Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

The price of failure in Afghanistan

November 18, 2009

On the eve of Hamid Karzai’s inauguration as Afghanistan’s president, the obvious question to ask is what happens if he, or more crucially his Western backers, fail to turn backafg-1 a resurgent Taliban the second time around.

Steve Coll, journalist and president of the New America Foundation, sets out four consequences of failure in Afghanistan in a blog in The New Yorker, which speak to those especially in America who question its involvement in the first place in this far-off “graveyard of empires.”

A new ABC/Washington Post poll says 52 percent of Americans don’t believe the war is worth the costs.

Coll says: 

1) If the world were to give up on Afghanistan and the Taliban were to return to power, it would mean a re-run of the Civil War in the 90s, but this time on “steroids”. It is inconceivable that the Taliban could triumph in the country completely and provide a regime (however perverse) of stability and so you could have a rump Afghan government dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks find arms and money from India, Iran, and perhaps Russia, Europe and the United States. This would likely produce a long-running civil war between northern, Tajik-dominated ethnic militias and the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

2) Success in Afghanistan would give momentum for a Taliban revolution in Pakistan. If the Quetta Shura regained power in Kandahar or Kabul, it would undoubtedly interpret its triumph as a ticket to further ambition in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban would likely be energized, armed and financed by the Afghan Taliban as they pursue their own revolutionary ambitions in Islamabad.

3) Increased Islamist Violence Against India : The probable knock-on effect of a second Taliban revolution Afghanistan would be to increase the likelihood of irregular Islamist attacks from Pakistan against Indian targets as they see to extend their influence. In time, democratic Indian governments would be pressed by their electorates to respond with military force, and the world would then have to deal with a fourth Indian-Pakistan war, this time both nations nuclear-armed.

4) Al Qaeda’s ambitions against Britain and the United States would strengthen. While al Qaeda’s capacity to launch disruptive attacks on American soil remain low, it would be absurd to argue it won’t be strengthened by a Taliban return to Afghanistan, Coll says. London may well be more vulnerable to a future attack five or ten years after an Afghan Taliban revolution, given the large Pakistani Diaspora in Britain that the “bad guys” may well use to blend in.

afg-2Finally, while the threat to the rest of the world from an unstable Afghanistan has been spelt out innumerable times, what about the risk to Afghans themselves? An Oxfam survey offers a sobering glimpse of the mood of the nation with these findings: one in five Afghans questioned said they had been tortured, one in 10 claimed to have been imprisoned at least once since 1979, when Soviet forces invaded, and one in six Afghans are currently considering leaving the country.

One of the survey’s respondents from the eastern province of Nangarhar summed up what instability in Afghanistan has led to already by saying more than 2 million people had died in decades of conflict, 70 percent of the country had been destroyed, and its economy virtually eliminated.

“Half our people have been driven mad. A man who is 30 or 40 years old looks like he is 70. We always live in fear. We are not secure anywhere in Afghanistan,” the respondent said.

[Top: A U.S. Marine passes Afghan children while on patrol in Helmand province (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih); above: Afghan children hold a banner during the celebration of Peace Day in Kabul in September (Reuters/Omar Sobhani)]


There is no victory in Afghanistan. Increasing the U.S. military presence there only fuels the resistance further. More occupation by American troops will only serve to extend an outstretched military even further. Soldiers returning for third and fourth tours of duty are being deprived of their family obligations, and grow ever suspect of the overall ambitions to be achieved in Afghanistan. The U.S. policy of using predator drones that fly into Pakistan, are often a dangerous and ineffective way to target Taliban operatives, often killing civilians, and further escalating tension against the United States. The U.S. was right in scolding Israel for the use of predator drones in Lebanon, because they were inaccurate, and the U.S.,at the time, would not condone their use in targeted killing. What has changed? How can V.P. Biden consider these killings ” clean and sanitary “. What is clean or sanitary about innocent civilians being killed?
The Taliban have never attacked us, outside of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not our War.


This is fear mongering.

First, the Taliban would probably not be able to re-assert themselves. The other ethnic groups are too strong, the Taliban have been unmasked as mere criminals, Pakistan no longer tolerates their presence, and the area is no longer a preferred terrorist sanctuary due to increased foreign troop presence and vigilance.

