This is the year when we learn whether our long Afghanistan experiment has accomplished anything at all.
In March, Canada will end its rump training mission, withdrawing all but 100 soldiers shortly before international forces hand the country's security over to the Afghan National Army. For the 47 countries and many thousands of soldiers who were stationed in there, it has been an enormous endeavour, costing about 3,500 lives.
So it is worth asking: What have we done in Afghanistan?
We did kick al-Qaeda out. This, the basic legal rationale for the United Nations-mandated war, was accomplished well before 2006. Al-Qaeda moved to Pakistan, then to the Middle East and North Africa.
At that point, another Afghan war began: One theoretically based on counterinsurgency – the notion that building infrastructure, institutions and better lives for ordinary Afghans would switch their loyalty away from the Taliban. This campaign, bolstered by U.S. President Barack Obama's addition of 30,000 "surge" troops in 2009, was meant to improve the lives of women and children and the governance of villages and provinces, leaving a lasting legacy of stability. Yet it also coincided with a dramatic rise in air strikes.
In recent days, we've seen signs that this second war has not succeeded.
The United Nations released figures last week showing that cases of severe malnutrition have increased by 50 per cent or more since 2012. "In 2001, it was even worse, but this is the worst I've seen since then," the head of the malnutrition ward at a major Kabul hospital told reporters.
Also last week, Afghanistan's human-rights commission reported a 25-per-cent increase in cases of violence against women between March and September, amid conditions that approach those of the Taliban years.
The trend accompanies a culture of impunity as international troops and aid workers depart, commission chairwoman Sima Samar told Reuters. "The presence of the international community and provincial reconstruction teams in most of the provinces was giving people confidence … and that is not there any more, unfortunately," she said. In other words, the soldiers and aid workers were unable to effect lasting improvement beyond their own presence there.
On the surface, there have been measurable improvements in some areas: infant mortality, participation in local government. But there are signs that these gains will not outlast the troops who delivered them.
This month saw the release, to those with security clearance, of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the comprehensive annual analysis of known political and military conditions built on expert input from all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
According to The Washington Post, it concludes that any gains observed in Afghanistan since 2006 "will be significantly eroded by 2017," even if some U.S. troops remain, because "the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history." It says Afghanistan may "descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don't sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014" – a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.
This pattern extends to the expensive aid and development programs delivered to Afghanistan – often at great cost, because in the dangerous southern provinces several soldiers, plus de-mining teams to protect the soldiers, were required for every aid worker who visited a village.
The largest aid program in Afghanistan, the National Solidarity Programme, was recently the subject of a large-scale randomized impact evaluation by its main sponsor, the World Bank. After examining the 32,000 villages receiving aid and its 65,000 development projects, the assessment concludes with sobering words: "an absence of positive effects of infrastructure programmes... The impacts of NSP on economic welfare appear to be driven more by the infusion of block grant resources than by broader impacts of completed projects on economic activity" (in other words, any gains only exist as long as the aid workers are there). And, worse, "NSP increases the incidence of disputes and feuds... endline data indicates that NSP has a negative impact on local governance quality."
For too many years, supporters of the extended war have misled the public with inflated claims. In 2011, military leaders boasted that average Afghan life expectancy had improved by 20 years over the decade. In fact, CIA figures show that it fell from 46.2 years in 2001 to 45 years in 2011. Life expectancy rose somewhat during the next three years – but, as some observers have noted, not much more than it rose during the worst Taliban years.
In terms of human development, Afghanistan rose above the awful figures of the Taliban years during the initial 2001-02 campaign – then barely budged. Politically, the country's near future appears certain to involve the Taliban, with all that entails. A new large-scale study has found that Afghans, after experiencing acts of war, overwhelmingly choose to shift their allegiances to the Taliban over NATO forces, and not vice versa. This, along with recent polls, suggests Afghans increasingly favour the Taliban over NATO and its own chosen regime.
Such post-transition Afghan leaders, a former CIA Afghanistan chief and a Defence Department analyst have written in a new analysis, are "likely to subject the Afghan people to brutality and oppression at pre-2001 levels … Should this take place, the United States and its allies can consider the last 12 years … a costly failure."
That should be the starting point for our self-examination: Did this huge exercise fail to make things better in Afghanistan, or did it actually make things worse?
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