Fight against Taliban is now America’s longest war but has been all but ignored by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
With all eyes focused on Mosul, Aleppo and Russia’s military buildup in the Middle East, the sharply deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has been all but ignored by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Whoever wins the US presidency, such insouciance will be hard to justify beyond January’s inauguration day.
As this week’s killing of 30 villagers in Ghor province showed, Afghanistan has a way of forcing itself into the political headlights. Barack Obama learned this lesson the hard way. He promised to end the war. Instead, he escalated, faltered, then lost interest.
Obama’s 2009 Afghan “surge”, supported by Clinton, then the US secretary of state, sent an additional 51,000 troops to the country. But the reinforcements failed to end the Taliban insurgency. In 2014 Obama said the war was ending. But he has had to eat his words. As he leaves office, 8,400 US soldiers and a large air force contingent remain behind.
The Afghan Taliban, supported by elements in Pakistan, are still the deadliest and most numerous foe. Recent estimates suggest they are gaining territory in Helmand, where British troops once did battle. Repeated offensives around Kunduz in the north and audacious attacks on Kabul have been beaten back, but with great difficulty.
Al-Qaida jihadis – the reason the US entered Afghanistan in 2001 – remain active in at least seven provinces, while Isis has gained a foothold in Nangarhar. Rival ethnic warlords further complicate the picture.
Afghanistan is now America’s longest war. Its 15th anniversary fell on 7 October. More than 2,300 US troops have died there. The conflict has cost US taxpayers an estimated $686bn.
Yet despite recent, tentative peace talks, it is far from over. Afghanistan has become the dirty little secret of the US presidential campaign that neither candidate cares to discuss.
Across all three presidential debates, Afghanistan was only mentioned once, by Clinton, and then only in passing. The Democrat, already under fire for her support for the 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2011 US intervention in Libya, has little incentive to draw attention to unfinished business in Afghanistan. She knows the war is deeply unpopular with voters.
For his part, Trump seems to understand little and care less. He once said the war was a “terrible mistake” but has no known policy. Even the Taliban feel affronted. A Talib spokesman, quoted by analyst Yochi Dreazen, commented after the first debate that Trump says “anything that comes to his tongue” and is “not serious”.
This shared indifference cannot last, Dreazen wrote. “Whatever the reason, the silence about Afghanistan is a genuine shame since the future of the long US-led war there will be one of the first major choices that a President Trump or a President Clinton would have to make … The next president will need to decide whether to leave the troops there, send more, or bring even more of them home.”
Abandoning Afghanistan is probably not an option, however much western countries would like to wish away the problem. Despite the failure of many rural reconstruction projects, 70 donor countries recently pledged another $15.2bn for the next four years.
While humanitarian needs are undoubtedly acute, such generosity looks like a triumph of hope over experience. The security situation is dire in many areas, Afghan government in Kabul is weak and official corruption is endemic.
Violence against women continues despite strenuous efforts to counter it. More than 5,000 cases – including 241 murders – were reported in the first half of this year. Opium production is up again. Afghan refugees continue to head for Europe in large numbers. The conflict further destabilises Pakistan.
Nato’s fond hope that the much-trained Afghan army and police would effectively replace western troops and provide adequate security has proved illusory. According to US estimates, the Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001. So far in 2016, nearly 2,500 civilians have died, the UN says. Many were killed by government forces. Child casualties are up 15%.
Whatever Clinton and Trump may think, Afghanistan is not a problem they can duck for long.