This week President Obama announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, and described how he would ‘bring America’s longest war to a responsible end.’
The war may be ending for American soldiers, but for Afghans the war isn’t ending – it isn’t even beginning to end. More people are being killed in Afghanistan than at any point since 2001 and, according to the International Crisis Group, ‘the overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks.’ By some accounts, the first quarter of 2014 is the most violent first quarter of the war.
There is little hope that the United States will help to bring the conflict to a responsible end if it refuses to acknowledge this reality. With no military solution in sight, the priority now should be to establish a structured peace process.
Afghanistan has seen progress in state-building, infrastructure and access to services, such as education and health care. Civil liberties are respected and democracy is taking root, as was evident in the recent presidential and provincial elections. But this tells us little about the conflict.
For that we need to look at conditions earlier in the intervention, which are too quickly forgotten. Consider 2007, a year in which the UN secretary general warned of an ‘intensifying Taliban-led insurgency’ that posed a ‘fundamental threat’ to state institutions. He pointed to sharp rises in the use of improvised explosive devices, suicide attacks, assassinations and abductions, all of which were taking an increasing toll on civilians, undermining confidence in the future, and hampering development.
Let us compare 2007 with 2013, using standard indicators of insecurity relating to casualties, attack rates, displacement, and asylum applications.
The UN reported that during 2007 an average of 125 Afghan civilians were killed every month. By 2013 that figure had doubled to 250 deaths per month, including some 70 Afghan women and children. Unquestionably, more Afghans have been caught up in the fighting, especially in ground engagements between Afghan forces and insurgents.
Between 2007 and 2013 the average number of Taliban attacks increased from around 300 to over 1,200 per month – a rise of 300 per cent. That suggests the Taliban are stronger now than they were before the US troop surge of 2009-12. They are certainly more lethal. According to the US military, in 2007 an average of 85 Afghan police and soldiers were being killed every month. By 2013, that figure had risen to some 400 a month. Make no mistake, this amounts to a continual slaughter of young, Afghan men. It is the deadly underside of President Obama’s exit strategy, which amassed Afghan forces to take the place of Americans.
Other indicators point in the same direction. The UN says that currently around 10,000 Afghan civilians are displaced every month by the fighting, up from around 7,000 per month in 2007. And according to the UNHCR, record numbers of Afghans are applying for overseas asylum: from 780 per month in 2007, to 3,200 per month in 2013.
We should have no doubt about who bears the weight of responsibility for escalating violence: the insurgents and their supporters. But it is wrong to suppress the reality on the ground simply because Western political leaders would rather not acknowledge it. Saying that the war is ending does not make it so.
The United States achieved much in the course of the intervention, and American and allied troops acted with enormous courage and commitment. But the simple fact is that the United States set out to subdue the Taliban and failed to do so. Crucially, US leaders neglected perceptions of foreign aggression, and the outright corruption, predation, and abuse of power by warlords and government strongmen. US leaders also failed to take into account the role of Pakistan’s military in providing critical sanctuary and support to the Afghan Taliban.
That is not to say the Taliban will prevail, which is unlikely, but they undoubtedly pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.
It is now abundantly clear that military force, with or without American troops, will not bring about an end to the war. Afghanistan needs substantial, long-term, international support, including to its security forces. But the best chance of securing a ‘responsible end’ to the conflict is through the establishment of a structured and inclusive peace process.
Having rejected peace talks for the first nine years of the conflict, the United States must now help to bring them about. A viable peace process requires efforts at local, national and regional levels. It also requires the support of a mediator or facilitator respected by all sides and backed by the international community. In due course, the process must involve representatives of all elements of Afghan society and draw heavily on a national dialogue among Afghans about their future.
With the Taliban resurgent, there is no guarantee that negotiations will succeed, or make near term progress. But with the withdrawal of foreign troops, which removes a central driver of the insurgency, the election of new Afghan president, and the long-standing aspiration of a number of Taliban leaders for safety, recognition and influence, it is not too soon to pave the way for dialogue.
President Obama said of the transition in Afghanistan, ‘this is how wars end in the 21st century’. Given the escalating conflict, pervasive threat to civilians and uncertain future, let us hope that the president is wrong.
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