"To sum up, the country hurts. The good news is that it can be overcome. The bad news is that it requires enormous amount of effort, and determination and focus. And there'll be a lot of resistance to it."- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
This week, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has been visiting top American officials to discuss the future of U.S.-Afghan relations. His meetings have included such high ranking decision-makers as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and President Obama. Ghani has been very adamant about his support for the continued involvement of the United States in Afghanistan's future. Though Obama has been pushing for years to decrease America's direct involvement in Afghanistan, he announced on Tuesday to keep 9,800 troops in supporting roles through 2015 (the plan originally was to cut this number in half by 2016). The war in Afghanistan was the longest continuous armed conflict in America's history (though some debate whether it really is over or not). What has become of Afghanistan nearly 14 years after America's initial foray into the "graveyard of empires," and what is the outlook for its future?
This history of Afghanistan (from a Western perspective) has always been that of a (pseudo) nation-state with strong tribal ties and a knack for being (unsuccessfully) invaded. In the 1800s, the British and Russians fought over much of Central Asia in what became known as the Great Game. This proved disastrous for both nations as the country's numerous factions and rough terrain made it very difficult to consolidate power over the Afghan people. In 1979, the Soviet Union made this mistake again by invading the nation and sparking off the Soviet-Afghan War. With a little help from the United States and Saudi Arabia, this action proved disastrous for the Soviets as well. All of this has led to belief that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires." Books such as Seth Jones' In The Graveyard of Empires have highlighted some of the many difficulties of consolidating power in this region, particularly in the American experience (this work in particular is very informative and has been quoted several times in the thesis linked above). However, while it is highly likely the Soviet-Afghan War contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, numerous other factors also played a critical role.
When the Soviets abandoned Afghanistan in late 1989, it touched off a series of brutal civil wars, culminating in the rise to power of the Taliban. Under the Taliban, life in Afghanistan deteriorated even more dramatically than it had during the years of civil war. Its alliance with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda placed Afghanistan directly into conflict with the United States following the September 11th attacks. In short, the United States invaded, overthrew the Taliban, uprooted the main arm of al-Qaeda, and installed a more pro-America government. Under president Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's economy grew and infrastructure improved (thanks in large part to America's "nation building" strategy), but Afghan politics was often marred by controversy and claims of corruption.
So what does Afghanistan look like now? Well, official "combat operations" ended late last year and the number of U.S. troops in the country is down to around 10,000 (from nearly 100,000 in mid-2011). The remaining troops are essentially training Afghanistan's security forces to provide for their own security in a future without direct U.S. support. Additionally, Ashraf Ghani was elected to the presidency in 2014 under a platform of rooting out corruption, maintaining close ties to the United States, and starting a new round of peace talks with the remains of the Taliban. Ghani has already taken some strong actions against alleged corruption in Afghanistan. Thus far. he has sentenced all the management of the Kabul Bank, who were held responsible for its collapse in 2010. Ghani has also dismissed several high ranking government officials including the governor of Herat province Fazlullah Wahidi last December. Thus far, Ghani has cultivated a much closer relationship with President Obama than his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
The country itself and its people have rebounded significantly from the days of the Taliban. Since the U.S invasion, Afghanistan has built more roads, bridges, and schools than at any other time in its history. Improvements in the education sector continue to be the strongest. Education and infrastructure improvements have greatly increased the number of students attending school (from 800,000 in 2002 to 8.2 million in 2012, 40% of these being girls). During the reign of the Taliban, girls were not permitted to attend school or work. Today, girls actually represent a higher percentage of students in school than boys in some urban provinces. Likewise, Afghanistan's GDP has grown from 2.5 billion in 2001 to over 17 billion by 2012. Banks are issuing loans, businesses are opening up, and people are seeing the first real progress in years towards building a self-sufficient economy. Television and radio are now booming in Afghanistan, contributing to the meaningful development of an Afghan cultural identity. International investment has also increased substantially, and is poised to take the place of U.S. military investments in Afghanistan's economy, a critical factor in sustained economic growth.
All of this leads to a critical question when deciding to continue U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan: Do they really want us to stay? While it is inaccurate to generalize an entire nation and its people, Afghans by and large view the country as moving in the right direction and see the continued American presence as mostly favorable. Outside investors, particularly in the mining industry, also heavily favor the continued American presence as a means to ensure long-term security in the county. The United States continues to work with the Afghan Security Forces and the government to combat some of Afghanistan's most pressing threats including corruption in government, lingering problems with infrastructure, and scattered reports of ISIS fighters attempting to gain a foothold there. ISIS has been a very hot topic on all major Afghan news discussions, especially after recent reports of possible ISIS fighters in some of Afghanistan's southern provinces (this, more than anything else, may have led to the decision to keep troop levels near 10,000 in 2015). Lastly (but certainly not least), Afghanistan still has a very poor track record of women's rights, something which takes more than just a change of government to improve.
Overall, U.S. troops are essentially in a support role now (and realistically have been for some time) and it doesn't look like things will ramp up significantly again. If ISIS gains traction in the region, this may push troops levels up somewhat, but it is highly unlikely this would be a significant, sustained escalation. Things aren't perfect in Afghanistan, but perhaps the U.S. involvement in the country helped turn things around for the better. Still, the United States should not take all of the credit for this. It is the Afghan people themselves who have won their own freedom from the Taliban and its oppression. Rather than thinking of Afghanistan as a poor, troubled, backward society where foreign nations go to die, we should look at Afghanistan as a beautiful and cultured land with brave people working to bring about a better way of life to their country. From this perspective, Afghanistan isn't such a graveyard after all.
TL;DR: Life in Afghanistan has improved dramatically during the American occupation. Keeping a few thousand soldiers there is unlikely to cause major problems for anyone.
Special thanks to friend and colleague Safi Alemi for helping write and proof this post about Afghanistan!