Afghanistan Recent Developments
In June 2011, President Obama declared that the United States had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan, setting in motion an aggressive timetable for the withdrawal of American troops by 2014.
The reaction in Afghanistan has been complicated. Initially, many in Kabul welcomed the announcement, including President Hamid Karzai, who described the announcement that American troops would depart as “a moment of happiness for Afghanistan.”
As time passes and the Taliban continues its brutal campaign, the mood has turned sober. Throughout Afghanistan, and especially in the south, local officials and tribal elders have questioned the ability of Afghan troops to defend them and have said that the Taliban are far from defeated.
In November 2011, despite criticism from neighboring countries, threats from the Taliban and calls for a boycott from some political opponents, Mr. Karzai called a loya jirga, the traditional grand council of Afghan elders and leaders, in an attempt to gain popular support for a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
There have been no agreements and, in any case, Mr. Karzai’s proposals — which include an end to night raids by American forces and an insistence that the Afghan government be in charge of all detainees — are not acceptable to American officials. But they are an indication of the change in his thinking.
The months that preceded the gathering were notable for their violence. Aug. 6, 2011, was the deadliest day for American forces in the nearly decade-long war: insurgents shot down a Chinook transport helicopter, killing 30 Americans, including some Navy Seal commandos from the unit that killed Osama bin Laden, as well as 8 Afghans.
In August a series of attacks by insurgents killed numerous civilians, but for the most part failed against military targets. In Kabul, on Aug. 19, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on the British Council, a British government agency promoting education, culture and the arts. Suicide bombers stepped up attacks in southern Afghanistan in advance of the end of Ramadan. But though Afghan security forces were the intended targets, civilians took the biggest toll.
On Sept. 13, insurgents launched a complex assault against the American Embassy and the nearby NATO headquarters, pelting the heavily guarded compounds with rockets in an attack that raised new questions about the security of Afghanistan’s capital and the Westerners working there.
A week later, an unidentified attacker killed the Burhanuddi Rabbani, the leader of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a former president of the country whose main responsibility was negotiating a political end to the war with the Taliban. The attack was a serious blow to any notion of reconciliation with the Taliban.
Militarily, the Taliban have been under stress since American forces doubled their presence in southern Afghanistan in 2010 and greatly increased the number of special forces raids aimed at hunting down Taliban commanders.
But the Taliban has found new and more subtle ways of asserting themselves, using tactics like controlling the hours of cellphone use, more selective attacks and new flexibility on matters like education, even as NATO generals portray the insurgents as a diminished force less able to hold ground. American officials point to their tendency to seek high-profile targets to compensate for the decline in their overall capacity to attack coalition forces in the field.
The question is whether the Taliban need to hold territory as they once did in order to influence the population. Increasingly, it seems, the answer is no.
A report issued by the United Nations in October 2011 provided a devastating picture of detainee abuses committed by arms of the Afghanistan government as the American-led foreign forces there moved to wind down their presence after a decade of war. The abuses were uncovered even as American and other Western trainers and mentors had been working closely with the ministries overseeing the detention facilities and funded their operations.
The United States has been militarily involved in Afghanistan since 2001, when it led an invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks by Al Qaeda. The group had been given safe haven in the country by the Taliban, the extremist Islamic group that had seized control in 1996 after years of civil war.
The 2001 invasion succeeded in dislodging Al Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power, but not in eradicating either group. With American military efforts focused on Iraq, the Taliban made a steady comeback, fueled by profits from the opium trade, dissatisfaction with the weak and often corrupt Afghan government, and safe havens in Pakistan.
President Obama made Afghanistan the central military focus of his administration, drawing troops out of Iraq and increasing the number in Afghanistan by almost 50,000. He put Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of the 2007 “surge’’ in Iraq, in command of American forces in Afghanistan, and the pace of American operations stepped up enormously, initially in the Taliban’s strongholds in the south.
