Tick Tock, Tick Tock
Afghanistan is America’s longest war. The International Security Assistance Force has been in the war-torn country for almost 10 years, and it has lost some 2,200 soldiers. The war has cost U.S. taxpayers about $336 billion alone. How much closer are we to achieving peace and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan and securing other countries from the mayhem that is unleashed here? The answer is not encouraging.
The overarching goal in this war, according to U.S. President Barack Obama, is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” Key to accomplishing this is institutionalizing law enforcement in Afghanistan through professional, well-trained armed forces.
It is also critical to reduce corruption in the country. President Hamid Karzai concedes that corruption, widespread by all accounts, is fuelling the insurgency. A WikiLeaks cable revealed that Afghan Vice President Zia Massoud was stopped in the United Arab Emirates with a suitcase containing $52 million in cash. Nobody believes this was his personal fortune, and Kabul responded to U.S. concerns by saying they were already aware of this situation. Such instances strain support from allies, and the local population.
Then there is Al Qaeda. Most analysts now believe the terrorist network is no longer in Afghanistan. But a recent U.S. military internal report suggests that “the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to allow insurgent groups … to conduct cross-border operations in the Pashtun-dominated areas of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan.” The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is over 1,500-miles long and has never been secure in recorded history. Al Qaeda has found sanctuary in Pakistan, which is a far more troubling development given the very real potential of an unstable Pakistan to plunge the entire region into chaos. The Afghanistan war has caused the relocation of Al Qaeda, not its elimination.
It does not really matter which country houses Al Qaeda. The terrorist group and its allies have been planning and launching attacks from the ungovernable tribal areas of Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, much of Yemen (where Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab trained), Somalia, and Sudan. Many if not most attacks have been planned in developed countries: the 7/7 attacks in London were planned in Britain, the 2004 Madrid bombings were planned in Spain, much of 9/11 was planned in Germany, and the failed attack on Glasgow airport was planned in Scotland.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down to the day ISAF eventually leaves. However formidable a fighting force the Afghan Army may have become by then, it is unlikely it will be able to prevent terrorist plots emanating from 647,500-square-kilometers of mountainous terrain with no effective border. Recruitment in both the Army and police force has increased. There are 134,000 men in the Army and 109,000 in the National Police, but an internal U.S. report admits that “improving the quality of the force remains a serious challenge, in particular in the area of leadership development.” It accepts that at current recruitment rates, there will not be enough trainers to match the growth of forces, and that this is a real risk to the whole strategy.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems unlikely that ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan is actually even helping; it is likely more of a provocation than a protection. As the war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year, it is fairly evident that the expenditure in blood and treasure has not brought commensurate benefits to the U.S. and the world.
ISAF can make Al Qaeda fighters leave Afghanistan, but it cannot prevent them from returning. It can also not rout them from Pakistan, which, given the reaction to the Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, may be far more radical than previously thought. Despite increasing recruitment, there is still a noticeable lack of Army and police training, so the field will be open for militants to run riot. And the bumbling Afghan government remains the haven of corruption that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime proclaimed it to be in its January 2010 survey.
Even after the U.S. draws down this July, it is obvious the war will rage on.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
This article was published by Newsweek Pakistan on January 17, 2011: