Dead Ends in Afghanistan

American soldiers exit a transport chopper in Ghazni, Afghanistan.

Most if not all of my information for this post was taken from this article in the New York Times –  just to let you know! I’d encourage you to read it as it provides a lot more detail than I do!

As the war in Afghanistan grinds on, many soldiers (not to mention critics) are beginning to seriously question how much is really being accomplished there.

In many ways, the war strategy has moved from one focused on the “key” areas of contention in the country: large cities, major thoroughfares, and borders with neighboring nations. But more and more, the fight is being taken to minute, previously unknown (to foreigners at least) villages and towns, with American and Afghan forces trying to clear the Taliban out of the country one building at a time.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t going all that well. This war has been a difficult one since it began way back in October of 2001, and I think it’s safe to say that it hasn’t gotten much easier.

The real problem behind this war’s difficulty has been the Taliban’s elusiveness and at-best shadowy presence in the country. Since being forced from formal power by Operation Enduring Freedom (the post-9/11 military retaliation), the Taliban has snaked into the shadows of the country, using fear to maintain small cells of power-by-terror that dot Afghanistan. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is similar to trying to wave away clouds of smoke; as soon as they’re cleared out of one village, chances are they’ll pop up in another. To add salt to the soldiers’ wounds of seemingly pointless skirmish after seemingly pointless skirmish, many civilians in these tiny townships are far from cooperative. Some will simply play dumb or mute, some may lie, and some even signal troop movements to Taliban fighters nearby.

But can these people really be blamed for this? The Taliban has a near stranglehold on many of the common people across much of Afghanistan, especially in areas out of the reach of government and police forces. They’re held under the extremists’ power by threats and violence, so it only makes sense that their loyalties are more likely to lie with the people who will kill them or their families if they defect.

All the same, this makes the job of American soldiers immensely difficult. Tracking this secondary, shadow government of religious extremism is nearly impossible to do effectively when the people in the villages they’re attempting to clear are afraid to cooperate. The idea behind this small-village strategy has been to expand American presence in Afghanistan, essentially giving Taliban fighters fewer safe zones and places to seek refuge or terrorize civilians. The problem is, as the NYT article put it, is “translating presence into lasting success.” I used the analogy of smoke before: You may be able to clear the smoke of the Taliban away temporarily, but it somehow always manages to flow back in after you go.

This war, which has already been trudging forward for more than 9 years, still seems like a dead end (and an expensive one at that). I know that the Taliban’s influence is a difficult one to root out, and that the group poses a very significant threat, both to people in the region and around the world. But how much longer can we keep trying? How much progress has really been made? The government in Afghanistan, nominally headed by Hamid Karzai, is corrupt at best, and many Afghan security forces (such as police or military) are either afraid or equally corrupt! This really makes one question how much the US has accomplished in Afghanistan. We’ve captured a few important Taliban figures, sure, but there has been little factual evidence that our efforts there are having much success.

Does this mean I know what to do? No. I won’t claim to be a five-star general! I do, however, think that the US must refocus and redouble our efforts towards the reformation of the Afghan government and local forces. There can only be stability in this country if the people who live and belong in it know how to take their security and liberty into their own hands.

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Filed under Military & Might, War & Peace

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