While the US has completed almost 16 years of its presence in Afghanistan it is important to analyze the role of Washington in the country and its positive and negative effects. There are mainly two arguments regarding the US presence in Afghanistan since late 2001 when it ousted the Taliban regime in the wake of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by the Afghanistan-based and Taliban-protected global terrorist group, Al Qaeda. The first argument has been that the US presence has kept the Taliban away from power and defeated Al Qaeda and second is that it has destabilized Afghanistan and has got itself in a strategic quagmire out of which there is no easy way out. Both the arguments have substance.
Analysis of the conflict and crisis in Afghanistan since 2001 would reveal that the situation has aggravated and the crisis seemingly interminable. The woes of Afghanistan due to this unending crisis and conflict are so unremitting that generally Afghans now think of the US as more of a problem than a solution. Afghans cannot be blamed for this attitude. Because it is almost more than 16 years since Washington has been unable to put an end to the insurgency of the Taliban or place the Afghan government on a stable footing. While the US cannot be blamed entirely for the conflict and crisis in Afghanistan, but it has been the most important external factor in Afghanistan since 2001 and has been solely responsible for the security of the country along with its NATO allies. Therefore, the Afghans think that it is due to Washington that they face the untenable situation in their country. However, this is, arguably, not a realistic assessment.
Insofar as the eradication of the Taliban is concerned, it had not been the primary objective of the US when it occupied Afghanistan. This needs to be understood and kept in perspective by the Afghans as well as independent analyst when assessing the role of the US in Afghanistan. Washington has not been concentrating on conclusively mopping up the Afghan Taliban. Perhaps, this has been a contributing factor for the continued insurgency of the Taliban. For Afghanistan this has been a strange situation. Because the external force which came to stabilize Afghanistan could not eliminate the main destabilizing factor— the Taliban. Consequently, the Taliban insurgency has been gathering constant support from the Afghans. The Afghan Taliban have been fighting the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces since their occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001, after ousting the Taliban regime (1996-2001), as well as the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF).
Against this backdrop, the role which the Americans have been acting out in Afghanistan is not easy to explain. The strategies which Washington has adopted to achieve its objectives have raised many questions. The ostensible objective which the US-NATO claimed for occupying Afghanistan was to eliminate Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and to establish a legitimate political set-up, so as to stabilize the country. The US has been able to defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to the extent of eliminating the entire frontline leadership of the group and killing of its founder Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, eliminating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan does not serve the second primary objective of the US to establish a legitimate government in Afghanistan. This has required much effort, not only money, which Washington has pumped into Afghanistan since 2001. These efforts of providing a viable and vibrant political and governmental apparatus in Afghanistan required institution making. By institutions one does not mean raising large and extensive buildings. Unfortunately, Washington could not carry out the process of institution- building in Afghanistan due to which stability in Afghanistan is far from achieved, while the crisis and conflict in the country has become more complex. However, the US cannot be blamed entirely for its inability to create viable and vibrant institutions in Afghanistan. The Afghans have themselves contributed to this flawed process of institution-making. This has primarily been because in a tribal, ultra-conservative and closed society like Afghanistan, it becomes very difficult for an external force like the US to effectively carry out institution building. This is particularly so as the US does not have a very strong history of nation-building in occupied territories, because historically the US has not been a colonizing power, to the same extent as European imperialist powers.
The US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan have been subverted by the vested interests among Afghans. Due to the conflict and crisis in Afghanistan, a huge war economy has evolved and key members of the Afghan establishment have extensively benefited from it, apart from the Taliban. On their part, these officials do not want to see an end to the Afghan conflict, like the Taliban. The US could not put an end to this war economy or keep a firm check on the vested interests in Afghanistan.
Insofar as the US attack on the Taliban leadership is concerned, this could be attributed to the dilemma of Washington regarding Afghanistan. In order to achieve an effective and meaningful end to the longest war of US history, Washington has had to target the Taliban. Because without targeting the Taliban leadership the group cannot be weakened so that it could be compelled to negotiate. And without weakening the Taliban and making them negotiate from a disadvantaged position, the Taliban could set their terms, and this would be tantamount to a loss for Washington. This obviously is not acceptable to the sole superpower on the face of the earth.
Noticeably, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet again accused the US for working against Afghanistan and its people by lengthening the war against the Taliban insurgents. Karzai has even blamed the US for promoting the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Karzai said that the Taliban were less of an obstacle to peace than the Americans. The personal stature and track record of Karzai is not such that his statement could be believed. Nevertheless, Karzai’s statements have a lot of substance. This is despite the fact that he is trying to find a way to return to power within Afghanistan. For him, after playing a stooge of the US for so long, he is now trying to portray himself as a great Afghan nationalist. In order to prove his credentials, he deprecates Washington. Having said this, Karzai’s stance that the US bas been behind the rise of the IS in Afghanistan is very serious. Importantly, Washington could not respond to the charges by Karzai, and this has raised a lot of eyebrows.
Although the US is not solely responsible for the continued conflict and crisis in Afghanistan, still it is worth mentioning that the US has strategic national interests in Afghanistan. By having its presence in Afghanistan, Washington has had its interest to be in China’s proximity, which is a strategic competitor of the US in the region. Moreover, by having its foothold in Afghanistan, the US thinks it could keep a strict vigil on Iran, one of three states once termed as the Axis of Evil by former US president George W. Bush. Afghanistan is also not far away from Russia and Washington would like its presence in the region so that Moscow’s influence in the Central Asian States and Afghanistan could be checkmated. Washington may also want to take maximum advantage of the economic potential of Afghanistan and Central Asia’s natural resources.
The core problem in Afghanistan apart from the presence of the US, is the profoundly tribal structure and system and ethnic divisions. The US has not been able to do much in this situation to give a legitimate government and viable state apparatus to the country, or carry our effective institution-building.