The Ten Years’ War against the Taliban

Ten years since the war in Afghanistan was started, neither the Taliban nor the West seems to be winning, nor 'not losing'

It was a haunted autumn, filled with the ghosts of past fighting, dead men and uneasy memories. The snow arrived early in the mountains above Kabul, and the night’s chill shrivelled the last leaves in the valleys, casting a drab brown cape across the lowlands and pulling dusk in toward the afternoon’s end. In the south the signs were fainter, but even in Helmand the mounting banks of dark clouds on the horizon and the draw down in the night’s temperature heralded a change that would not be long in coming. The shortest season in the Afghan year, autumn is a walk-on, walk-off hustler for the dark, the rain, the snow and cold. It reminds strangers, too, how uneven can be the ticking of the clock.

I took a drive one November morning on the approach road north of Kabul with an old friend, Gul Haider, a one-legged war captain, veteran of many fights against many foes. We had travelled the same road a decade earlier over a two-day period ending on November 13, 2001, when he had led the Northern Alliance assault through the Taliban defence lines, driving them from the city and ending their four-year tenure of power there. Stopping here and there along the old advance line, we remembered pockets of resistance and the fate of various fighters. The images sparked up again like the stoked embers in an abandoned fire and suddenly the empty skies were buzzing with US F-18s and B-52s, their strikes sending the Talibs reeling back toward the capital in disarray as their rearguard died in groups along their retreat.

Amid the smoke and hammering gunfire, the crash of airstrikes and thump of artillery, Gul Haider had commanded the battle with his mujahideen staff clustered around him on the high walls of a frontline compound, where he perched with his prosthetic leg stuck out accusingly before him towards the enemy, a pair of binoculars to his eyes and a Makarov pistol in his belt. Scrutinising the battle’s progress, bawling occasionally at his subordinates, in the early afternoon he had swivelled round to face his commanders, eyes ablaze. “Go, go, go!” he yelled. With that, the mujahideen screamed their war cries, rifles held aloft, and raced forward in the tracks of their advancing tanks through breaches in the minefields to set upon their retreating enemy.

What a moment. More than victory, it smelled like the end of the war. There were caveats. Dressed in clean blue shalwar kameez, his body otherwise unmarked, I came across one Taliban fighter sprawled in the road who had been castrated. He stared sightlessly up at the November sky, an unnerving sentinel to the dawn of their defeat, the blood running from his groin northwards down the tarmac. From the midst of another group of five dead Talibs, a corpse had suddenly come to life and sat up, blood sputtering from his mouth as he tried to speak, before falling back upon one elbow and lying down to die once more.

Yet war is at best a gibbering beauty, and much more than the detail of the fighting and killing that day it was the overarching sense of change, even hope, that sticks foremost in my mind. That autumn of 2001 the Taliban were routed across the compass face of Afghanistan by columns of Afghan irregulars backed by airstrikes and a handful of US special forces. A deadly enemy and their implacable host, well proven to be the legitimate target of vengeful retribution, were driven from power, a move that had the overwhelming support of the Afghan civilian population.

Who could have predicted then that ten years later the war would still be going on, even as the West prepares to leave Afghanistan? What chance now that it will ever end?

It is not the ghosts of 2001, the missed opportunities or the dead soldiers of the subsequent decade that now most trouble Western policy-makers and commanders in Afghanistan. In the wake of Barack Obama’s decision to draw down US troop numbers in Afghanistan and transfer responsibility for the country’s security fully to Afghan forces by 2014, it is the shadows of a departing Russian general and a slain Afghan president that stir greatest unease.

Lieutenant General Boris V. Gromov was 45 when he hopped off his armoured personnel carrier on Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya river separating Afghanistan from Uzbekistan. He was embraced by his teenage son Maksim, who gave him a bunch of red carnations; father and son walked the last hundred yards of the iron span arm-in-arm to Soviet territory. Gromov never looked back. It was 11.55am, February 15, 1989: nine years and 50 days after Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan in support of a Marxist coup. Gromov, commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, was the last Soviet soldier to leave the country. Little could he have known that more than 20 years on his arch-enemies in the Cold War would face the same anxieties in walking away from the conflict.

The Communist regime that Gromov had left in Afghanistan collapsed three years later after its funding lines were severed. Fighting broke out between rival mujahideen groups entering Kabul, igniting civil war. President Mohammad Najibullah was detained as he attempted to flee the country. The fate of Najibullah, once the Soviets’ most dynamic ally in Afghanistan and heir to their hopes of continued influence, was to be tortured to death by his captors. He ended his life swinging from a Kabul traffic control post.

Civil war, humiliation, the fall of allies and rise of enemies: as the West looks back on its own decade of intervention in Afghanistan and contemplates its coming withdrawal from the country, the twin images of Gromov’s departure and Najibullah’s downfall dominate the pantheon of its fears. These two moments feed the popular legend that no foreign war in Afghanistan has ever been successful and that the country is “the graveyard of empires”.