While a renewed civil war would be unfortunate, we cannot police every war torn country. There were/are horrific civil wars in Rwanda & Sudan, and we only indirectly intervened. Rwanda recovered and Sudan will likely do the same. Our interference in the Balkans did not directly stop the bloodshed. The US cannot be expected nor can it afford to police every ravaged slum on this planet. At some point a people must take responsibility for their fate, we cannot hold their hand forever.

Ultimately, this post seems to outline a worst-case scenario, one that isn’t even probable, or as bad as it is made out to be. Also, Afghanistan’s neighbors now seem to have realized that a stable neighbor is in their best interest, and will likely work to maintain stability.

I will conclude with this example. In the US civil war if Britain or France had intervened on the side of the South, for whatever reason, would it have ended the war? No, it would have extended it indefinitely, with no side gaining traction and scorched earth. The more troops you throw into the fire, the brighter it burns.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

Afgan IS a failure. So the question is whether to fix it or leave it.
Leaving it and confronting Muslim extremism in Europe is better and more urgent choice for me

Posted by Simon | Report as abusive

I have talked to soldiers from Canada, Russia & the U.S., in their opinion it is an un-winnable war.

Also, what are we doing to our own soldiers with the rising rate of traumatic stress ? Some come home in a “hand basket” while others are simply just given licit drugs. Where are our “legitimate” Psychologists when these people come back ? They need proper help !

The wars in Iraq & Afghanistan have completely changed theatre since our troops arrived over there.

Now that we are involved, there is not a single person around the globe that knows what to do next.

Posted by Tony Penner | Report as abusive

Our very best thinking is what got us here. We need to change our thinking.

Posted by BSP | Report as abusive

like greg says…this is just fear mongering.

the taliban are just a hillbilly crime wave that took over a country (just like what happened here with the Republican–Contract On America–Revolution in 1994). evidently, they’re real good street fighters, but not much at governing.

as for launching attacks on other countries from a country you’ve just taken over, consider the republicans in the 80′s under ronnie raygun! blood and revolt and mass disappearances all over latin america. (again, the similarities with the republicans are uncanny…)

so, i submit to you: the republicans are as bad or worse than the taliban. and, what can we do about them?

Posted by dr arp | Report as abusive

this is the first blog I have seen in a while where the commentary itself was intelligent and rational and the comments made were also intelligent and rational.There are some hard truths that we have to face in this quagmire. We need to get out afghanistan now or else our resources will bring us down, just like afghanistan did to soviet union, british, moughls and anyone else who ever tried to invade them.There is no shame in the U.S retreating, this would not be the first war we would’ve have had to retreat from with out any clear sign of victory. second the strategy should change from trying to change afghanistan to controlling and really tightening its borders. we do this by working closely with all of its neighboring countries: Pakistan, India, Russia, and most of all Iran. all of these countries know that if they don’t they too will face the wrath of suicide bombers and terrorist attacks at the hands of the taliban. (ask the pakistanis about this). whatever happens inside afghanistan can not be any of our concern any longer. we did not care what was happening 15-20 years ago, we should not care now. make the border restriction and protection the top and ultimate priority. the current strategy is only going to lead to our demise.

Posted by hassan | Report as abusive

The Taliban are fighting for an Afghanistan for the Afghan people. Maybe we won’t like the theocracy they implement. But that’s not our problem. The reason the United States came into existence was because the crown didn’t want to recognize the American colonists and basically just raped them financially.

The US has installed a leader that doesn’t care for the Afghan people. He’s in it for his own profit.

We do not understand the culture. We do not understand the mind set but we want to shove our ideology down their throats. If we want to show how much better our way of life is, then we need to get our own house in order and live by example. Then other countries can see the value of our ways by what we produce in terms of quality life, health, peace, and prosperity.

But that’s much more work than pointing a gun and saying “do as I say and not as I do.” We are hypocrites and deserve to loose this ill conceived war.


The Afghans are all working together on this… They all have/know someone who is taliban. Can we succeed? Maybe, Do they want to see us succeed? No, many dont. The majority rules… at least 75-85% of the MIDDLE EAST dont want us their to begin with!!!. The majority of the U.S population dont even want to be their! We are losing faith and its sad to say it. We, the USA have something to live and fight for…we are trying to share that passion and ambition with the rest of the world. And what do we get a suicide bomber or 2! Thanks….NOT..

