lights the country on fire. You see the Taliban expanding. Wherever international troops are deployed, the violence ratchets up. And so you have this pattern of troop expansion, but it is also an expansion of insecurity, of corruption, of all of the problems that were minor before. It’s like putting them on steroids in some ways, because you’ve injected all of these forces, you’ve injected all of this money, and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. It has an incredibly counterproductive effect. It really, really lays the groundwork for the Taliban’s advance in many ways.

At the time – I never thought this would be what I would say – but it was looking at the beginning of the end of hope for the intervention, because what I saw on the ground was that Obama and people like Petraeus, who he put in power, essentially pursued a military strategy, which killed thousands of civilians unnecessarily, had the effect of turning whole villages and districts against the US, and, with no other alternative to the Taliban, looking to the Taliban for protection from international forces who were raiding their houses, who were bombing their villages. So watching all of that unfold during that........

© Project Syndicate

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