History will repeat itself in perfect symmetry, the hand-wringers and naysayers say, glibly ignoring every exception to the rule. Staring back at them through the mirror, Nato commanders advertise tactical success as the template for future hope, smiling on through the shambles, forgetting the maxim that they were so fond of a couple of years ago: “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.

Meanwhile the current mission aim is an emaciated shadow of its former self. Once the intervention hoped to crush the Taliban insurgency, establish democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and elevate the status of women. Now it intends to damage the insurgency as much as possible over the next two years; establish durable social, economic and power structures where possible; then hand the situation over to strengthened Afghan security forces in the hope they can contain the situation while holding the country together as an entity.

The new aim sounds so redacted that it may even be achievable. Yet it is exactly the same mission as the Soviets had between 1985, the year of their surge, and their 1989 handover of the war to Najibullah. No wonder Gromov’s footsteps still echo across the years.

Peeping shyly through the despondency, there are glimmers of hope in Afghanistan. Listening to Nato’s official description of the insurgency in central Helmand for 2011, though it sounds uncannily like a US combat summary from Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 1967, even the dourest pessimist must acknowledge that some things have changed for the better.

Across the central area of operations, contact with the enemy has decreased, dwindled, or else faded out entirely. Throughout the whole British zone in the province the number of insurgent ambushes, bomb strikes and attacks has been in steep decline. “Attrited”, “marginalised”, “waning”, “spent force”, the Taliban are being smothered by a counter-insurgency that is at the edge of “irreversible momentum” or “tipping point”. The summer’s fighting season never materialised. Month in, month out, the statistics show a tail-off in insurgent activity when compared to 2010, a reduction averaging at least 60 per cent in 12 months, 85 per cent in some areas. In Nad-e Ali district alone the targeted culling of Taliban operational commanders has reduced the estimated insurgent numbers there to a quarter of the Taliban’s 2010 strength.

One starry-eyed British colonel dared to describe the situation there to me as one of “catastrophic success”. (It was hard not to laugh.) Another commander, clearer-eyed as to the ebb and flow in the fortunes of insurgents and counter-insurgents, said with greater wisdom, “it’s good, but for Christ’s sake don’t call it winning. Tactically victorious and strategically fucked is the general prognosis.”

We have heard it all before, of course. No matter how smash-toothed and humble any British officer has been after a six-month tour in Helmand, almost every one of them has tried to put some positive spin on it, a little morsel of hope to suggest to those riven by doubt at home that so much death and mutilation was actually achieving something after all: ranging fire in the battle for narrative. I could hardly blame them. Back in 1930, the strategist Basil Liddell Hart noted: “Helplessness induces hopelessness, and history attests that loss of hope and not loss of lives is what decides the issue of war.” But empathy was never enough to make their claims mean anything.

However, this time maybe things really are different. Veteran British troops who in the past were familiar with a daily grind of action in Helmand today more frequently patrol through “eventless” days, serenaded by the lukewarm waves of locals. “I know from past tours that we have to be careful what we wish for,” one sergeant remarked to me, “but this time it’s real. We’ve smashed them. We’re bored.”

The atmosphere in Helmand last autumn was certainly very different from 2009, the year in which the British were getting strung out and blown to bits across an impossibly huge operations zone.

Call it what you will — I even heard one mentally acrobatic senior officer describe it not as being “out-fought”, merely “out-governed” — but 2009 was the year they were getting beaten. Casualties among British infantry units were running at a one in four ratio, similar to that suffered by their forefathers against the Germans in the 1944 European campaign. The Taliban frightened us and our people more than we frightened them. They killed us more cost-effectively too. Things were so bad in parts of Helmand that some troops were    refusing to go out on patrol. Others were vomiting with nerves at the patrol base gates before stepping outside. In one instance in 2010 a British commanding officer, considered careless toward his men’s lives, was heckled and jeered while addressing his battalion at an end-of-tour muster at Camp Bastion. The regimental sergeant-major stepped in and tried to control the scene but received the same treatment. Army blogs among embittered veterans started speaking of effecting a “regime change for the dead brothers” when they returned home. Helmand was uglier in so many more ways than anyone in the UK could ever have imagined.

Now, though, if not “winning”, at least the British are no longer “losing” in Helmand either. Troop density, the belated reward of General Stanley McChrystal’s Afghan surge, is responsible for much of the see-saw in fortune, smothering the insurgency and allowing Afghan authorities to kick-start local development and economy. The current density of soldiers in the British zone, where they serve alongside a brigade of Afghan National Army (ANA) troops, police and local militias, is more concentrated than at any stage in the war so far. Having handed far-flung war zones such as Kajaki, Sangin and Musa Qala over to the American surge force, the British army in Helmand is currently operating in territory so reduced that it is half of the area patrolled by a single company in 2008.