Though initial plans called for American combat forces to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, the Obama administration increasingly emphasizes the idea that the United States will have forces in the country until at least the end of 2014, when it intends to pass responsibility for security to the Afghan government.
But between claims of tactical success on the ground and the strategy of handing off to Afghan forces lies what one colonel called “the great disconnect.’’ The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and Mr. Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led. And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven.
Afghanistan, officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, has known little peace since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded. Now it is the scene of what has become the central military struggle for the United States, as American forces try to help a weak and corrupt government tame a stubborn insurgency.
Afghanistan’s strategic location, at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, has long granted it a pivotal role in the region, while its terrain and population have stymied would-be conquerors for centuries. The country’s population is 34 million. Its capital is Kabul.
1979-1996: The Soviet Invasion and After
Three decades ago, Afghanistan was a stable, relatively prosperous and relatively secular country. The turmoil and extremism that have dominated its history since then can be traced to the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union and the reaction both by Afghans and by their allies in the United States and Pakistan.
In the 19th century, the imperial Russian government vied with Britain for influence in Central Asia in the Great Game &mdash: a web of diplomatic intrigue and espionage. But it was almost a century later that Moscow’s role in Afghan affairs reached its peak, when the Soviet invasion descended into a prolonged and bloody occupation that was in many ways comparable to the American experience in Vietnam.
The first Soviet troops parachuted into Kabul on Dec. 27, 1979, to assist Babrak Karmal, who had become president in a coup within the Afghan Communist leadership. Moscow insisted that the troops came in response to a plea for help from a legitimately constituted Karmal Government. But most Western analysts say the Soviets engineered the coup as a pretext to replace Hafizullah Amin, the Afghan leader, who had lost their trust.
Soviet troops stayed in the country for more than nine years, fighting a conflict that cost them roughly 15,000 lives and undisclosed billions of rubles, while undermining the cherished image of an invincible Soviet Army. The Kabul Government generally kept a firm grip on the cities, but throughout the war was unable to rout the rebels in the countryside, where the conservative populace was antagonized at the outset by changes in social and land policies that offended Muslim tradition. After 1986, the Soviet Air Force was also rendered largely useless by advanced Stinger antiaircraft missiles supplied by the United States to the rebels.
Eventually, after peace talks moderated by the United Nations, the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in February 1989, in what was in effect a unilateral withdrawal. They left behind a country that was not only devastated by the war but that had become a beacon to Islamic extremists from across the globe who had come to assist in the fighting, including Osama bin Laden and the group he helped found, Al Qaeda.
After Soviet forces departed, Afghanistan descended into vicious internecine strife; by the summer of 1994, power was anarchically divided among competing warlords and individual fiefdoms. But one group would eventually gain control.
1996-2001: The Taliban Takeover
The Taliban grew out of a student movement dedicated to purifying the country, based in the southeast, the home of the dominant ethnic group, the Pashtun. In a story that is now part of Afghan folklore, the group’s first action occurred when Mullah Omar, a Pashtun who had lost an eye fighting the Soviets, gathered a small band of men and attacked a group of warlords who had raped a girl and shaved her head.
By the end of 1994 Mullah Omar had nearly 12,000 followers and was rolling up the warlords to the north and east. With his promise of restoring the centrality of Islam to daily life, he created a genuinely popular movement in a country weary of corruption and brutality.
Yet even with popular support, the Taliban might have withered were it not for the intervention of Pakistan, the neighbor to the east. As early as 1994, Pakistani intelligence officers began funneling arms, money and supplies to Mullah Omar’s men, as well as military advisers to help guide them in battle.
Buoyed by Pakistani aid, the Taliban by 1996 had taken control of Afghanistan, imposing strict enforcement of fundamentalist Islamic law, banning movies and music and forcing women out of schools and into all-enveloping burqa clothing.
The Taliban also provided a haven for Mr. bin Laden, who arrived by chartered jet at Jalalabad Airport in May 1996, and for Al Qaeda. Western diplomats say Al Qaeda helped persuade Mullah Omar to order the destruction of the 800-year-old Buddha statues at Bamiyan, an act condemned around the world. International criticism of the Taliban’s harsh measures had little effect on the regime, which seemed almost to welcome pariah status.
