On an October morning, a solemn gathering of British, American, and Afghan troops looked on as the British Union Flag was slowly lowered over Camp Bastion for the last time. After the ceremony, the troops stationed at the camp boarded transport aircraft and headed for home, marking the official end of UK and US military operations in Afghanistan.
The day before, a similar ceremony took place at Camp Leatherneck, the United States Marine Corps base that adjoins the British compound. These bases were the centre of operations for NATO missions in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, location of some of the heaviest fighting seen during the 13 year war.
Since operations began in 2001, over 350 US Marines and 453 Royal Military servicemen have been killed in the Helmand province alone. Now, with the cessation of military operations, the troops still in harm’s way are safe and headed home. The question remains, however: is this a victory?
On the surface, it does seem like a victory. When the war began in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, NATO had three main objectives in Afghanistan: to remove the autocratic Taliban regime; to find and bring to justice Osama Bin Laden, and to expel and dismantle his terrorist group Al Qaeda.
The Taliban regime had collapsed by the end of 2001, and Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan were almost completely annihilated not long after. To put the icing on the cake, Osama Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals in 2011. Shortly after his death, the allied countries announced plans to begin withdrawing their troops.
Earlier this year, for the first time in Afghani history power was peacefully and democratically transferred from one leader to another, when Ashraf Ghani was elected President, replacing incumbent Hamid Karzai.
On paper, it would appear that the war in Afghanistan was a complete success. I mean, NATO has accomplished all their goals, haven’t they? Afghanistan is functioning as a democratic nation, isn’t it?
Though the Taliban lost control of the country in 2001, they have remained a committed enemy of NATO, and have waged a relentless gorilla war on allied forces ever since. They continue to be a major threat to Afghan stability, and have actually increased in numbers since 2001.
Since the official cessation of NATO military action this month, Taliban insurgent attacks have increased significantly, reaching their highest levels since 2011. This renewed assault is causing many military leaders to speculate that the Taliban are waiting for allied troops to leave before launching a major offensive. A campaign of any real magnitude has the potential to topple the Afghani government that NATO has so painstakingly installed.
Speaking of the Afghani government: since the election this year, the winning candidate has been bombarded by multiple allegations of fraud and extortion, leaving me wondering if the “democratic system” is even working in the first place. Under the last president, Hamid Karzai, electoral fraud common that the United Nations questioned Afghanistan’s status as a democratic nation. Additionally, both Karzai and members of his family have been accused of severe corruption and racketeering.
Lastly, as an interesting note: Afghanistan has long been the world’s largest producer of both opium and cannabis. According to a United States Congressional report, opium production is at the highest level it has been since before Taliban rule. Today, more land is used in Afghanistan to cultivate opium than is used in Latin America to grow cocoa beans. That’s a problem that could completely undermine the legitimacy of the Afghani government in the eyes of the world.
Rapidly expanding insurgent attacks, a corrupt government, and a huge drug problem. These don’t sound like the fruits of victory to me. I’m certainly glad that our troops are out of harm’s way, but what about all of those civilians left behind with only the notoriously incompetent Afghanistan military to protect them? I would encourage readers to ponder this question: is Afghanistan better off now than it was?