From a helicopter, the vista is one of massive militarisation. Patrol bases and outposts buttress the passage of every major route leading to Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah — the white whale silhouettes of surveillance balloons marking out the British locations. Underneath them spy cameras provide an overlapping mesh of real-time footage, the basis for the new era of counter-insurgency warfare. Long gone are the days of costly attrition operations against the Taliban. Instead, utilising the full panoply of drone, balloon and unmanned aerial surveillance, combined with the signal intercepts and human intelligence resources, commanders know the movements and locations of insurgents in their area better than before, and can track or target them remotely.

“Kill TV” the soldiers call it: I have seen it countless times now and it never gets boring. The grainy figures of Taliban fighters are monitored on a flickering surveillance screen, digging in an improvised explosive device or moving to an ambush position. They suddenly freeze on hearing the thump of an overhead Reaper unleashing a Hellfire rocket. The more experienced insurgents try to make a run for it. The newer recruits, immobilised and puzzled, usually stay still, sometimes staring skyward. Then a dark cloud envelopes them. Occasionally a broken torso spins out of the blast. The honour of soldiers is enshrined by their being prepared to die as they kill, so there is always an uneasy quality in watching machines slay to order. Even so, it is hard not to enjoy it — Candid Camera with consequences.

But it won’t win the war. Foreign technology is at best a one-eyed God in Afghanistan’s labyrinthine conflict. The British know it too.

“Our capability to kill whom we choose is almighty and over-reaching,” one officer told me. “But that doesn’t necessarily get us what we want. We’ve killed here across the last five years at an industrial level. It is an understanding of the insurgent networks and their interface with local power and patronage systems that we still lack. And in that respect the ANA, though so much less technologically sophisticated than us, are so much better. Long term it’ll be their war.”

Even when closely mentored by foreign troops, the Afghan National Army has always had a unique perspective on counter-insurgency. One evening in 2009, an ANA night patrol came into the district centre in Sangin. One of the soldiers stopped to share a cigarette and I asked him how the patrol had gone. He said it had been “very successful”. The soldiers had heard a large explosion by a road at the edge of town, and on going to investigate had found the mutilated corpse of a Taliban fighter who had blown himself up while trying to lay an IED.

“So we made a sign and hung it round his neck,” the soldier said. “It read ‘this is the fate of the Taliban’. Then we dragged the body around with us and set up check points on the road, so that passing people could see it and read the sign.”

He paused after a lengthy drag of the cigarette, gave a beaming smile and delivered his punch-line.
“Hearts and minds!” he laughed. “Hearts and minds!”

Once the ANA were regarded as just a component of the Afghan solution, an essential cornerstone within a restructured Afghan state. In the years following 2002 it was thought that they could enable Nato forces to defeat the Taliban. By late 2009, however, deciding that the insurgency had become too entrenched to crush militarily, Britain and America began exploring ways of reconciling the Taliban leadership, hoping that the ANA could enforce a political solution to the war.

Yet the premise that the Taliban’s senior leadership ever wanted to join a political process now seems deeply questionable. Early efforts to open dialogue with them were plagued by setbacks. Then in September last year, Professor Burhannuddin Rabbani, head of the US-funded High Peace Council set up by President Karzai to conduct reconciliation talks, was killed when a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace envoy detonated a device hidden in his turban.

More than any other incident, Rabbani’s murder pole-axed hopes for an overall political settlement, dispersing the rewards of the surge in Helmand and other provinces into detached, solitary orbits. One senior Nato officer told me that the killing had left the reconciliation initiative “overwhelmed by gloom”, and admitted that there was increasing doubt among Western missions that the Taliban even wanted to negotiate. The assassination was neither denounced nor denied by the Taliban’s ruling Quetta Shurah. Despite immediate accusations of Pakistani complicity, little is known of the true identity of Rabbani’s killer, nor of the real masterminds behind the attack. Whoever was ultimately responsible, Rabbani’s assassination resulted in major policy shifts which derailed direct talks with the Taliban, exacerbated tensions between Afghanistan’s rival ethnic groups, and hardened the stand-off with Pakistan.

So, rather than being the military arm of a political solution, the ANA has instead become the sole heir to an open-ended conflict. On its forces’ shoulders will rest the future of their country: a heavy demand to be placed on a young army with a large, predatory neighbour like Pakistan. 

