Supposedly, there is nothing worse than a war, but actually there is something worse – an incomplete war. An incomplete war is a war that has lost its purpose and deviated from its original mission and one that ends in massive compromises and withdrawal.
Following the most devastating terrorist attack in history on 11 September 2001, which left over 3,000 people dead in New York and Washington, former US president George W Bush responded by declaring a war on terrorism. The main target was to avenge the civilian causalities by uprooting Al-Qaeda and its ally the Afghan Taliban Movement, which came to power in 1996 seven years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country in 1989.
The US had a casus belli for the war, and in every political sense it was a justified war to topple a regime that had turned Afghanistan into a launching pad for terrorism that had reached as far as the United States. The initial Operation Enduring Freedom campaign against Afghanistan was successful, and in record time the US forces, aided by the Afghan Northern Alliance which had been fighting the Taliban for years, had brought down the movement.
But after the initial successes, the US leaders did not finish the job. They were unable to capture Saudi-born Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, until 2011, or nearly a decade after the beginning of the war.
Instead, Bush switched his focus from ending the Afghanistan conflict to targeting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Instead of finishing the hard job of eliminating and neutralising the threat of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Bush switched his country’s military might and financial resources to commit the worst political blunder in recent history, namely the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It was not long before the US forces and their allies overthrew the longstanding Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and eventually managed to capture him. But this came at the expense of finishing the job in Afghanistan. The US military could not fight both wars at the same time efficiently enough to score any decisive victory, and the financial burdens and human casualties, along with the members of the civilian population that were killed during the operations, became enormous.
The terrorist group that the US forces had come to fight and defeat also did not disappear, but actually grew in size and capabilities. It managed to find a new nesting ground in Iraq, from where it spread to the rest of the Middle East. Other franchises of the group in the forms of jihadists pledging allegiance to it continued to grow in numbers. Terrorist groups from Nigeria, such as Boko Haram, all the way to the Philippines, in the case of Abu Sayaf, also joined Al-Qaeda.
In recent years, the US media has labelled the Afghanistan war the “forgotten war” given the disregard that it has suffered from US officials. The costs of the war for the US range from $933 billion to nearly $2 trillion, counting various expenses which include reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, medical care and rehabilitation for returning US soldiers and nearly $530 billion in interest to cover the expense of borrowings.
This is the third most-expensive war in history following World War II and the Iraq War and ahead of the Vietnam War, all of which ironically involved the United States.
The staggering cost, more than the annual GDP of some G20 countries, would have been warranted if its announced goals had been met by success. But alas, the 20-year-old war has not attained most of its targets despite the efforts and sacrifices it has involved. The terrorist Taliban group, which the US administration has negotiated with in recent years, has increased in power and influence. It was not obliterated as planned in the early days of the war.
Al-Qaeda and its current leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri are also still holding their ground in Afghanistan and the neighbouring Waziristan region of Pakistan. The group is projected to expand later this year, with the Afghan army retreating to protect the capital Kabul from what seems to be its imminent fall into the hands of Taliban.
The war in Afghanistan is thus the longest war that the US has been through, and it is closest in character to the Vietnam War (1955-1975), in which the US was involved starting from former president John F Kennedy’s escalation of it in 1961 to its last days in 1975. This was when the US pulled its last troops out, leaving North Vietnamese troops to capture the South Vietnamese capital Saigon in the most humiliating manner.
The fall of Saigon marked the end of the Vietnam War and was a blatant defeat for the United States despite the massive casualties inflicted on the Vietnamese Vietcong. The same thing will be the case if Kabul falls into the hands of the Taliban after the US withdrawal this year.
As a general rule, victory or defeat in war is not counted by the amount of damage caused by one belligerent to another, but rather by attaining the planned goals in launching the war. In the case of Vietnam, despite the massive casualties that the US troops caused the North Vietnamese side, running into millions, they failed to attain their goals as they were forced under the brunt of heavy casualties and costs to withdraw.
The two wars have other things in common. The Vietnam War aimed to curb communist expansion in Southeast Asia and put a halt to Soviet influence in the region. The war in Afghanistan aimed to end the Al-Qaeda terrorist group and the spread of jihadist Salafism in Central Asia, which was pouring into neighbouring countries from Afghanistan. Both wars left the job unfinished, and the enemies which they targeted became more powerful and had the upper hand in both.
Over the next few months, the Taliban will seek to spread their control over Afghanistan, which means they will either clash with the new player in the country, the Islamic State (IS) group, or seek to recruit its members to their ranks. Meanwhile, Russia is alarmed at the thought of IS spreading across Afghanistan, but it is unlikely to do anything about it except use airstrikes as it has done in Syria.
The Russians do not want to engage in another war in Afghanistan whatever the reason may be. Eight years of war in the country in the 1980s left the former Soviet Union militarily and economically battered, hastening the fall of the entire state in 1991. Therefore, Russia as the Soviet Union’s successor state, will not be eager to repeat that bitter experience.
Moreover, the US withdrawal and capitulation to the likes of the Taliban is a message that even the most powerful of nations will yield if a terrorist group holds its ground for long enough. Countries such as Russia and Iran may be thrilled that the US is withdrawing from the region, but at the same time their governments are not thrilled that it has left a ticking bomb behind it in the form of an empowered Taliban and a resurgent Al-Qaeda and IS.
The cost of this incomplete war may be too vast for the world to bear if Al-Qaeda recommences its activities. Moreover, the human costs for the Afghan population may be staggering, especially if the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fails to prevent the country from falling into the hands of Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies.
What US politicians have left in Afghanistan as a result of their decision to withdraw from the country without defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is a mess that will have ramifications for both the Afghan people and the rest of the world. The world is much less safe now that the Taliban is poised once again to take over Afghanistan.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.