A U.S. soldier fingerprints a man passing through a police checkpoint south of Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Heidi Vogt/AP
America’s war in Afghanistan is over!
In a statement to the press on Dec. 28, U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed that after 13 years of bloody conflict, “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”
Though U.S. troops will no longer officially engage in combat missions in Afghanistan, that is not to say that Washington will completely devest its military interests from the region. While Jan. 1 was marked by a much mediatized military handover, wherein Afghanistan assumed control over its security and military apparatus, approximately 12,000-13,500 foreign troops — including 9,800 U.S. soldiers — will still be arrayed throughout the country under the post-2014 NATO-led mission “Operation Resolute Support.”
NATO’s new role and scope of activities in Afghanistan have been defined in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a military cooperation treaty signed by newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan Maurits Jochems on Sept. 30, ahead of any U.S. withdrawal.
Yet as officials gathered in Kabul to celebrate Afghanistan’s military emancipation from NATO on Jan. 1, reports came through that a shootout between armed Afghan troops and Taliban militants led to the deaths of innocent civilians on Dec. 31. A wedding party in Sangin, a city located in Helmand province, south of the capital Kabul, was hit after Afghan soldiers misfired a rocket in response to Taliban attacks, killing an estimated 29 people. The incident served as a reminder of the serious threat that the Taliban continues to pose to the impoverished, war-torn nation.
Thus, although Afghanistan is no longer the ward of the international community, experts warn that its sovereignty and independence constitute little more than a facade.
“For all intents and purposes, Afghanistan remains a country under occupation,” said Aref Abu Hatem, a leading political analyst based in Yemen, to MintPress News.
“Afghanistan is no closer to controlling its institutions than Washington is to defeating terror. Afghans have inherited a disbanded mercenary army which the state cannot possibly maintain on its own. If anything, NATO has locked Kabul into a financial trap to better assert control and defend its interests in the region,” he added.
This notion that Afghanistan has remained but a pawn in The Great Game has been at the center of many debates over the years.
Former President Hamid Karzai, often referred to as Washington’s strategic ally in Central Asia, highlighted such sentiments in his farewell speech in September, when he declared: “The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners. But Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war.”
Mohsen Kia, an independent political analyst based in Tehran, explained to MintPress that Karzai’s virulent criticism of the United States reflects Afghans’ strong resentment toward Western powers.
“President Karzai put his finger on an issue which has long troubled Afghanistan. Afghans do not feel in charge of their own fate. Rather they feel trapped by powers greater than their own, which play by rules they can neither comprehend nor oppose,” Kia said.
“Just as Afghans felt trapped and suffocated under British and Russian rule, they have come to understand the United States as yet another imperialistic power. In all fairness Washington has done little to disperse such sentiments,” he said. “Everything the U.S. has done over the past 13 years has been done in the Pentagon’s interests, not the Afghans’ … even though it was sold this way.”
While U.S. officials have dismissed the notion that America has increasingly developed imperialistic traits over the decades, arguing that the U.S. has been a positive influence on the world, many have begged to differ.
On Dec. 28, Obama emphasized America’s positive influence in Afghanistan, stressing:
“Our courageous military and diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan — along with our NATO allies and coalition partners — have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country’s history.”
While U.S. officials justify civilian casualties in targeted attacks as collateral damage in the pursuit of their greater ambitions, others have perceived the footprint of a neo-imperial power that operates unchallenged.
In March 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was found guilty of killing 16 Afghan civilians in a murderous rampage. Though Bales had clearly operated beyond the scope of his military mandate, the U.S. refused to subject him to Afghan law. British journalist and whistleblower Glenn Greenwald argued that this was classic imperialist behavior.
“One prime prerogative of all empires is that it is subject to no laws or accountability other than its own, even when it comes to crimes committed on other nations’ soil and against its people,” Greenwald wrote.
“What is most revealed by the decision to remove Bales from Afghanistan is the American belief that no other country – including those its invades and occupies – can ever impose accountability on Americans.”