Posted by ALEX | Report as abusive

I agree with hassan, it is important for the free world to keep a healthy, organized script of dialogue – (questions & opinions) in a comment area blog of people who indeed follow the global news of N.American/Allies war vs. the (people/government?) of Iraq & Afghanistan.

Aggression of any side in war to quash, bomb, save assist, then advance to neutral holding positions, is similar to a game of risk; – (trade mark – war board game).

Westerners feel obligated to call fellow the geographical east, human beings, that they in fact will sacrifice/ blow themselves up – cowardice to themselves, then road bomb areas of normal, loving & daily people events – ‘boom’ – killing innocent infant to adult life, for their quest to a heaven that they assume/have been taught – to have a special & honorable grace, for some special position in their heaven, unconscious of which souls they selfishly took – in a hypnotic “religious” complete & arrogant negative concern for life of mankind or any kind.

‘See ya’ in the afterlife, lest we forget, I am a good samaritan, I will defend country, friend, family & goodwill, only to continue faith in human kind if that still means anything.

Posted by Tony Penner | Report as abusive

I think articles like this one are meant to show us how ill informed we are and how erudite and sophisticated is the writer. They fail to mention however the simple fact that national self determination is a fundamental right under the UN charter and that regime change by force is illegal under international law. Leave Afghanistan (substitute Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia, Lebanon, Iraq, Chile etc etc etc) to sort out its own problems, or if you really want to help offer them no strings attached aid in the form of hospitals, roads, agricultural technology – not cash).

Posted by David Errington | Report as abusive

Coll is full of himself.

Afghanistan is an Islamic country. Saudi Arabia should take the lead in determining how to improve things there.

Posted by dom youngross | Report as abusive

Afghanistan is now and perhaps forever more the symbolic breeding ground for Islamic extremists and brainwashed, religious fundamentalists. Can this horror be stopped? I believe it can, but not without the uncompromised commitment of ALL nations who believe in uncorrupt government and civil liberty. ALL of these nations must contribute “ALL” to irradicating (not by negotiating or court trials) these dangerous fanatics. This will probably mean the end of Karzai and a military style implementation of a new government. The consequences of not doing, are high. Obama should put his “ramp up” troop decision out unto the WORLD with the stipulation that “ALL of us are ALL IN”…otherwise, I say,”Bring our men and women home”.
I, with my Arabic heritage, know that our politicians have grossly misunderstood and horribly underestimated the Arab penchant for deceit, blood, war, and general barbarianism. There are no rules of engagement here. We all know, but do not want to face the consequences of NOT winning this war. Have we all grown “soft” as Osama once said? It is a war that cannot be won without the WORLD wising up! We need a stronger and wiser group of political leaders than we currently have. Fo me,this is the most frightening part of the puzzle!

Posted by shelley | Report as abusive

Let us talk some basic facts;
.Foreign troops have no longer any business to remain in afghanistan.
.To name a group of people or tribes in Afghanistan “Talabans” is a misquote and intended only to confuse the people of the world. The so called Talabans are Pushtoons!! George W. gave them other names and the clintonians under hillary clinton calls them good talabans and bad talabans. The Us President is trying his best not to repeat names used by the previous administration.
.NO govt. in kabul has ever been able to function without the approval of Pushtoon tribal chiefs. The Pushtoons were not subjected to compulsary military service, whereas other ethnic groups were.
.The invasion of Aghanistan by the US in collaboration with the northern alliance,i.e. the non-pusthoon groups was a deliberate attempt to disturb the balance of power which existed among various ethnic groups before the Soviets intrusion. The situation today is somewhat similar to that in Lebanon.
. The Pushtoons have a very straightforward code which determines their fate in battles. To conquer them one must defeat them. No other country have fought more battles with them than the Brits. Even Winston Churchil encountered these people during his military life and was the only survivor from his platoon.Their history shows that they have always been victorious against invaders, who despite the superior equipment lacked the fighting quality and spirit among their soldiers. They are born free and are passionately in love with their independence.
. I am distressed to see that young lads of even 18 years age in the British army are being sent to Afghanistan where the old colonial power suffered the heaviest casuaties in their colonial times. It would seem that the prime minister Gordon Brown is most likely not aware of aware of this piece of history.
. I believe that the US and the Nato armies should better withdraw from Afghanistan and obtain solid assurances from the Afghan Govt. that they will not allow in the future any facilities or training basis to foreigners or terrorists groups.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

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