The Afghan war is intensifying.
Intelligence company Jane’s has reported that the US airstrike rate in Afghanistan from September 2019 was higher than any preceding month since 2010, despite the end of official US and Coalition combat operations in December 2014. American aircraft, both manned and otherwise, have conducted 948 airstrikes in September alone, one more than the total for 2015. This new information ties into a broader pattern of intensifying conflict in the war-ravaged country. The suicide bombings of the 17th of September was the deadliest for civilians alone since the 8th of that month, indicating the sharp uptick in violence.
However, this is merely the latest episode in what has proved a very long and bloody saga for the Afghan people. The country has not been at peace since 1979, when the Red Army invaded to prop up the socialist PDPA*, provoking CIA support for the guerrillas. When they pulled out in 1989, Afghanistan dissolved into civil war, first of the guerrillas against the former puppet state of the USSR, then of the guerrillas against each other. Pakistan, fearing the strategic implications of their warring neighbours, backed an obscure group known as the Taliban who, through superior equipment, fundamentalist fervour and the division of their opponents, seized most of the country. Their fundamentalism, however, proved pernicious. It led them to harbour Al Qaeda and made them the primary target of the US response to 9/11. The Taliban were driven from power. They have been fighting a guerrilla war since early 2002, with the conflict ebbing and flowing over the years.
Afghanistan is the longest war in American history. After the initial successes of 2001 and 2002, it has become a quagmire that sucks in prodigious amounts of blood and treasure. The casualty-tracker iCasualties records that coalition forces have sustained 3,563 fatalities since October 2001, while it has reportedly cost the USA alone $975 billion. The Brown University Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs reports that between 2001 and 2016 around 31,000 civilians have died. And yet, to all intents and purposes, the war is a stalemate.
In 2015 (with increasing Afghan control) the Taliban achieved possession of substantial amounts of territory, prompting then-President Obama to reduce the rate of withdrawal. The New York Times reported last year that the Afghan security services were sustaining casualties at an average rate of 57 per day, an increase from the 2016 rate of 22 per day, while the Taliban hold more territory than at any other time since 2001. And yet the US refuses to give Afghanistan up. As of September 9th 2019, there were 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan. President Trump has stated that he would like to order a draw down to a force of 8,600 but, as his predecessor discovered, such a decision could cause the situation to deteriorate further than politically acceptable. As reported by Reuters, Tehran has looked to strengthen ties with the Taliban, looking for a like-minded ally against the US. For Trump, whose animosity to Iran is well-known, that could prove unacceptable. The war, like it has for so long, may continue
Regardless of strategic calculations and speculation, the situation remains the same. The Americans won’t admit defeat. The Taliban know they have the advantage. And the violence continues to tear lives apart.