Post 9/11 Invasion
After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave the Taliban an ultimatum to hand over Mr. bin Laden. When it refused, the United States joined forces with rebel groups that had never accepted Taliban rule, notably the Northern Alliance, which represented minority tribes. An air and ground campaign began that drove the Taliban out of the major Afghan cities by the end of the year.
Remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership retreated to Tora Bora in the mountains along the Pakistan border and eventually escaped after a battle there, primarily involving Afghan forces allied with the United States.
The Karzai Government
In December 2001, Hamid Karzai, a supporter and relative of Mohammad Zahir Shah, the exiled former king of Afghanistan, was named chairman of an interim government that replaced the defeated Taliban, making him the leader of the country. He took office as interim president in June 2002, saying he hoped to secure peace for Afghanistan and win the country much-needed international aid. Mr. Karzai was elected to a five-year term as president in 2004.
During the Bush administration, Mr. Karzai — a celebrity in flowing cape and dark gray karakul cap — was also a White House favorite. His popularity, though, steadily plunged, at home as well as abroad, as Mr. Karzai faced an Afghan population that blamed him for the manifest lack of economic progress and the corrupt officials who seem to stand at every doorway of his government.
The Taliban Resurgence
Despite their defeat in 2001, the Taliban continued to wage a guerrilla warfare from a base in the mountainous and largely lawless tribal area on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. As the American military focus was diverted to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Taliban regrouped and began to extend its influence in the southern part of Afghanistan. Their rise was assisted by a resurgent opium trade, which helped to fill the group’s coffers.
Dealing with vast areas and limited manpower, the American-led coalition has held the cities and highways, but, faced with an increasingly vigorous insurgency, ceded large parts of the countryside to the Taliban.
The Taliban also spilled over into Pakistan, raising concerns about its stability, and making Afghanistan once more a top foreign policy priority for the Western Allies.
A six-year archive of classified military documents, released by Wikileaks, painted a bleak, ground-level view of the conflict. They amounted to a daily diary of an American-led force often starved for resources and attention as it struggled against an insurgency that grew larger, better coordinated and more deadly each year.
Mr. Obama’s plan to widen United States involvement in Afghanistan was shaped by a debate in which Vice President Biden warned against getting into a political and military quagmire, while military advisers argued that the Afghanistan war effort could be imperiled without even more troops.
General Petraeus, the Iraq commander who received much of the credit for the success of the surge there, had taken charge of United States Central Command in October 2008, with responsibility for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the region. Mr. Gates later brought in General Stanley A. McChystal, an expert in counterinsurgency warfare who for years has viewed the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a particularly thorny problem. In June 2010, President Obama removed Gen. McChrystal after contemptuous quotes from the general and his staff about senior administration officials appeared in an article in Rolling Stone magazine. Mr. Obama tapped Gen. Petraeus to lead the war effort there.
In a speech delivered Dec. 1, 2009, at West Point, Mr. Obama announced his plan to deploy 30,000 additional troops. He vowed to start bringing American forces home from Afghanistan in the middle of 2011, saying the United States could not afford and should not have to shoulder an open-ended commitment.
Yet in a move away from that July 2011 deadline, the Obama administration changed its tone to increasingly emphasize the idea that the United States will have forces in the country until at least the end of 2014. Administration officials are trying to convince Afghans that the United States is not walking away and to warn the Taliban that aggressive operations against them would continue.
Administration officials have acknowledged that the 2014 date was based on the presumption that the American military would be successful enough in fighting the Taliban that significant withdrawals would be under way by then.
Counterinsurgency: Offensives in the South
Military operations continued to be the primary tool to further the goal of a stable Afghan state. Much of the war had seen American and NATO forces mounting large operations to clear towns and cities of insurgents. And then after they had swept the area, they seldom, if ever, stationed enough soldiers or police officers to hold the place on their own. And so the Taliban returned — and, after a time, so did the allied forces, to clear the place all over again.
