Afghanistan After 9/11: A Mission Unaccomplished

The legacy of the war in Afghanistan will be about much more than the attacks of 9/11 and the defeat of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda

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Musadeq Sadeq—AP

Afghan soldiers attend the hand over ceremony of U.S.- run prison to Afghan government in Bagram north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 10, 2012.

Long gone is that smoke-‘em-out-of-their-caves bravado. 11 years after the horrors of 9/11, the U.S. war to punish al-Qaeda has turned into a global headache. With no decisive military victory in sight in Afghanistan, the Americans and their allies are rushing, albeit as discreetly as possible, for the exit. The official date of withdrawal—by the end of 2014—hangs like an oversized albatross around the neck of policymakers in Washington, Brussels and Kabul. Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead and his jihadist enterprise in retreat. But the legacy of the longest conflict in American history and the future of war-ravaged Afghanistan are both shrouded with dark uncertainties.

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Two events yesterday highlighted the shadowy world 9/11 wrought. On Sept. 10, the U.S. military confirmed that an unnamed inmate in Guantanamo Bay died while in detention from unknown causes. This was the ninth such death since the facility opened in 2002. An extraterritorial, extrajudicial site for those swept up in Afghanistan and Pakistan amid the U.S.’s quest to root out al-Qaeda and its proxies, Guantanamo became a metaphor for the darker practices of the war on terror. This extraordinary renditioning of supposed American values was illustrated most recently by revelations published by Human Rights Watch alleging the CIA once colluded with the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to torture suspected Islamist extremists. Some of those detained in Guantanamo have been found to have had little connection to bin Laden’s jihad; near 170 prisoners remain in a legal and moral limbo.

The journey to Gitmo often wound its way through the vast American facility at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base. Also on Sept. 10, the U.S. officially transferred the operation of the detention center — and the over 3,000 prisoners in custody there — to local authorities. Reuters quoted a top Afghan official making this unintentionally bleak statement:

“Today is a historical and glorious day for Afghanistan where Afghans are able to take the charge of the prison themselves,” acting Defence Minister Enayatullah Nazari told a large crowd including U.S. military officials.

That the Afghan government is slowly reassuming direct control over stretches of the country — and, indeed, a notorious prison — is a metric of progress. But, according to a report issued this past week by the Open Society, a George Soros-funded pro-democracy group, with Bagram, the Afghans are inheriting an internment system where detainees were kept arbitrarily by the U.S. and often without trial, something that may be in contravention of Afghanistan’s own constitution. And there’s every indication the Afghans will simply pick up where the Americans left off. “If Afghanistan truly wants to bring legitimacy to national security detentions, creating their own unlawful internment regime is a bad way to start,” says Rachel Reid, an Afghanistan specialist for the Open Society.

While the U.S. has spent at least half a trillion dollars on the war and lost more than 2,000 of its soldiers, the gains made — the liberation of much of the country from tyrannical Taliban orthodoxy — could yet be reversed. Moreover, a decade of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, while not unpopular back home, has possibly sewn the seeds of greater discord to come. Earlier this year, Robert Grenier, a former CIA counterterrorism chief under George W. Bush, warned of the human cost of a wayward and at times indiscriminate campaign of drone strikes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield,” he said.

Given the resilience of the Taliban, it’s become all too clear that a negotiated truce and political settlement must be forged sooner rather than later. An important, somewhat encouraging report put out recently by the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank, suggests the Taliban are ready for ceasefire talks and compromise as well—though it’s a solution that few Washington hawks could have countenanced 11 years ago.

The report, based on a number of interviews with senior Taliban figures (though their identities remain anonymous) conducted by four British and American South and Central Asia experts, makes a number of significant claims: the Taliban leadership—known as the Quetta shuraafter the Pakistani city where top leaders like Mullah Mohammad Omar are thought to have found safe haven—profoundly regrets its dealings with al-Qaeda and is prepared to renounce any ties to international terrorist outfits; despite certain bullish public utterances, the Taliban are willing to commit to parliamentary democracy, allow for modern education in schools and for girls to attend them; they are even willing to accept a U.S. military presence in the country beyond 2014, though insist for an end to drone strikes.

Of course, even if these Taliban assurances are true, there are major stumbling blocks. The most glaring one is the Taliban refusal to cooperate with the supposedly corrupt government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a politico who, despite his growing unpopularity at home and in the West, will not disappear quietly from the public stage. Moreover, the role of Pakistan and the jihadist-sympathizers in its military remains pivotal, and there’s no sign yet of a clear break between the Afghan Taliban and their bases of support in Islamabad. At the same time, regional powers in India and Iran will be bent on preventing the Taliban from making their way back into power. A messy geopolitical conflagration looms, with Afghanistan yet again at risk of becoming the site of regional proxy wars.

The one reassuring conclusion of the RUSI report is that, unlike in the 1990s, the Taliban know they don’t have the resources to pull off a complete military victory in the country they once ruled through the backs of their Toyota pickups. Yet even for the world’s only superpower, the prospect of a decisive victory in Afghanistan has long dimmed. For all its initial zeal — and the blood and treasure spent — the U.S. won’t be able to author a happy ending in a part of the world it sought to remake 11 years ago.