Is Afghanistan really a better country now than it was in 2001?
In April of this year, US President Joe Biden announced that about 2,500 to 3,500 US troops still in Afghanistan would return to the country by September 11. Britain made the same announcement. They also pledged to withdraw the remaining 650 troops from Afghanistan within the same period.
In the meantime, US troops have left their key military air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, in the dead of night without informing the Afghan authorities. The new Afghan commander in Bagram, General Asadullah Kohistani, told the BBC that the Americans had left at around 3AM. The Afghan military found out hours after they left.
Interestingly, the date set for the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan under the Doha Accords is very significant. On the same day 20 years ago, the Al-Qaeda carried out a terrorist attack in the United States that was planned in Afghanistan. Not only that, the attack was also led from there.
After that terrorist attack, a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban government. Al-Qaeda had also been temporarily expelled from the country. But for the past 20 years, the United States has had to pay a high price for its military and security operations in Afghanistan.
Only US troops stationed in Afghanistan know how terrible that price is. According to Greek philosopher Plato, only the dead have seen the end of the war. The same thing happened in America during the Afghan war.
Although this bloody war is not over yet, no one knows when it will end, just as no one knows when it will start again. However, the death toll is not low.
A steep price to pay
So far, 2,300 US troops have died in Afghanistan. 20,000 were injured. At the same time, 450 British soldiers were also killed. Hundreds of soldiers from several other countries have lost their lives in the two-decade-long war.
However, the Afghans have suffered many casualties in this war. More than 60,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed. The death toll among Afghan civilians has doubled.
Now I want to give the account of spending money in this war. In a word, the money spent in this war is equivalent to a mountain. From October 2001 to September 2019, the US military spent $778 billion in Afghanistan, according to the US Department of Defense.
In addition, the State Department, in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government agencies, spent $44 billion on a variety of reconstruction projects.
According to official figures, a total of $822 billion has been spent since the war began in 2001. But it does not account for the expenditure incurred in Pakistan, which was used as a base for military operations in Afghanistan.
This is the official account. In addition, a separate study by Brown University in the United States, entitled The Cost of War Project, claims that the official figures for the war in Afghanistan are substantial, showing that Congress approved $1 trillion in funding for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Neta Crawford, professor and co-director of the project, said: "This expenditure does not include the money spent on combat-related troops in various government departments for war-related activities and the interest on loans taken to finance the conflict.”
Was there ever any justification
Although unpleasant, now the question may arise as to whether there was any reason for this loss of life and the huge amount of money spent. Or in this case, I would take American writer Mark Twain's assertion that "God created war so that American would learn geography."
Otherwise, why are they leaving Afghanistan after 20 years? It is difficult to find a simple answer to this question.
Let’s see why the western countries including America went to Afghanistan? What goal did they want to achieve? Were their goals right? Although according to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, war does not determine who is right, it determines who is alive.
For five years, from 1996, Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, was based in Afghanistan. There they set up terrorist training camps and began testing for toxic gases on dogs. They recruited more than 20,000 jihadi volunteers from different countries and trained them in Afghanistan.
In 1998, Al-Qaeda carried out terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people. Al-Qaeda was able to carry out its activities in Afghanistan at that time without any hindrance because of the support of the ruling Taliban who won a bloody civil war that began after the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The United States at this point was trying to persuade the Taliban through its ally Saudi Arabia to drive Al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. But the Taliban denied it. The United States and its allies pressured the Taliban to arrest and hand over suspects after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Even then they refused to accept it.
An anti-Taliban Afghan militia group, the Northern Alliance, overthrew the Taliban with the direct help of American and British troops. Al-Qaeda fled and took refuge on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
In this context, the Americans believe that since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there has not been a single successful terrorist attack anywhere in the world that has been planned in Afghanistan. As a result, Western military and security operations in Afghanistan have only worked in the context of international counter-terrorism operations.
But given its tragic consequences for the Afghan military and civilians over the past 20 years, that security achievement is bound to fade. Moreover, according to the London-based think tank Action on Armed Violence, more people were killed in Afghanistan in 2020 than in any other country in the world.
Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and many other terrorist groups have not been eliminated in the country. Rather, their strength has gradually increased. In addition, the announcement of the withdrawal of the remaining Western troops has further boosted their confidence.
So what is the benefit to the Americans or the West in this long two-decade war? Or what is going to happen to the fate of the Taliban?
In 2003, Phil Goodwin, a senior BBC correspondent at a remote base in the 10th Mountain Division of the US military in Patkia, gave an interview on the final outcome of the Afghan war, saying "within 20 years, the Taliban will regain control of most of southern Afghanistan."
Indeed, the Taliban has once again become the main controller of the future of the whole of Afghanistan. Although disagreeing with Phil Goodwin, British Army Chief General Sir Nick Carter, who has visited Afghanistan several times, thinks the international community has been able to build a civil society in Afghanistan over the past 20 years and that the Taliban will have to compromise in the future.
He added that Afghanistan is a better country now than it was in 2001 and that the Taliban is now a much more open-minded group. Is that so? Or is Phil Goodwin's 2003 prophecy coming true for Afghanistan?
Fazlul Halim Rana is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University. Email [email protected].