With much fanfare, American and NATO military commanders began their largest offensive since 2001 in the Marja section of southern Afghanistan in mid-February 2010. The move was the prototype for a new type of operation based on the counterinsurgency thinking propounded by Gen. McChrystal.
In Marja, a Taliban stronghold, American and Afghan commanders said they would do something they have never done before: bring in an Afghan government and police force behind them. American and British troops will stay on to support them. But the operation did not go nearly as well as hoped, and the area is still not sufficiently controlled for the local government’s activities to resume or take root.
Due perhaps to the difficulties in Marja, the prospect of a robust military push in Kandahar Province, which had been widely expected to begin in June 2010, evolved into a strategy that put civilian reconstruction efforts first and relegated military action to a supportive role. However, in late September 2010, American and Afghan troops finally began active combat in an offensive to drive the Taliban out of their strongholds surrounding the city of Kandahar.
American and Afghan forces seemed to be routing the Taliban in much of Kandahar Province by late October, forcing many hardened fighters, faced with the buildup of American forces, to flee strongholds they had held for years.
Corruption and Rigged Elections
Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar.
In the hundreds of diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and released in December 2010, Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest official is a distinct outlier. The widespread corruption is made possible in part by a largely unregulated banking infrastructure and the ancient hawala money transfer network that is the method of choice for politicians, insurgents and drug traffickers to move cash around the Muslim world.
Mr. Karzai won re-election in 2009, but in a manner that weakened his standing and his government. The vote was held in August, and Mr. Karzai quickly declared that he had exceeded the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff. But it quickly became obvious that a large number of ballots were fraudulent. The tampering was almost entirely in favor of Mr. Karzai. After heavy pressure from American officials, Mr. Karzai agreed to a runoff, but his most serious challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from the race, scrapping the plan.
Parliamentary elections in 2010 were also flawed. At stake was the makeup of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan Parliament and the only body with the power to question the policies of President Karzai. More than 20 percent of the ballots were thrown out for fraud. The voting itself was so tainted — by ballot-box stuffing and armed intimidation of voters, among other tactics — that many candidates appealed the vote totals to a second electoral body, the Independent Election Commission, which finalized the results of the election in November 2010. President Karzai attempted to change the makeup of the new parliament by undermining the I.E.C. by creating a special court, which he later dissolved under international pressure.
After months of intense political pressure, in mid-August 2011, the election commission declared that it would change the results of the parliamentary elections. It announced that nine members of Parliament would be removed and nine candidates, previously disqualified over electoral irregularities, would have their seats restored. In a previous ruling, the panel had said that the election results were final and that even it could not change the outcome. The controversy has paralyzed the Afghan government since the November election, provoking street demonstrations by losing candidates and counterdemonstrations by the declared winners. The uncertainty prevented Mr. Karzai from appointing a cabinet or nominating Supreme Court justices.
In its first formal review of its Afghanistan policies since the decision to send more troops, the administration said the United States continues to kill leaders of Al Qaeda and diminish its capacity to launch terrorist attacks from the region. It cited some signs that the United States and its allies have halted or reversed inroads by the Taliban in Afghanistan and strengthened the ability of Afghan forces to secure their country, but acknowledged that the gains are fragile and could be easily undone unless more progress is made towards hunting down insurgents operating from havens in neighboring Pakistan.
The relationships between the United States, the Afghan government and the Afghan people have continued to be tense, and have repeatedly been damaged by civilian casualties. In April 2011, thousands of protesters, angry at the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, overran the compound of the United Nations in a northern Afghan city. Seven U.N. workers were killed in the attack, and at least 24 others died during protests which continued across the country for days.
In May 2011, Lt. Gen. John R. Allen was named to replace Gen. David H. Petraeus as the main commander of the war. President Hamid Karzai warned NATO that Afghans would no longer tolerate airstrikes that result in civilian casualties. If they continue, he said, “we will be forced to take unilateral action in this regard.”
