Afghanistan: a mere footnote in the US election

Afghanistan: a mere footnote in the US election
Comment: The war in Afghanistan was a defining feature of US foreign policy for over a decade, but this election it has quietly dropped off the agenda, writes Usaid Siddiqui
5 min read
03 Nov, 2016
US combat missions in Afghanistan eneded in 2014, though 8,000 troops remain [Getty]

America's occupation in Afghanistan is its longest military engagement overseas in history. Shortly after 9/11 in October 2001, the US government with its NATO allies launched its invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, and overthrew the Taliban government in the process. While combat missions came to an end by 2014, approximately 8,000 or so troops remain in the country.

Despite being America's most prolonged war, with thousands of people dead and maimed, the war in Afghanistan is today given hardly any coverage.

With one of America's most contentious elections coming to a close, the 18-month long campaign has not seen any of the presidential candidate nominees pay much more than lip service to the conflict that helped define American foreign policy in the 21st century.

A war long lost

It took mere weeks for American and NATO forces to topple the Taliban government in Kabul. Scenes of women taking off their burkas and throwing them on the streets were plastered all over US media as the Bush administration announced a new era for the war torn country. 

Now 15 years later, the Taliban are more resilient than they have ever been during the whole course of this war. 

In 2015, approximately 110,000 Afghans were killed or injured, more than any other year since the war began, according to a yearly UN report first published in 2009.

The report adds that 1 in 4 casualties was a child. The reports adds that 62 percent of all casualties were caused by anti-government forces, and many of those by the Taliban. In the only first half of this year, over 5,000 civilians were killed or wounded. 

America's actions and sustained presence in Afghanistan are at the heart of the country's myriad of problems

In addition to the country spiraling into ever higher levels of violence, the Taliban has been successful in capturing or contesting around one fifth of the country. In September 2015, the Taliban temporarily held the city of Kunduz, which American and NATO forces have tried relentlessly to rid of Taliban influence.

Last month, and just over a year on from the initial capture, the Taliban once again attacked Kunduz in a major blow to Afghan security apparatus and their inability to permanently drive the Taliban away from key locations.

The Taliban's ability to attack key areas was put on horrifying display as they blew up a truck at a central location in Kabul city, in what was considered the deadliest attack in the 15 year conflict. 

Though some have pointed out that the insurgent group's revival is a result of American troop pullback in the region, the Taliban have consistently thwarted America's plans to establish a foothold in the war torn nation throughout the entire period of the occupation.

The Taliban's resilience, and the slow but firm realisation on the part of the Americans that the prospects of disbanding the group were close to none, meant the US government has been forced to commit to an on and off dialogue process with the Taliban since about 2010.

Yet the US's duplicitous approach of wanting to negotiate while simultaneously droning Taliban leaders has only made the possibility of a political solution more untenable.  

America's transgressions only helped the Taliban better their profile amongst Afghans

America's transgressions only helped the Taliban better their profile amongst Afghans, as anti-Americanism in the country escalated as the war dragged on.

Indiscriminate killing of civilians by either CIA drones, night raids conducted by US special forces or heinous torture programs at Bagram - America's actions and sustained presence in Afghanistan are at the heart of the country's myriad of problems that only seem to be growing.  

While Bush and Obama have pointed out that not all was lost, highlighting the decimation of Al-Qaeda's network and the killing of Bin Laden as major victories, organisations far more extreme than the Taliban have emerged.

Groups such as Islamic State group (IS) are now increasingly making their presence felt in Afghanistan while threatening an out sectarian war in the country, by targeting vulnerable minorities such as the Hazara Shia community.

Moreover, the war in Afghanistan shaped the rationale for expanding the so called "War on Terror" into other Muslim nations. The result has been the growth of numerous terrorist groups around the region, including Al-Qaeda affiliates like the AQAP in Yemen.

America's costliest war

The war in Afghanistan has cost the Americans upwards of $600 billion, according to a December 2014 report published by the US Congress Research Service.

The war in Afghanistan has cost the Americans upwards of $600 billion

While the US officially ended its combat mission at the end of 2014, 8,000 troops will remain in the country providing tactical and intelligence support to Afghan security forces. In 2013, the estimated cost of keeping one soldier in the country was around $2 million or more per year.

Combined with costs of the Iraq War, approximately $1.7 trillion and more has been spent, a sum that could wipe out the US student debt which now stands at a staggering $1 trillion – another national crises that was overshadowed by the personal mudslinging witnessed at the presidential debates.

American casualties in the ongoing conflict also highlight the quagmire that is the occupation, which has seen over 2,000 soldiers and some 1,500 private contractors killed, with around 20,000 wounded in the war. Many who returned home find themselves struggling to put together a normal life, with thousands of Iraqi and Afghan war veterans sleeping rough on the streets each night.

"Afghanistan is an unwinnable war," says Thomas Johnson, a Research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. "We've spent near a trillion dollars, we've lost 2,500 people, we spent an awful lot of blood and treasure and the country is still dysfunctional."

Yet despite the enormous financial and human costs, the war that launched one the most disastrous legacies of American foreign policy seems long forgotten.  

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.