US marks 16 years of war in Afghanistan

Analysts and experts wonder what the future holds and if the US role has succeeded and is necessary.

Afghan men inspect inside a Shi'ite Muslim mosque after an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Afghan men inspect inside a Shi'ite Muslim mosque after an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Friday, October 20 a man entered a Shia mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan for Friday prayers. Soon after, according to reports, he gunned down the worshippers and blew up a bomb. At least 39 were killed. In Ghor province another attack at a Sunni mosque targeting a tribal elder killed 20. Overall around 180 have been murdered in terror attacks in Afghanistan in the last week.
Sixteen years ago, on the night of October 19th, US Army Rangers and special forces raided an airfield and attacked Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s headquarters near Kandahar. It was the first ground action of Operation Enduring Freedom, launched after the September 11th attacks. “It’s crazy to think about,” says Rebecca Zimmerman, a Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation. “I have been trying to mark this anniversary and think more deeply about what it means to be there 16 years and the essential question we all need to ask if not just is it still worth it, it pretty well is worth it, but when will it not be worth it,” she says.
In late August, US President Donald Trump decided to send more US troops to Afghanistan after consultation with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. They would augment the 11,000 US troops in the country in late August. These are a reduction from troop levels the high point of 100,000 in 2010-2011.
Seth Jones, who has been to Afghanistan every year since 2002 and served as the representative for the commander, US Special Operations Command, to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, says it’s important to take the long view. Jones is now Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND.
“It’s not that long for an insurgency to occur for, we see on average insurgencies go for a decade or decades,” he says of Afghanistan. “What makes Afghanistan different is the period that began not long after 2001 [when the focus] of US forces was to win the war for Afghanistan and Afghans.” He hopes that the US has learned the lesson that the war can’t be won by outsiders.
Units like the 82nd Airborne were once “battle space owners,” he notes, running security in areas of Afghanistan. “In retrospect that was a mistake sending forces to win it for locals, the effort in 2001 was ‘by, with and through,’ the Northern Alliance and tribes and now [it is] ‘by, with and through’ Afghan National and local forces and that’s a better format.”  He compares this to how the US conducts itself in Columbia, the Philippines and other places, partnering with local forces to do training or equipping them. At the far end of the spectrum is advising and assisting them to defeat terrorists or conduct other security policies.
Jones says that Afghanistan has been in a “near constant state of war for decades. So when you have a weak state, you have a fair amount of power in clans and ethnic leaders. It is hard to stabilize a weak country. Anyone who deals with Yemen or Somalia [knows] it is hard to stabilize a country with a  weak government authority.”
Since 9/11 the number of ungoverned spaces and weak states where extremist groups that spread terror get a foothold seems to have grown. The massive bombing in Somalia on October 15th killed more than 350 people is evidence of that country’s inability to defeat Al-Shabaab. In Niger around 50 terrorists ambushed a 12 US personnel, killed four Americans. They were there to assist Niger. US Senator Lindsay Graham said that America should expect to “see more actions in Africa, no less,” because the war was “morphing” against extremists. A battle with terrorists in Egypt over the weekend killed dozens of Egyptian police.
US President George W. Bush launched the war on terror soon after 9/11 when he addressed Congress. “Our war on terror begins with al Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” But they have not been defeated. They have morphed into things like ISIS and off-shoots of Al Qaida. The war against them has also morphed, vastly expanding US Special Operations. Special Operations Command, which turn thirty years old this year, has grown from a budget of $1 billion to tens of thousands of men and women to an estimated 70,000 personnel and a $10 billion budget.  The role of US contractors who are involved in training and security around the world has expanded as well. A Congressional Research Service document noted that there were 25,197 Department of Defense contractors in Afghanistan in 2016.
Afghanistan doesn’t seem to be more secure, despite the decade and a half of fighting. Anthony Loyd wrote in The Times of London that Helmand province had descended into “an orgy of violence and death,” on October 7th. That was ten days before the Taliban breached an Afghan police post and killed 46 police in Kandahar province. Kandahar, the same place the US raid in October 2001 targeted the same Taliban. A local Afghan correspondent for France24 said the recent attacks have shown “life is being destroyed” in the country.
“Looking forward as long as Western governments including the US assess that there are terrorist threats from this region…that have a role in broader attacks, there will be an interest in keeping some presence there,” says Jones. He foresees a time when the Taliban might come to the table for a deal and the insurgency in Afghanistan goes the way of what happened in El Salvador of Mozambique.
Zimmerman says that while Trump or Barack Obama may have had different views on the conflict, “we haven’t heard from the American people what they think is enough and too much.” She also urges us not to just look at numbers and battles of US troops but see the larger picture of the impact of training and support. We should mark Afghan loses as well. “It’s not just a picture of US and international forces, the toll on Afghanistan, it’s incredible. The whole country has PTSD at this point.”