But if Washington has played Big Brother to impoverished Afghanistan, using its superpower status to impose its hegemonic will and maintain Kabul within its political grasp, Afghanistan’s Prince Ali Seraj, the head of the National Coalition for Dialogue With the Tribes of Afghanistan, told MintPress that Afghanistan has played a hand in its own demise by developing feelings of codependency.
Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at an army station during a ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. Several Afghan officials participated in a ceremony to commemorate the completion of power transition to Afghanistan’s security forces. Photo: Massoud Hossaini/AP
Ravaged by decades of war, Afghanistan stands as a nation severely diminished — an empty shell with no real institutional substance and very limited economic resources.
Although home to billions of dollars in untapped natural resources, such as energy and precious minerals, Afghanistan remains trapped in abject poverty, its people plagued by hunger.
In a report for AFP, dated Jan. 2, Guillaume Lavallee quoted Haji Mubin Ahmad, a local Afghan businessman, as saying that his country’s economy continues to rely heavily on foreign aid. “Cutting the aid is like cutting the oxygen — we will die,” Ahmad is quoted as saying.
“Rather than help shore up Afghanistan’s ailing economy, the United States and its allies have instead thrown billions of dollars at the military, prioritizing the development of a mercenary army via private U.S. contractors rather than bank on Afghans to rebuild their state,” Prince Ali Seraj told MintPress.
“Afghanistan has become so dependent on foreign aid that Kabul cannot possibly dream of honoring its troops’ salaries without outside intervention. Kabul does not own its army, foreign powers pay the bills. There lies Afghanistan’s biggest paradox,” he added.
Indeed, while NATO has transferred all military responsibilities to Kabul, Afghanistan remains nevertheless vulnerable to outside control due to financial destitution.
“It is easy to see how foreign powers could use Afghanistan’s financial problems to lean on officials and push for control. Having a mercenary army only opens the door to manipulation,” warned Prince Ali.
But while figures like former President Karzai have been keen to paint the U.S. as the source of all Afghanistan’s troubles, Afghan officials have much to answer to when it comes to manipulating America’s ambitions to their own benefit.
As Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir noted in a December opinion piece for Al-Jazeera, although Kabul does not yet control its finances and essentially relies on foreign aid, it still has the power to rein in corruption, nepotism and political wrangling to solidify its footing and ultimately build itself back up again
“Afghans have been made to believe that all solutions to their problem lie outside their borders, with the international community. This thinking has trapped Afghans into a vicious circle of political dependency. A nation which cannot think for itself or envision itself can never be truly free or sovereign,” stressed Prince Ali.
“Foreign aid, yes! Foreign tutelage, no! It is as perversive as radicalism, since it stands in negation of democratic values. Only Afghans can heal Afghanistan. The real question is: Does the international community truly aspire to empower Afghans?”
Finding a way out
With the Taliban back on the offensive, Afghanistan is in a difficult position, confronted with the realities of a life spent under the Taliban or neo-colonial servitude.
“Why is the U.S. leaving when Afghanistan cannot possibly defend itself? The coffers of the state are empty and since no efforts were spent in rejuvenating Afghanistan’s economy, they will remain empty,” Prince Ali said, noting, “Afghans cannot even feed themselves. … How can they be expected to commit to the upkeep of a mercenary army?”
Iranian expert Kia echoed Prince Ali’s comments, arguing that Afghanistan’s salvation lies in the Afghan people’s ability to revive their national economy and provide the state with a sustainable source of income.
“Afghanistan was once a buoyant commercial and agricultural land. Investments need to flow in this direction. Only then will Afghanistan rise again. Only then will the state be free of foreign diktat,” Kia stressed.
Prince Ali, who worked closely with the Reagan administration in the late 1980s, when Afghanistan was under the thumb of Soviet Russia, believes that his country’s problems stem from Washington’s miscalculations and gross oversight in handling radicalism.
“The solutions are there, yet U.S. officials have refused to break away from their failed strategy, engaging the wrong people and implementing the wrong policies,” he said.
“Thirteen years of failure have reduced Afghanistan to playing the role of the emperor without clothes. Everyone is telling us how successful we have been, how far we’ve come over the decade, and yet hunger is rampant and security has deteriorated further,” he added.
Perhaps all Afghanistan needs now is space to carve out its own path, free of the constraints of its allies.