Afghanistan: A Decade of War with No End in Sight

Scott Tankel

In October 2001, the United States executed Operation Enduring Freedom. From the onset of the invasion, President Bush made clear that the main objectives of US military action in Afghanistan were to capture or kill senior Al-Qaeda leaders, destroy the organization’s infrastructure, and remove the Taliban from power. The US government repeatedly stated that its military would not distinguish between terror groups and the governments that harbored and supported them. Enduring Freedom was the comprehensive military campaign launched in response to the horrifying 9/11 attacks, and as we look back on a decade of war in Afghanistan, it is worthwhile to reassess NATO’s battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
For all intents and purposes, the Al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 in Afghanistan has been decimated and is on the verge of defeat. The organization has lost its ability to operate internationally, no longer focusing its efforts on planning attacks on American or Western soil, but safeguarding its daily survival. The U.S. military campaign toppled the Taliban government in less than 90 days and killed thousands of Al-Qaeda fighters in the opening weeks.
Though Al-Qaeda’s ideology continues to persist and generate new recruits to the insurgency, a decade of unceasing military pressure, Obama’s increased preference for targeted assassinations using unmanned drones, and the treasure trove of information following the raid on Osama bin-Laden’s compound have seriously damaged Al-Qaeda’s operational abilities and functionality. Al-Qaeda offshoots exist in a number of sympathetic countries and failed states and will continue to pose a threat to Western interests, but the organization has suffered tremendously in the areas of financing, logistics, intelligence, military training and operational capabilities.
Contrarily, the Taliban continue to operate to an unforeseen degree of success and have proven their resiliency in the war many times over. Despite being forced from power, the Taliban’s ability to wage their insurgency remains significant, and their influence in the country is growing, not waning. The threat the group poses to coalition soldiers remains high, as evident by the attack on the anniversary of 9/11 in which five Afghans were killed and 77 U.S. soldiers injured in a horrific suicide bombing, coupled with the coordinated attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Furthermore, August of 2011 was the deadliest month yet for U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan after a Chinook transport helicopter was brought down in a Taliban ambush. Casualties among coalition soldiers have risen every year since the 2001 invasion. Although Taliban losses have been staggering in comparison, definitive, successful results after 10 years of war have proven elusive for the Western coalition. Campaign marked by lack of defined strategy
Despite the overwhelming US military might, the top US military brass failed in their mission to create and adhere to a definitive Afghan war strategy. That failure caused military achievements on the ground to be short lived. Through its support of the Hamid Karzai government, the U.S. has concentrated on training the Afghan Army and security forces while attempting to implement a nation building strategy similar to what has been accomplished in Iraq. Results from these endeavors have been somewhat inconclusive, as Karzai’s government remains wildly corrupt and security forces have yet to prove themselves to be capable in providing security to Afghan cititzens and battle terrorist elements in the country.
The fight against the Taliban has witnessed an ebb and flow involving both tactical successes and lost ground. In order to disrupt the Taliban, the strategy used by NATO forces involved the capturing various strategic locations and supply routes to hinder Taliban movements. The outposts, which came to be known as “bullet magnets,” succeeded in drawing the Taliban out of the cities and engaging them in combat in rural and mountainous regions. However, a lack of troops and the precipitous and isolated nature of the Afghan terrain made the strategy unsustainable in the long run. Many of these bases were abandoned despite the heavy finances and loss of life that was invested in defending and securing them.
The military strategy delineated above marked the first half of the war, but lack of substantial progress led to substantial changes in the US military strategy. Following the success of General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency doctrine in Iraq beginning in 2006, similar practices were applied to Afghanistan, spawning impressive results. Coalition forces battled the Taliban while embarking on a “hearts and minds” campaign with the Afghan public. Troops were reallocated from the remote outposts and sent to provide protection to Afghans in and around their cities in a relatively successful bid to build goodwill.
