On October 7th, 2001 the invasion of Afghanistan began. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the action was widely seen as uncontroversial.
But eight years have passed since then. Today the ‘war on terror’ has become a synonym for American imperialism and most of the politicians who began it are no longer in power. Our faith in the ability of the war to achieve its lofty aims has waned, while questions over funding, tactics and how long our troops should remain in the country continue to divide politicians and experts. So should we still be sending our soldiers to kill and die in Afghanistan?
The war began with two stated aims: destroying the terrorist group Al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban government from power. The first aim was the objective of a US led operation and the second a NATO operation approved by the UN. British troops were involved in both
In terms of destroying Al-Qaeda, the war has failed. Not only is Osama bin Laden still at large and the organisation still in existence, they are apparently no longer even in Afghanistan. It seems they have crossed the border into northern Pakistan- hence the recent US bombing of the region.
The destruction of Al-Qaeda was planned with the express purpose of stamping out the perceived threat of global Islamic terrorism. However, it has been argued that Al-Qaeda are not the global force they have been branded by the media and government. Rather, they are one of many small fundamentalist cells that operate independently of each other across the world. Terrorism has not been destroyed in Afghanistan. In fact, the actions of Western troops seems to have led to an increase in the credibility of these groups in the wider Muslim world.
The second aim was part of a wider plan to bring democracy to a country suffering under Taliban rule. The recent elections in Afghanistan, which many hoped would be a sign of this democracy taking root, ended up being quite the opposite. The turnout was terribly low, in some towns, only one percent. Corruption allegations have led to recounts and results that no one can believe or trust. In the end, what was supposed to be the birth of democracy was a farcical mess.
With large parts of the country effectively outside the government’s control, the aim of giving Afghanistan a new political system is far from achieved. Perhaps the lesson is that a government installed by a foreign invasion will not find the co-operation necessary from the native people. Rather than democracy, it becomes a fight for survival.
Critics have also pointed to a third, hidden, aim of the war. Afghanistan borders Turkmenistan, a country with huge, lucrative reserves of natural gas, which can only get to the market through pipelines. The U.S has plans to build one heading south, through Afghanistan. This pipeline would not only be extremely profitable, it would also allow the US to compete with Russia who control the majority of the world’s gas.
Washington has been planning this pipeline since the 1990s, and for it to be possible Afghanistan needed to be stable and friendly to the US. In 2007 Richard Boucher, the U.S assistant Secretary of State, said, “our aim is to stabilise Afghanistan… so that energy can flow south.” Construction of the pipeline is scheduled to begin in 2010.
The picture of Afghanistan today is a sorry one. Women’s rights are still a distant dream, with the American backed government recently passing legislation that virtually legalises rape and abuse in marriage. Stability is also a distant speck on the horizon. According to recent estimates, Taliban forces control around 50% of the country. They, and regional warlords, are battling both the government and the occupying armies for control. Civilian casualties are constantly the cost of these battles, with US air strikes particularly notorious. Obama was forced to apologise in May when 130 civilians died after their village was hit by American planes.
Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is highly dependant on the opium trade. In the aftermath of the invasion, levels of poppy production soared in what became an almost lawless society. Currently a counter-narcotics policy, which involves the destruction of poppy fields, is in operation to combat this. Critics of this policy say it is playing a huge role in the increasing support for the Taliban. Destroying a poppy field destroys the income of a community and at the moment there is no alternative for them.
The presence of foreign troops is deeply unpopular in Afghanistan, and here in Britain opinion is turning against the war. The pathway forward is not clear. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions. But while it is a detestable idea to leave the country to its fate after causing so many problems, the time may well have come for us to accept that by staying we are doing no good.