TSG IntelBrief: America’s Longest War Continues
March 24, 2015

America’s Longest War Continues

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• While there are signs of political progress in Afghanistan, the basic framework of a province-focused Taliban insurgency battling a dysfunctional national government needing significant U.S. assistance remains much as it has since 2001

• Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Haqqani network, Hizb Islami al-Gulbiddin (HIG), and perhaps now the Islamic State, are not losing strength collectively enough across the country to allow for the years and decades of peace the country needs to build its institutions, economies, and politics into enduring stability

• The country remains vulnerable to tribalism, warlord-ism, and extremism, and the primary reason for continued U.S./NATO involvement in Afghanistan—counterterrorism—isn’t improving enough despite enormous resources poured into the effort

• When in the capital of Kabul a mob beats a woman to death on only the rumor of having desecrated the Qur’an, this is an indication of a latent intolerance and extremism that contradicts reports of a more tolerant and democratically inclusive society supported by massive foreign aid.

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Afghanistan remains a siren song of development and progress. It lures the unsuspecting into believing that its internal and external conflicts are ending, and that 13 years of massive foreign effort, militarily and economically, have transformed the country from a fractured home to international terror to a rare stable country in an unstable region. And then those hopes are dashed upon the rocks of reality, with a persistent insurgency and lawlessness that resists massive efforts to alter the country’s path. As the U.S. reconsiders its final drawdown of troops and advisors to the country, it is obvious the situation is far from ideal. Despite untold effort and expense, the country remains an archipelago of government-controlled areas surrounded by a sea of competing banditry and extremism. The situation might be better than in 2001 but that is a low bar for measurement, and the future is less settled than hoped.

Last weekend, a 27-year old Afghan woman named Farkhunda was beaten and burned to death in the capital of Kabul for the alleged crime of burning the Qur’an. On simply the basis of a rumored accusation made by a cleric, a huge crowd participated in her murder. Such spontaneous rage suggests latent anger and extremism that 13 years of foreign aid and support have done little to temper. While arrests have been made in the case of her murder, that such a crime took place in the capital indicates that progress made in paving roads and increasing cell phone coverage hasn’t corresponded into progress in turning the country’s ethos away from extremism and violence.

This murder is just but one indication of a countrywide dilemma, where the writ of government control is limited to select cities and the population is primed for ignition. Last year’s contentious presidential elections between current president Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah have given way to a quieter battle of power brokerage among the traditional warlords and regional leaders. Older warlords are being marginalized but the system that supports the dynamic of a weak central government against dominant local and tribal concerns remains as it was in 2001. President Ghani’s current visit to the United States is meant to shore up support for continued U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and is a recognition that 2015 hasn’t turned out to be as positive as was planned in 2012. President Ghani is a much less polarizing figure than former President Karzai, but personality and charm can’t overcome the structural challenges the country faces.

With the drawdown of NATO troops, extremist groups such as the Taliban, and now even the Islamic State, are moving to shore up support in the countryside from which to strengthen and then launch attacks into population centers. The international community has tired of its Afghanistan efforts given their limited success, and other crises such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and more have created intervention fatigue. This bodes poorly for Afghanistan, which will face increased threats while the will and capabilities to face those threats will decrease. Some of this is understandable given the limited successes of such tremendous efforts over the last decade and more, and perhaps of the more pressing concerns across the region. But seeing the Afghanistan of 2015 slip back to the Afghanistan of 2001 is an international concern, even if there is no plausible scenario to prevent it from happening.

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