At the end of 2014, NATO ended its engagement – The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – in Afghanistan. Western troops will remain in the country, but in a much less active role than before. A relatively small number of Norwegian soldiers will also remain in Afghanistan, at least until 2015, in NATO’s Operation Resolute Support.
- How have the operations in Afghanistan worked?
- What problems have you encountered along the way?
- How should the effort be assessed?
- How can state-building work to create conflict?
In late 2014, a committee was set up in Norway to assess such issues. It is a difficult task. This article briefly discusses some of the issues that the committee must address.
The Afghan monarchy, established in the early 18th century, ended after a coup in 1973 . A new coup in 1978 brought a communist party to power. The Communists initiated many reforms, including land reform, education reform, gender equality and a sharp strengthening of women’s rights. This policy provoked many in the conservative Islamic country, and a civil war broke out. On Christmas Eve 1979 , Soviet forces crossed the border to support the Afghan government and the Communists’ position of power. 850,000-1.5 million civilian lives were lost in a war that raged – even after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 – until the fall of the Communist government in 1992.. By then, many millions of Afghans had fled to neighboring countries. The United States and the West supported the Afghan insurgents (collectively known as the Mujahedin, the resistance movement) with weapons and money, with Pakistan as an intermediary .
After the fall of the government in 1992, the civil war continued between the various rebel groups. There was no longer any state apparatus to maintain inner peace and order. The population of the capital Kabul fell from 2 million to 500,000. The country was now largely ruled by warlords who had built up their positions of power during the civil war. In 1994, the Taliban emerged as a reaction to the warlords’ misrule. The Taliban, which practices a form of Sunni Islam, wanted a conservative regime based on Islamic law.
Ethnically, Afghanistan is very heterogeneous societies with many and different ethnic groups. The Taliban grew up among the Pashtuns, who are the largest population group in Afghanistan with around 42 percent of the population. In 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul and government power, with military support from Pakistan and economic support from Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the Taliban established a partnership with Al Qaeda, which was allowed to establish both bases and training camps in the country. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda was able to build its own military units with soldiers from many countries. In 1998, the Taliban also captured large parts of northern Afghanistan, including Mazar-i-Sharif. After the conquest, many thousands of Hazaras, a Mongol people with a Shiite Islamic faith, were massacred. Even after the Taliban conquered almost the entire country, some groups continued to fight the Taliban in the north. The leader of the most important of these resistance movements (Massoud ) was killed in an assassination attempt on September 9, 2001, just two days before Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, then triggered Western military operations in Afghanistan.
3: The war 2001–2014 in perspective
According to securitypology.com, the war in Afghanistan has received a lot of attention in the Norwegian media. As a member of NATO , Norway has participated with forces and also contributed large sums of money to the building of the country. Both own losses and the large civilian losses in Afghanistan have also led to significant opposition to the war in the West. There is no agreement on the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan. It is difficult to get correct numbers and problematic to decide what to count. Should only those who have died as a result of violence be counted ? Or should one also count those who have died as a result of the war leading to a shortage of food, medicine and care ? The website Costofwar.org estimates 21,000 victims of violence in Afghanistan between 2001 and February 2014. These are many people. Yet the war in Afghanistan has claimed far fewer lives than many other conflicts it can be compared to. For example, 150,000-220,000 have been killed in Syria from March 2011 to 2014 alone. In the conflicts in the Congo, it is estimated that as many as 5 million people have died as a result of war since 1999.
UNAMA , the UN’s political operation in Afghanistan , estimates that from January to November 2014, 3,188 civilians were killed and 6,249 injured. This is the highest number that the UN has registered since they started counting in 2009, an increase of 19 percent compared to the same period in 2013. But in 2014, 12,000-18,000 civilians were killed in Iraq and about 18,000 civilians in Syria.
It is also not true that the majority of those killed in Afghanistan are civilians. In total, probably 15,000–16,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed, most after 2010. After the Afghans themselves were given the main responsibility for the war, the losses have been particularly large in the last two years with almost 9,000 killed in combat in 2013 and 2014. They Allied forces have lost nearly 3,500, mainly Americans (2,350) and Britons (450). Ten Norwegian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. Western losses peaked in 2009–2012.
In Afghanistan, a very large number of contractors from civil security companies have been used . They too have suffered heavy losses, probably greater than the military. But these losses are not as well documented. An estimate of around 23,000 killed on the government side seems reasonable. The rebels’ losses are difficult to calculate, but the estimates vary from around 20,000 to 35,000. The total military, or combatant, losses then amount to around 50-60,000 against 21,000 civilians. The war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 has also led to far fewer civilian casualties than previous conflicts in the country. Between 1979 and 2001, perhaps more than two million people were killed.
4: The operations
Since the beginning in 2001, the operations in Afghanistan have been understood on the basis of two very different main approaches and widely differing objectives for the two operations. This has always characterized the planning and implementation of the military operations in the country:
- The US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, October 7, 2001) was about fighting terrorism – about fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
- ISAF,which became operational from January 2002, was to secure the new government in Kabul and assist in the reconstruction of the Afghan state. The OEF operated throughout the country, while ISAF was limited to Kabul, at least until 2004. Many NATO countries participated in both forces. The United States supported ISAF, i.a. with logistics, but US forces were not placed under ISAF’s command until 2006.