Najibullah’s forces found themselves in a similar position between 1986 and 1992. After taking office, the president made several peace overtures to the mujahideen as part of an all-encompassing national policy that offered an amnesty to every insurgent who accepted the principles of reconciliation. Insurgents were promised seats in the government; Islam was recognised as having a pivotal role in a series of proposed constitutional reforms; the country’s judicial system was offered up to the control of the mullahs. Yet each reconciliation attempt failed, rejected by both the insurgents and by Pakistan, which wanted greater influence in Afghanistan than that on offer. In the absence of an alternative plan, Najibullah’s army fought on until the withdrawal of Russian funding and supplies caused its eventual collapse.

There are limits to these comparisons. The loathing of the Russians was far more widespread in Afghanistan than is antipathy towards Nato, irreparably damaging the future of Najibullah and communism in the country. Karzai may be despised in some quarters, and appears to have little ideology beyond survival, yet the imperfect form of proto-democracy in Afghanistan today still attracts Afghans more than anything the Taliban can offer. Moreover, the Taliban are militarily much weaker than the mujahideen who fought Najibullah. Despite limited Pakistani and Saudi financial support they have no patron comparable to  the US and its international allies who funded and armed the Afghan resistance throughout the 1980s.

Cynics would do well to remember too that the majority of Afghans, Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras do not want the Taliban back. Nor should Nato. The Taliban were by their nature a regional threat and their emirate was the perfect host to global jihadists. Despite some limited PR tinkering, not much seems to have changed. The Taliban’s regard for dialogue and political process was exemplified by the way Rabbani was killed. They are not fighting a jihad for a power share in a democratic government. Rather than resurrect the failed template of dialogue, foreign diplomats would do better to recognise the implacable essence of their enemy.

Even Boris Gromov, who could be forgiven for a sense of schadenfreude at seeing his old foes suffer in Afghanistan as his troops did, nevertheless urged Nato to keep its nerve in Afghanistan. “We are utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at Nato headquarters,” he co-wrote in the New York Times in 2010, “be it under the cover of ‘humanistic pacifism’ or pragmatism. We insist that Nato troops stay in the country until the necessary conditions are provided to establish stable local authorities capable of independently deterring radical forces and controlling the country.”

Despite every complexity of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, and each pained effort to counterbalance the two great strategic obstacles — the weakness of the Kabul government and the position of Pakistan — to its durable success, the final say on the war’s outcome will be decided by one blindingly simple element: money. Since its inception as a sovereign entity, Afghanistan has always been a rentier state, economically dependent on revenues from foreign patrons paying for influence. Money has proved a far more effective tool in denying Afghan soil to rival powers than the military has ever been. For long periods between their first three Afghan wars the British managed to pacify Afghanistan through subsidy, and for as long as they were bankrolled by Russia Najibullah’s Communist regime proved surprisingly resilient, even after the Soviet withdrawal. After 2014 it will be money again, rather than a political settlement, which will dictate Afghanistan’s future.

There is no sign that the Afghan government will be ever able to fund its forces independently; to date the ANA is entirely American-financed. The US pays, equips and trains them at a level of expense that   exceeds its military assistance to Israel. The US Department of Defense has spent $20 billion on the ANA since 2002. A further $7.5 billion were requested for the 2011 fiscal year. But after the withdrawal of their troops, given the shaky state of the global economy, for how long and to what level will America and Nato governments be able to continue to finance their influence there?

Fear, the dynamic that has always attracted foreigners to Afghanistan, will govern the answer. Every Great Game player of the past two centuries, whether Russian, British, American, Pakistani or Indian, has been drawn to the Afghan board by fear of their opponent’s presence there, and has been repelled only when the fear of the continued cost of that involvement outweighed the sense of its reward. In assessing how best to calibrate its own presence in Afghanistan after 2014, and thus decide Afghanistan’s mid-term destiny, America has to work out how much it fears the ungoverned spaces that will result from a resurgent Taliban and civil war, then fund its post-2014 vision accordingly.

“Not losing” may prove the least unattractive option on the table, the only viable alternative to writing off the thousands of lives and billions of dollars so far invested there, and accepting civil war in Afghanistan as the consequence of a total withdrawal. In practical terms “not losing” will mean financing the army of a corrupt and vacillating government indefinitely to contain the conflict as best it can. Afghanistan will not see peace for many more years, another generation at least, and will remain on the lengthening list of nations around the world with unresolved conflicts.

No one yet knows if this price is one that present or future occupants of the White House will consider worth paying. Either way, I have yet to meet an Afghan who sees peace as imminent.

And if Gul Haider had ever expected his moment of glory in capturing Kabul ten years ago to end the conflict in Afghanistan, then his views now are similar to those of every other Afghan I spoke to last autumn: “The Taliban will continue to fight, as will everyone else, all locked into it for different reasons,” he told me, as we stared down from the heights above Kabul’s northern suburbs, where he had savoured his transient victory so long ago. Below us the Afghan capital stretched out in an indistinct brown smear of traffic fumes and November mist. “I can’t see anything today that suggests the war will end in my lifetime.”

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