Ten Years in Afghanistan

Oct 7, 2011

A few of us in the Politics/IR Department at Reading were asked to summarise the major results and effects of the war in Afghanistan for its tenth anniversary today. I should have talked more about the overall economic crisis that the war on terror has accelerated, but anyway:

Today is the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. But it is not the anniversary of the start of the war between the United States, the Al Qaeda network, and the Taliban. The armed struggle can be dated earlier to Osama Bin Laden’s fatwa and unilateral declaration of war on the US in August 1996. After Bin Laden was evicted from Sudan, he found sanctuary in Afghanistan by buying the Taliban regime that became host.

The invasion toppled the Taliban regime; dispersed Al Qaeda; led to a sustained counter-terrorist killing and capturing programme that straddles Afghanistan-Pakistan; and a protracted effort at armed state-building that attempts to transform Afghanistan into a strong, centrally-governed democracy. This was the first stride in a broader project, to combat terrorism by remaking the Arab-Islamic world.

The invasion made life more dangerous and insecure for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, yet it also made the world more inhospitable to American power. It inflicted a level of attrition on Al Qaeda’s pool of talent and diverted its efforts towards trying to survive, constraining its ability to prepare complex, mass-casualty attacks on America and its allies. However, the damage inflicted by our military presence and the continuous offensive also had radicalising side-effects, creating ‘accidental’ guerrillas resisting international forces because they are there, and powering the claim of militant Islamists that the West is conducting a crusade against Islam.

The attempt to ‘fix’ a broken third world nation has led to the creation of a weak and corrupt regime in Kabul and the decentralisation of power amongst localised players such as the Haqqani criminal network. It leaves Afghanistan as a country barely with an economy beyond international aid and criminal activity, with Afghans having to endure the dilemmas of surviving between competing bids on their loyalty. As America draws down its forces, Afghanistan may be torn into a continuing struggle between a Taliban that is too weak to seize power nationally, and a state that lacks authority to govern.

Geopolitically, the war has strained Pakistan’s relationships with its neighbours as it tries to balance combating the Taliban with its search for strategic depth on its western flank, and it has jeopardised its relationship with the United States.

But the most profound significance of the invasion is that it led to the war in Iraq. Because America quickly overthrew the Taliban in a country infamous for being the ‘graveyard of empires’, this gave false confidence to the Bush II Administration, which concluded that it could do the same thing against the easy target of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Thus Afghanistan was the catalyst for a greater disaster in the Gulf, which in turn accelerated the erosion of American power in the world.

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.