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Endless war in Afghanistan?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 09 - 2017

The surprise declaration on 21 August by US President Donald Trump escalating the war in Afghanistan in an attempt to find a decisive victory to end an excruciating 16-year conflict has been met with mixed reactions.
Trump was an advocate of pulling US troops out of Afghanistan in 2013, and the mixed reactions to his new decision to keep them there and to increase their numbers were not entirely due to his change of heart. They were mainly caused by the complexity of a war that the United States has not been able to end, making it the longest war in American history and longer than the Vietnam War.
Few countries have been as afflicted by war in modern history as has Afghanistan. This landlocked Central Asian country has not witnessed a single day of peace since the Soviet invasion in 1979 when Soviet loyalist president Babrak Karmal was installed in place of former president Hafizullah Amin. However, the invasion of Afghanistan was only the beginning of the struggle, since US-backed Afghan mujahedeen fighters fought on until the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in February 1989 after suffering huge casualties. The invasion and subsequent civil war left nearly two million civilians dead and a country that was completely shattered.
However, even the withdrawal of the Soviets was not the end of Afghanistan's troubles and instead was the beginning of a new and worse chapter in its history. Further civil war erupted between the mujahedeen, ending in the victory of the Taliban faction that allied itself with former CIA-backed mujahedeen leader Osama bin Laden who went on to form the most infamous terrorist group of all time, Al-Qaeda.
In the aftermath of the horrific 9/11 Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the United States and its NATO allies declared a war on terrorism that targeted mainly the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan and areas in neighbouring Pakistan in coordination with the Pakistani government. The ferocious military campaign the US launched against Afghanistan resulted in early victories for the NATO coalition and their Afghan tribal allies, the latter seizing the Afghan capital Kabul and installing a new government after ousting the Taliban.
With the shift in American strategy towards entering another war two years later by invading Iraq, plans in Afghanistan went awry and the Taliban forces that had earlier run for the hills regrouped and started attacking the new Afghan government along with its US and NATO allies. Some 16 years later, the situation is unchanged. The staggering human and economic costs of the war continue to rise, and the influence of the Taliban, far from receding, has in fact expanded further, including into Pakistan.
According to a US Brown University study, over 173,000 people died due to direct violence related to the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the period from 2001 to 2016, and over 31,000 Afghan civilians have been killed by the belligerents in the conflict. Moreover, according to the same report the war has created one of the most severe humanitarian crises since the Second World War.
Afghanistan now hosts more than 100,000 Pakistanis who have fled the military operations which began in the neighbouring Pakistani province of North Waziristan in June 2014. By June 2016 Afghanistan had 1.4 million refugees within its borders and nearly one million Afghans had been internally displaced. An additional 2.6 million Afghans are currently refugees in more than 70 countries. The war has also put an enormous economic burden on the US treasury, with the Americans having spent nearly $800 billion on military operations alone.
Trump's announcement that more US troops will now be sent to Afghanistan does nothing to answer the crucial question of how his plans for the country will be different from those implemented during the previous administrations of presidents G W Bush and Barack Obama. The early news does not sound promising, with news of US airstrikes in the Afghan Herat Province leaving 13 civilians dead despite their managing to target 16 Taliban fighters.
Sources speaking to the US New York Times newspaper have claimed that the Taliban fighters left the area hours before the strike, which if true would mean that civilian casualties in Afghanistan on 29 August alone came to 29 dead with no corresponding deaths among Taliban fighters. This horrific incident is already all too familiar, since similar airstrikes in the past have led to the massacres of civilians rather than the deaths of targeted Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists.
Such incidents create an even more hostile environment for NATO forces and the Afghan government operating in the provinces, since no apologies or compensation payments can bring back the dead. Admittedly, the cowardly tactics of the terrorists in mingling with the population to avoid detection by drones or satellites complicate matters, but massacres resulting from airstrikes like these remain inexcusable.
The world cannot afford to wait to learn how Trump's plan to deploy another 4,000 US troops in Afghanistan will be a game-changer in the conflict while such incidents continue. While former US president Barack Obama declared the US combat mission in Afghanistan at an end in 2014, in truth the American war in Afghanistan never really ended and its targeting of terrorists has continued as well.
It is to be hoped that the US campaign in Afghanistan will yield better results in 2017 than it has in the past and will end the presence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan once and for all. However, the indications are that the new strategy adopted by Trump with this in mind is still vague, and this is all the more concerning since many strategies have been implemented in Afghanistan in the past that have all failed to eradicate Al-Qaeda despite the activities of the international terrorist group receding in favour of those of the Islamic State (IS) group that is now continuing the campaign of destruction set out by Osama bin Laden.
Further civilian casualties must be avoided at all costs. These have favoured the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the past as the more civilians who are killed in airstrikes or in ground combat, the more recruits these terrorist organisations receive from tribesmen seeking to avenge the loss of their loved ones.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt's Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.


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