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Why America's Afghanistan mission failed

By Riaz Hassan - posted Friday, 10 January 2014

The US decision to end its combat mission and withdraw by the end of 2014 from Afghanistan will no doubt be claimed as victory by the Taliban insurgents in their decade long war against the US - NATO partners forces. But the decision to end the combat mission does not signify defeat because the United States has the resources to continue its mission. The decision simply reflects the reality that Afghanistan is no longer on the US security or strategic agenda. After 13 years and having spent over 500 billion dollars and lives of thousands of soldiers America has lost the appetite for continuing its military mission and presence and in Afghanistan. Many NATO allies have already withdrawn their troops.

The tenacity and ferocity of the neo-Taliban insurgency has certainly played a large part in the US decision to end its military mission. But it can also be argued that the US policies in Afghanistan from 2002 onwards fostered conditions that reenergised the civil war of 1980s and 1990s and gave it a new direction. The post-Taliban Afghanistan served as a workshop for a new model of American hegemony one defined by its extreme minimalism which sought to do much with little.

One of the hallmarks of this approach was the remilitarization of post-war politics. The United States preferred militarised solutions to Afghan problems. Rather than building up the capacity of civilian institutions to provide security and social services the Karzai government and the US relied on proxy warriors and their own forces to pursue a wide range of military aims. Perhaps the most consequential was the US counter insurgency policy of resorting to airpower that demonstrated the coalition's military superiority against the insurgents but yielded numerous civilian causalities. Along with house-to-house searches, air strikes that failed to distinguish friend from foe turned many Afghans against foreign troops and the Afghan leaders and government it backed in Kabul.


The sovereignty of the Afghan government was undermined by numerous international actors who acted independently to provide reconstruction and humanitarian aid and above all it was agencies in Washington rather than the Afghan Government that largely controlled the allocations and distribution of public expenditures. Following the defeat of the Taliban Afghanistan emerged as an American protectorate in which the United States exercised almost autocratic authority over local affairs as well over the Afghan people. The irony was that the pledges made by the US and its international partners largely remained unfulfilled and did not deliver the promised benefits to improve lives of ordinary Afghans. The polices of arming militias to support the American forces undermined the building of Afghan National Army (ANA) because the militia fighters were paid twice the salary of the ANA recruits in the mid-2000s which increased desertion of ANA recruits to the militias.

These and a range of similar policies and practices prevented the Afghan government to provide security and stability to the country outside of the big cities. All these factors contributed to increasing support for the insurgents among the Afghans especially the Pashtun because 85 per cent of American military operations were carried out in Pasthun areas. The US troops shelled villages, pounded mosques, installed numerous check points, searched homes and detained Pasthun leaders. These policies turned the Pasthun public opinion against the US-NATO forces and Pasthun were urged to resist 'American occupation' which was dishonouring Afghan culture and Islam. In 2007 Mullah Omar himself echoed these sentiments. "Nobody can tolerate this kind of subjugation and sacrilege of their culture and religion. No nation can accept the dictate of handful of dollar-greedy and treacherous people".

As the neo-Taliban insurgency intensified throughout Afghanistan it led to a surge of US bombings. In the second half of 2006 the US Air Force dropped more bombs than the total number dropped between 2001 and 2004. All these actions and polices increased public's alienation from the Afghan government, increased resentment against the US and NATO forces and intensified insurgency. Most of the insurgents are not the Taliban fighters. They are fighting what they see as the defence of their country and their honour, and for the relatives killed by the western forces. Besides the disastrous aspects of the Western strategy and the awful character of the Karzia regime, the presence of US-NATO forces are seen as occupying forces by most Afghans has fed into a central premise of Pasthun culture which is imparted to every Pasthun from his cradle that to resist foreign occupation is an integral part of what it means to be a Pasthun.

A soon to be published book on poetry of the Taliban shows how the neo-Taliban have been able to draw on Pasthun culture to motivate people to fight against the US and its allies. The neo-Taliban spread their message to mainly illiterate rural Pasthun through oral poetry, stories and songs. This is a departure from the previous Taliban policy of strong disapproval of such Afghan cultural expressions after having realised how much their hostility to local tradition damaged their cause and how useful such cultural traditions are for their propaganda purposes. The neo-Taliban also use Friday sermons by sympathetic mullahs and the internet to literate to people who may be receptive to spread their message (Lieven 2013).

Instead of helping to create a viable state that would gain legitimacy among a wide variety of Afghan social groups, Karzia government's backers undermined its authority and legitimacy by continuing to wield military power through punitive expeditions that turned communities against the post-Taliban government but failed to provide security. "The Pax Americana promised development but only expanded the wide fissures cutting through Afghan society and, in mobilising diverse foes against the centre, rekindled memories of grievances feeding thirty years of war" (Sarwari and Crewes p. 355 in Crewes and Tarzi 2008 ).

It is not, therefore, correct that the neo-Taliban insurgency defeated the US mission in Afghanistan. The failure of the military and state building policies of the United States and the Afghan government it supported have contributed significantly to the US decision to end its nation building and military mission and to withdraw its forces in 2014 from Afghanistan. The America decision is also influenced by other factors including the economics of Afghanistan war and the declining public support in the US for the war.

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About the Author

Riaz Hassan is Australian Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of National University of Singapore. His most recent books are: Islam and Society: Sociological Explorations (Melbourne University Press 2013) and, Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings, (Routledge January 2014).

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