Last month, the Pentagon announced the potential deployment of up to 30,000 additional United States troops to Afghanistan to combat the Taliban and support the weak Afghan government. This announcement comes at a time when the Taliban is undergoing a resurgence, retaking cities lost in 2001 and gaining popular support. In Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, an estimated 90 percent of citizens support the Taliban. In recent months, the organization has set up a parallel judicial system, a police force, and even appointed governors to head parallel provincial governments — despite the United States’ seven-year effort to minimize the Taliban’s impact.
Even with the millions of dollars the U.S. has lavished upon Afghanistan’s central government, the country has not even come close to matching the accomplishments of the Taliban. Apart from the Afghan opium trade (now accountable for 93% of the world supply), it appears that little else is flourishing under the new government. In seven years, the government has not made significant progress towards establishing order, improving infrastructure or even gaining the trust of the people.
The general perception among Afghans is that the government is corrupt. In a country where the president’s brother stands accused of heroine trafficking and where provincial governors have left their jobs hundreds of millions of dollars richer than when they were government-appointed (not elected), this is not surprising.
Given the monetary expense and the number of American lives spent trying to establish this government, one would expect greater results. Yet despite that government’s ineffectiveness, we choose to reward it with increased military support.
Maintaining military support will not be easy. Just because the troop surge appears to have succeeded in Iraq does not mean that the same will be true of Afghanistan. The reason the Afghan war seemed easier than Iraq in the first place was because there were virtually no U.S. troops on the ground. During the first and most intense stages of the war, only a small number of special and CIA Special Operations Command forces were involved in combat. The majority of battles were fought by U.S.-paid Afghan warlords who were backed by American warplanes.
But that will no longer be the case if we send in 30,000 more troops. It will be messy, there will be many American deaths and there will be many more civilian deaths. The U.S. has a horrible record of collateral damage in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, American troops bombed a wedding party and killed almost 50 people. And in a country where weapons are abundant and blood feuds are still part of the normal culture, you can bet these mistakes create at least a few armed adversaries.
Adding to the mess is the situation in Pakistan. For the last few months, the U.S. has been illegally entering Pakistani airspace and bombing suspected terrorist hideouts, at the cost of numerous Pakistani civilians. Sure, a few terrorists were captured, but our country also alienated a large portion of the Pakistani population. But the war is in Afghanistan, so why does this matter?
It matters because 80 percent to 90 percent of supplies used by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan have to pass through Pakistan. No matter how many times the U.S. invades Pakistani airspace, the Pakistani government will remain a U.S. ally. But the same cannot be said of the Pakistani people. Last month, over 100 military vehicles destined for use in Afghanistan were torched or stolen. On top of that, increased attacks against convoys carrying U.S. supplies have caused Pakistani truck drivers to strike.
Since 2001, the Pakistani government has posted hundreds of troops along the Afghan border and lost many of them. But the Pakistani government is now broke. This week, many of the troops previously stationed near Afghanistan were redeployed to the Indian border, a move that can only have negative effects on the U.S. effort.
We have alienated large portions of the Afghan population, our supply lines are in jeopardy, and our key allies inside Afghanistan are weak. And now our government proposes to send 30,000 more troops? Perhaps we should take a lesson from the British and the Soviets and know when to quit. Afghanistan can be subdued in the short run, but it can’t be conquered.
Ibrahim Kakwan can be reached at email@example.com.