Just over a week after US
President Donald Trump announced the deployment of additional US troops to
Afghanistan, US army servicemen in Alaska were already preparing for deployment
to the region. The Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division is to
provide at least 1,000 of the 4,000 additional soldiers announced by the
president as part of the continuation of the war.
Even as additional troops get
ready to deploy, the United States continues to be without a clear plan as to
what it is hoping to accomplish, with defence officials at the Pentagon saying
that they are "not prepared to move forward" with the president's
plan and that critical planning was "still under way". In the meantime,
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid responded to Trump's statement by
telling him to take US troops back home because "the Taliban could not be
It is a smug statement to make,
but in the case of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan, it could well be true. In
March of this year, the group released a report citing how much territory it
controlled. According to the report, 211 of Afghanistan's administrative
districts were in the group's control or were contested. The estimate was not
overblown; a comparison with media reports and estimates released (pdf) by the
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows that
they estimate contested and Taliban-controlled districts at 171, not very far
from the Taliban number. Either way, then, nearly 16 years of US occupation and
the expenditure of nearly $840.7bn (at the end of budget year 2018), the
Taliban remains undefeated and possibly undefeatable.
The question of why, however,
is not one most Americans or even the war planners seem interested in
considering. Some acknowledge the reality that military solutions are not the
answer, and yet seem willing to lobby for deployments of additional forces,
while blaming past presidents (Obama) and intransigent neighbours (Pakistan). The
truth is distant from all of these analytical directions and centres on a
complex amalgam of the beliefs and proclivities of the US military and the
reality of Afghanistan's own normal of constant war.
First among these is the fact
that 16 years into the war in Afghanistan, US soldiers find it hard to buy into
the moral justifications that they are given for their deployment there. Osama
bin Laden is dead and the "war on terror" turned out to be a deadly
fiasco. What justifies US military presence in Afghanistan now?
US soldiers were told that they
were the "good guys" showing up in Iraq and Afghanistan to build
democracies, create institutions and establish the rule of law.
The reality of Afghanistan is
much different. The ensuing gap between the lie told to gear soldiers up for
war and the war itself seems ever widening and feeding the doubt and
disenchantment of soldiers who have yet to deploy. A president like Trump may
rhetorically disavow nation building but he has failed to answer the ensuing
question: If the war is no longer to build Afghanistan, then what exactly is it
The generals at the Pentagon
and the war bureaucrats in Washington and Kabul will, of course, never
acknowledge that the near trillion-dollar price tag of the war in Afghanistan
has been for naught. As recently as a year ago, General John Nicholson, the
current commander, insisted that "overall our mission in Afghanistan is on
a positive trajectory". In April of this year, Anthony Box, a Department
of Defense adviser lent out to the Afghan government, boasted, "citizens
trust in Government is an all time high".
It was an astounding statement
to make, given that the United Nations reports that violence against civilians
in Afghanistan reached its highest levels in 2016. Statements like these,
reveal the proclivity to create artificial advances where no actual ones can be
Americans whose jobs and
prestige depend on the war's success do not wish to acknowledge its failures.
Similarly, Afghans, who benefit from the war and aid economies created by the
influx of billions of dollars, are eager to goad them on, interested in
extending their own well-being as the haves in a country of have-nots.
None of it, of course, is a
real success in the sense of being locally sustainable once the influx of US
cash is gone. Taliban leaders know this, of course, and they also know that
other Afghans know this. Unlike American soldiers, unused to the terrain,
ignorant of the language and culture and increasingly confused about why they
are there at all, the Taliban is adept at framing its fight as the fight for an
authentically Islamic and indigenously Afghan homeland.
As a recent study by Yale
political scientist Jason Lyall establishes, Afghans have an extremely strong
group identity. The consequence of this is that harm inflicted by foreign
forces in the country weakened support for those forces and increased support
for the Taliban. However, harm inflicted by the Taliban does not translate into
increased support for foreign forces.
This last fact may actually
make a complete Taliban victory in Afghanistan even more likely following
Trump's disavowal of nation building as the supposed prerogative for the US
presence in the country. Not only will US troops being deployed to the country
face an even larger dose of doubt and disillusionment in the face of risking
their lives for some murky strategic motive, but Afghans, confronted with a
foreign army waging war for the sake of war, will likely flock to the Taliban
in even greater numbers. The Taliban, whose recruits know the terrain because
it is their own and have long-embraced war as its normal, will be waiting with
open arms to welcome them.
The US plan for Afghanistan may
not "be there yet" but the Taliban's is there, and tragically for
those Afghans who oppose it, it is there to stay.
Rafia Zakaria is a
lawyer and author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan; and