The two operations were conducted in parallel until 2007 when a US general was given command of both forces. From the beginning, the forces had different goals and different command structures. Thus, the operations in Afghanistan broke from the very beginning with two of the most important principles of warfare – to have a clear goal and a unified command . This created significant problems. In order to make OEF as effective as possible, agreements were entered into with a number of warlords in different parts of the country. The agreements strengthened the warlords’ positions and thus became a major problem for the new state and ISAF when they were to establish themselves all over the country from 2004.
We can perceive the conflict (ies) in Afghanistan in two different ways:
- The operations can be understood as a war against one clearly defined enemy, namely the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This has largely been the American perspective.
- Afghanistan can be seen as a mosaic of hundreds of latent and active conflicts between different groupsand over the control of important resources. Changes in the national and local balance of power can lead to latent conflicts becoming active. In this second perspective, the security problems in Afghanistan have primarily local roots .
The western operations have largely been adapted to the first perspective, but I think the last perspective is the most important . Of course, the Taliban has been an important player, but it is through exploiting local conflicts that the Taliban have managed to rebuild their strength after the defeat in 2001-2002. Perhaps the biggest problem with Western operations in Afghanistan has been the lack of understanding of the society in which they operated. For example: Just by being present in an area, the Western forces upset the local balance of power. This can quickly lead to old, but latent (smoldering, but not visible) conflicts flaring up. The more resources you move into the area, and the closer you work with some of the parties there, the stronger the effect on the local balance of power. Those who feel threatened may then seek help from the Taliban or other rebel groups, even if they initially did not sympathize with these groups. If we are not very aware of this type of conflict dynamics, it will be able to create more conflicts than we can resolve.
Since 2002, the main goal of NATO has been to build up the Afghan security forces (Afghanize the conflict). In the autumn of 2012, the targets were almost reached for an army of 195,000 men and police forces of 157,000. Today, the total is probably a little below 340,000, but the losses have been large, and the authorities are struggling with recruitment. Afghanistan is completely dependent on outside support to maintain such a large security apparatus, with only salary payments to personnel costing $ 1.6 billion a year. This corresponds to around 8 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. This build-up has greatly upset the balance of power in the country. The central government has become stronger, while many local authorities have become weaker. Achieving this is an important Western goal.
Here it is important to point out a short circuit in Western thinking, and perhaps especially in the Norwegian understanding of the world. We tend to believe that all good things are connected. We like to believe that democracy and a well-functioning state create peace. In the Norwegian Faryab strategy (Faryab was the province in Afghanistan where Norwegian forces were stationed – in addition to Kabul) from 2009, it was assumed that only if enough state is built, then security will almost come by itself. But both state-building in countries where the state has been weak, and building democracy in countries where this has not existed before, are about shifting power – about changing power relations. There is no power vacuum in areas without a functioning state. There is always someone in power. When you build a new state apparatus and give it resources, you take power from someone and give it to someone else. In countries like Afghanistan, few give up power voluntarily . State-building creates conflict.
Nor is it the case that democracy, defined as free elections to national, regional or local positions of power, necessarily creates peace and tolerance. In countries with strong conflicts between different groups and without an established democratic culture, the majority group’s elected representatives will like to use their new positions of power to favor their own. They will often prioritize allocations and measures for their own groups and at the same time marginalize their opponents (keep out, put on the sidelines). It can quickly continue the conflict. These positions of power may be legal, but they are not necessarily seen as legitimate in the entire population. In this way, the introduction of democracy has been able to strengthen some groups and weaken others. The latter have often taken up arms, seeking to compensate for reduced power by building ties with the Taliban.
5: Afghanistan and geopolitics
Although the operations in Afghanistan can be analyzed in isolation, it is important to assess them in relation to other events and conflicts. The US and British invasion of Iraq in March 2003 is very important in that respect. This led to a deep division in NATO and to considerable skepticism and suspicion towards the United States in large parts of the world. There is little doubt that American and British prioritization of Iraq led to the operations in Afghanistan during an important period receiving far less attention than they should have received.
When the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, the United States was considered the only remaining superpower, a completely superior hegemon in the international system. American superior military power was an important factor in that picture. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the one hand, have contributed to weakening belief in what military power in general and the superior US military power in particular can accomplish.
But at the same time, the prioritization of insurgency and state-building there has led to the parts of the Western military apparatus that are most relevant in war between great powers being demolished . For example, in both the United States and most European countries, more resources were spent on light infantry and less on advanced warships and fighter jets. In parallel, China and Russia have built up their capacities in these areas. In this sense, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a military weakening of the West compared to other great powers.
Many refer to Afghanistan as a lost war , a defeat for the West. Others argue that what has been achieved is disproportionate to the enormous resources that have been invested or the human cost of the war. The West and the Afghan government have not lost the war, but neither have they achieved nearly as much as they had hoped. We should acknowledge that the many different goals were not compatible (without internal context), but also that the West’s own civilian and military strategies and doctrines were initially not suitable or good enough. The fact that the loss figures are rising is worrying, but there are also bright spots . Despite criticism of the conduct of the election, the change of president in 2014 was the first peaceful change of power in Afghanistan in a very long time.
Perhaps the result should be judged on what happens in the years to come. It is to a far greater extent than hitherto up to the Afghans themselves to decide. How much outside help will they need in the future? Will the Afghans be able to build an economy and a working state? A state most Afghans can trust? Will they be able to create a more peaceful society?