U.S. Plans for Withdrawal
Asserting that the country that served as a launching pad for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks no longer represented a terrorist threat to the United States, President Obama announced plans to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011. The remaining 20,000 troops from the 2009 “surge” of forces would leave by the summer of 2012, amounting to about a third of the 100,000 troops now in the country.
The troop reductions, which came after a short but fierce internal debate, are both deeper and faster than the recommendations made by Mr. Obama’s military commanders, and they come as the president faces relentless budget pressures, an increasingly restive Congress and American public and a re-election campaign in 2012.
The withdrawals mark the start of a winddown of the military’s troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, which Mr. Obama signed on to in 2010 after a painstaking review. Most American forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by 2014. Administration officials indicated that they now planned to place more emphasis on smaller, focused counterterrorism operations of the kind that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011, which the president cited as Exhibit A for a substantial American troop reduction.
A Two-Track Strategy
Every evening the cellphone signals disappear in some portion of more than half the provinces in Afghanistan, as the major carriers, under pressure from the Taliban, turn off their signal towers, effectively severing most of the connections to the rest of the world.
Tactics like the cellphone offensive have allowed the Taliban to project their presence in far more insidious and sophisticated ways in 2011, using the instruments of modernity that they once shunned. The shutoff sends a daily reminder to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Afghans that the Taliban still hold substantial sway over their future.
It is just one part of a broader shift in Taliban strategy that has focused on intimidation, carefully chosen assassinations and limited but spectacular assaults. While often avoiding large-scale combat with NATO forces, the Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network have effectively undermined peace talks and sought to pave the way for a gradual return to power as the American-led forces begin scaling back military operations in the country.
Assaults like the rocket attack on the American Embassy in Kabul in September 2011, for which American officials blamed the Haqqanis, effectively shift the fight to cities, where it is harder for NATO to respond with air power for fear of harming civilians. They also allow the Taliban to capture the airwaves for hours, especially in media-saturated cities, and fuel an aura of crisis.
Likewise, the assassination in September 2001 in Kabul of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s peace council, dominated the news and reopened dangerous fissures between the country’s Dari-speaking north and the Pashtun south, in a single calculated blow. The new Taliban do not aspire to kill a lot of people, it seems, just a few in the right places and in positions of power.
The Rabbani assassination not only demonstrated the insurgents’ rejection of the peace process, but it also reminded people of their ability to shape the next chapter in the country’s history as the Americans prepare to leave. Similarly, the Taliban have sought to remake their image this year as a way of positioning themselves to play a prominent role in Afghanistan’s future. It is a two-track strategy.
The combination plays on the uncertainty gnawing at Afghans about the looming American withdrawal, while making the most of the insurgency’s limited resources. The aim is to undermine the Afghan government by making people question whether it can protect them, while trying to project the image of a group that is more open to the world than when the Taliban ruled the country in the 1990s.
Routine Abuse Uncovered
Suspects are hung by their hands, beaten with cables and in some cases their genitals are twisted until they lose consciousness in detention facilities run by the Afghan intelligence service and the Afghan national police, according the study released in October 2011 by the United Nations.
The report found evidence of “a compelling pattern and practice of systematic torture and ill-treatment” during interrogation in the accounts of nearly half of the detainees of the intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Intelligence, who were interviewed by United Nations researchers. The national police treatment of detainees was somewhat less severe and widespread, the report found.
The report pointed out that even though the abusive practices are entrenched, the Afghan government does not condone torture and has explicitly said the abuses found by the United Nations are not government policy.
In the absence of remedial changes by the Afghans, the information could trigger a provision under American law, known as the Leahy amendment, that would stop some financing for the Afghan security forces, according to human rights experts.
There appears to have been little effort made to scrutinize the country’s security practices, especially for detainees, perhaps in part because of political pressure to move as much responsibility as possible to the Afghans and to reduce American involvement there.