Afghanistan is a country in South Asia consisting of 32 million people, making it the 42nd most populated country on Earth. Over one million people sought refuge in other countries from Afghanistan in 2016. Afghanistan is supposed to be a fair, just and liberated place with a democratic government installed as promised by the international community when war was first declared in 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. Now, it is far from safe, far from liberated, in many places still under the rule of the Taliban and more than 40,000 people are dead as a direct result of the war. So, how did we get here?
The war was initially supported by Canada, followed by the United Kingdom and by 2003, the rest of NATO. The public aims of this war were to dismantle al-Qaeda by removing the Taliban (who ruled Afghanistan, though not formally) from power. The U.S designated that the Taliban were harbouring Osama Bin Laden, and al-Qaeda forces. In October 2001, the U.S officially launched Operation Enduring Freedom, after the Taliban refused to give up Bin Laden. Their efforts were supported by the Northern Alliance, who had been fighting the Taliban in the ongoing Afghanistan civil war since 1996. Two months later in December the international coalition took steps towards securing a democratic republic in Afghanistan, assisting the Afghan interim authorities in securing the strategic capital of Kabul. In the same month, Hamid Karzai was selected to the head the Afghan Interim Administration, which later became the Afghan Transitional Administration. In popular elections held in 2004, Karazi was elected to the office of President by his constituents. Afghanistan became known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, reorganised the group in 2003 leading to an insurgency against the government, and the international forces. The Taliban were the underdogs – the rebels in Star Wars, the Mighty Ducks. Enormously outnumbered, the Taliban could not hope to compete with America’s military worth $601 billion, not the mention the militaries of their NATO allies. This did not stop the Taliban – they waged war. Not in the traditional sense, with boots on the ground storming enemy bases and dropping bombs. They did so in a way that more closely aligned with their financial capabilities, and political goals. Guerilla raids and ambushes in the Afghan country side helped them to secure rural areas, flex their muscles and assert influence over the people. Suicide attacks against urban and civilian targets and hundreds of turncoat killings by members of the Afghan military sent a strong message to the international community. This message was that the Taliban would not give up in the face of mounting pressure, they had members embedded all across the country, and they were not afraid to slaughter civilians to prove their point and achieve their goals
The Afghan government, even with the financial and militaristic support of the international community, were still one of the most corrupt in the modern world. This allowed the Taliban to exploit the government’s inherent weaknesses. In the early years of the war, there was very little actual fighting. However in 2006 as the war entered its fifth year, the Taliban continued to take ground across Afghanistan, and demonstrated that they would continue to commit atrocities against civilians in increasingly violent ways. The international forces responded in turn by increasing troop numbers in order to take back villages from the Taliban and restore the freedom of the Afghan people once again. Violence in the country reached its highest point from 2007- 2009. From there, the scope of the war stretched out into neighbouring North-West Pakistan.
On the 1st of May 2011, the U.S killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. A year later, NATO leaders announced an exit strategy to pull the international community out of the country. By this point, the war had been raging for 11 years, making it the longest in U.S history. In February 2013, American General John Allen uttered the phrase – “this is what winning looks like,” referring to the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, and the pulling out of US and NATO forces. This quote prompted the title of a documentary by Ben Allen, a British filmmaker who spent six years in rural areas of Afghanistan, capturing the behaviour of the Afghan Army and the U.S led coalition of soldiers who are supposed to be training them.
America’s goal when entering Afghanistan was to remove the Taliban from power, and install a democratic government which represents the people with an army to defend them, while getting rid of Osama Bin Laden. What America and the international community are leaving behind is a country ravaged by violence, where the Taliban still thrives, and an undertrained, underfunded military cannot possibly shoulder the task of defending their fellow countrymen. The international coalition will not acknowledge blame, but their interventionist actions in the region and their handling of the war have left a country in disrepair.
This Is What Winning Looks Like, Ben Allen’s harrowing account of the transition of responsibility between an international army and an Afghan army paints a bleak portrait of what is happening, and demonstrates the apparent shoulder shrugging of the U.S army. His ironic twist on the quote from General John Allen is that to the U.S, winning looks an awful lot like losing for the Afghan people. He shows local police forces and army bases who are underfunded and unequipped to fight an insurgent Taliban. Many of them are strung out on hard drugs like heroin, and there is a widespread culture of pedophilia, false imprisonment and brash displays of force against civilians within local police forces. The film addresses these issues in harsh, frightening detail. Some army bases are equipped with vast amounts of weaponry, but soldiers lack the training to operate the weapons, or the ammunition to load them. Many of the army bases have Taliban soldiers working within them, learning the details of covert operations and then going rogue. It is becoming more and more apparent that the Taliban is everywhere in Afghanistan, and American intervention served only to stoke the flames of their ideological and violent plight.
In 2014, NATO formally ended combat operations in Afghanistan, giving full responsibility to the Afghan government. In the same year, British forces left and handed over their bases to the Afghan army. The United States ended major combat operations, but left a residual support force in the country. This residual support force have their hands tied – they can only support a corrupt and embattled, ill-equiped military against the Taliban, who is no longer enemy number one. The battle in Afghanistan continues against ISIS, whom the U.S recently dropped what has been dubbed “The Mother of All Bombs” on, in a series of connected underground tunnels. They did not confirm how many ISIS fighters died, but declared they had “high confidence” that no civilians were killed, despite refusing to confirm this. There seems to be no end of the violence in sight for Afghan people.
In numerous ways, Afghan people are worse off today than they were before the international invasion of their home. The U.S’s goals in Afghanistan were to retrieve Osama Bin Laden, and end the violent rule of the Taliban. They eventually killed Osama Bin Laden, in what was essentially a drawn out revenge mission that resulted in widespread displacement, destruction and death. Yet, the Taliban still thrives. Everything comes at a cost – mission accomplished?