Although Petraeus’ counter-insurgency campaign began to demonstrate positive results, the campaign still suffered from a noticeable lack of US troops, as the war in Iraq was still the US’ main priority at the time. Taliban supply routes and remote bases once again became operational following the evacuation of the US military outposts. In order to bolster US forces in the Afghanistan, President Obama announced an Iraq-like surge, which bolstered US forces with an additional 30,000 troops on the ground. This surge was required to fill the vacancies caused by the “hearts and minds” campaign that left much of Afghanistan’s territory undefended and the Pakistan/Afghan border unsecured. Special Forces operations and drone strikes were significantly increased as well, garnering positive results as targeted assassinations and nightly arrests once again put the Taliban on the defensive end. Taliban capabilities have been substantially weakened Though the Taliban remains operational and continues to press forward in their battle against foreign troops, NATO forces now report that much of the tactics they are currently witnessing from the Taliban have resembled acts of desperation. Today’s attacks, despite their threatening and deadly nature, involve tactics such as suicide missions and high profile attempts at undermining Afghan civilians’ sense of security. These attacks are not designed to effectively win a war against foreign troops, as evident by the attack on the US Embassy, in which only 10 Taliban insurgents were involved, far too few to actually take down the structure. Instead, they are designed to show the Coalition’s weakness and inability to properly secure the country, undermining the “hearts and minds” campaign and damaging the transition process.
Despite these successes, Coalition troops are still encountering fierce resistance, and Afghanistan remains an enormous money pit for the international community. With the death of Osama Bin Laden and several other high-ranking Al-Qaeda officials, it may be possible to change the course and the tone of the Afghan war. It would be wise for the U.S. to frame Bin Laden’s death as an overall military victory, offering an outlet and an excuse to abandon the fight against the Taliban and exit Afghanistan as gracefully as possible.
Bin Laden’s death provides the US an opportunity with an excellent potential exit strategy from the war. By returning to the primary purpose of the war - the defeat of Al-Qaeda - instead of continuing to restructure the mission in order to secure and rebuild Afghanistan, US forces need to seriously consider withdrawal in spite of the Taliban situation. Initially, the removal of the Taliban was included as a war objective because of their refusal to hand over Osama bin-Laden and dismantle terrorist training camps. The coalition forces have largely accomplished both of these goals.
The relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was heavily based on the relationship between Bin Laden and then-Taliban leader Mullah Omar. However, not all of the Taliban leaders had positive impressions of Bin Laden or his organization. On numerous occasions, senior Taliban leaders expressed their distaste for Al-Qaeda, its tactics and its ideology. As recently as 2008, the Taliban expressed its desire to sever ties with Al-Qaeda while in discussions with Saudi Arabia to help end the conflict.
The U.S., and more importantly, the Afghan government, must be willing to enter into concerted negotiations with the Taliban if any semblance of stability is to be restored to the country. Additionally, a successful withdrawal of armed forces simply can't be accomplished unilaterally. Leaving Afghanistan without an agreement from the Taliban would be an enormous waste, as the country would most likely descend into further chaos and bloodshed. Afghan security forces are currently incapable of preventing a complete Taliban takeover, which is why it remains in the U.S.’s interest to pursue an Afghanistan in which there is some type of power-sharing agreement in place between the Karzai Government and the Taliban. At the moment, another viable option hasn't presented itself.
A dual approach strategy must be utilized, on the one hand finding NATO forces exerting continuous military pressure on the Taliban, while simultaneously promoting open negotiations and reconciliation talks in order to stabilize the country. Opening a dialogue with the Taliban may enable a power sharing deal within the Afghan government, giving coalition troops the opportunity to withdrawal under a banner of significant. The simple fact is that the Taliban has never been an enduring strategic threat to the United States, and it may still be possible for US and NATO forces to exit Afghanistan.
The thorough dismantling of Al- Qaeda terror network has been achieved, and its leaders eradicated. Allowing the Taliban to return to power under an agreement that terror networks will not be permitted to use Afghanistan, as a terror hub is an accomplishment worthy of ending 10 years of gruesome, tireless warfare. Scott Tankel is an independent journalist focusing on military matters in the Middle East. He received his M.A. from Tel Aviv University's School of Diplomacy and Security, is an IDF combat reservist and regular contributor to