A report card on 13 years in Afghanistan

US General John Campbell salutes during a ceremony marking the end of the Nato-led coalition’s combat mission in Afghanistan. Photo: Shah Marai / AFP
US General John Campbell salutes during a ceremony marking the end of the Nato-led coalition’s combat mission in Afghanistan. Photo: Shah Marai / AFP

With the conclusion of 13 years of combat operations in Afghanistan, how should the Nato-led intervention be assessed? Do you measure this by achievements? By cost? Or by the sustainability of these hard-won gains?

Nobody could dispute that the original goal has been met. Afghanistan no longer offers a safe haven to the likes of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which used the Taliban’s protection to prepare the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. But with a clutch of other failed and failing states providing militant groups the space to grow – as demonstrated by the almost unnoticed rise of ISIL amid the anarchy of Syria’s civil war and the chaos of Iraq – the threat is best described as diminished and relocated rather than dismissed.

What other achievements should count? The nation-building focus of the Nato-led coalition recognised that success in Afghanistan meant two things – it had to be free of groups like Al Qaeda and this directly related to it being a functioning state with a capable military. This has meant some gains for Afghanistan, in health care, education and women’s rights, but much remains still to do.

So how does one count the cost of this long intervention? At least a trillion dollars (Dh3.7 trillion) was spent on Operation Enduring Freedom; nearly 3,500 coalition troops lost their lives. Troop casualties have fallen sharply, from a peak of 711 deaths in 2010 down to 75 this year, but for Afghan civilians, the story is the opposite. Up to 20,000 are estimated to have died since the 2001 invasion and 2014 has been the bloodiest year yet, for both Afghan civilians and security forces.

As Operation Enduring Freedom morphs into the Resolute Support Mission, with around 13,000 coalition troops remaining in the country to advise Afghan forces, the real test will be whether the hard-won gains will exist in five years time. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, their puppet government of president Mohammad Najibullah retained control for a few years but by the end of 1994, the Taliban was in power.

The Nato-led intervention in Afghanistan was a just one, but came at a terrible cost. Only the future will tell if it was worth it.

Published: December 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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