This week has marked one of the bloodiest stream of attack’s in Afghanistan’s recent memory.
Last week, five terrorists took control of a luxury hotel, killing 22 people in a 14 hour siege. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
At least six people were killed in a harrowing attack on the ‘Save the Children’ offices in Jalabad, in which a suicide car bomb was used before attackers launched rocket-propelled grenades to force themselves inside the building. Amazingly, security forces were able to rescue nearly fifty people in the basement of the building while fighting continued upstairs. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Militants attacked a military academy in the country’s capital just yesterday, killing five soldiers. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
But the greatest devastation occurred over the weekend, when an ambulance packed with explosives drove into a crowded city street, killing over a hundred people. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
These attacks are terrifying and unpredictable. The Taliban and Islamic State kill indiscriminately, often showing no regard for the deaths of children or civilians. Suicide bombs are common, often hidden in vehicles.
Afghanistan is a huge concern for US defence forces, so, by default, Australia is involved. It is Australia’s longest conflict, and it has claimed the lives of 41 of our soldiers.
It’s a country with a long and complicated history. Here’s Slow News Weekly’s attempt at putting everything you need to know inside a thousand words.
Surprise! It starts with British colonisation.
The British, in all of their great 19th century wisdom, invaded Afghanistan in 1838.This was when Britain was fond of throwing ‘hey-we’re-taking-your-country-cool-thanks’ dinner parties, soon to be followed by the inevitable ‘hey-no-seriously-why-can’t-we-just-hold-onto-it-cool-thanks’ brunches. After a war or two, Afghanistan declared independence from Britain in 1919.
Afghanistan had a monarchy for a bit until 1953, when General Mohammed Daud took over and leant on the Soviet Union for some help – making it an enemy of the United States. (If you’ve read our guide to North Korea you’ll notice some similarities here.) A couple of decades of power struggles ensued. Daud lost power, then gained it again in a coup, and then lost it again in another coup. In 1979, the Soviet Union thought they’d calm everything down by having an old-fashioned invasion. They propped up a communist government.
At the time, the US didn’t want the Soviet Union in charge, so they (along with Iran, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia) supplied money and arms to rebellious forces (drenching the country in weapons that would eventually be used against them). Everything became very bloody, with more money and more guns, until, in 1988, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, the US and Pakistan all signed peace accords. The Soviet Union pulled out its troops.
The Taliban turns up
The country is too scarred at this point, and civil war followed the Soviet withdrawal. In the face of all this unrest, the Taliban show up in the mid-nineties with a hard-line vision of how to set the country right again. They seem to think banning women from work and stoning criminals to death will help matters. Some people agree, others don’t. By 1997, the Taliban controls enough of the country that they’re seen by many (like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) as legitimate rulers. The Taliban, and its leader, Osama Bin Laden, are accused of bombing US embassies in Africa. The US responds with missile strikes. The UN attempts to force Osama Bin Laden into trial by imposing financial sanctions. It doesn’t work.
In September, 2001, Osama Bin Laden’s main political opposition – Ahamd Shah Massod – is assassinated, and the Taliban are linked with the World Trade Centre attacks in New York. The US begin bombing Afghanistan in October.
In 2002, NATO led peacekeepers are deployed, and begin a fight against the Taliban. A new government is installed, and there are presidential elections in 2004. It’s the first democratic vote in over thirty years, but the parliament is filled with warlords. Under Bush, the US keep dispatching troops to hold the peace and battle the Taliban and other insurgents.
Overall, however, the US’s focus on Afghanistan lost out to its invasion of Iraq in 2003. US Defence funding was split between the two countries, and the Taliban gained ground that they had lost before the US invaded Iraq.
Obama first attacked Afghanistan with a troop surge in 2009 which made some ground. He then announced a gradual withdrawal. But a clear victory never came. Ensuing local elections were marred by violence and fraud.
How We Get To Now
Obama kept pushing back the deadline to withdraw US troops. Failed peace talks and a myriad of Taliban attacks marred any progress. In 2016 over a million Afghans were displaced because of the war.
The relationships are a complicated web, between the Afghanistan ‘offical’ government, the Taliban and its splinter groups, ISS and its splinter groups, US and its allies and more.
Trump campaigned on a platform of more military intervention in Afghanistan to crush the threat posed by ISIS and the Taliban (in contrast to statements that he made before his campaign, where he said the US needed to get out immediately). But even’s Trump’s plan to support the campaign with another 4,000 troops doesn’t bring his country’s force to anything like it’s 2010 peak under Obama ‘surge’ tactic.
In recent years, the Australian Defence Force has supported the US by training the Afghanistan military. In August of 2017, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Mark Binskin, said that Australia would increase their numbers by thirty in support of Trump’s plan, bringing their total number to 300 Aussie troops in Afghanistan. He also said that the ADF do not consider Afghanistan in isolation, rather “Terrorism is a global issue and our counter-terrorism strategies are always considered in this context” – pointing to the defence’s forces work to combat terrorism across the globe.
Can We Win This Fight?
It’s been almost 18 years since the initial 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and experts are divided on how success is measured. Afghanistan is an exceptionally difficult country to defeat a determined enemy. It’s mountainous, hosts extremes of weather, has a plethora of excellent hiding places, and is made up of diverse communities, each with vast internal politics.
The Taliban is currently making the majority of its money from an enormous amount of opium, which has been under their control since their inception in the mid-nineties. As well as known terrorist hide-outs, the US are consistently bombing drug labs. This is nothing new. The campaign against illicit drugs, particularly in South East Asia (Afghanistan’s drug business’ biggest customers), is probably the key to any meaningful wounds to the Taliban overall.
Trump has also moved to pull back on the States’ aid to Pakistan, which has been accused of harbouring terrorists and helping the Taliban. Obama was never that fond of Pakistan either, but Trump has been explicit and public about his disdain – possibly inciting Pakistan to hold back on sharing their intelligence and supply routes with the US.
Overall, however, no one’s optimistic. The idea that the Taliban can simply be beaten like a traditional enemy is now seen as romantically naive by many military officials. The best that can be hoped for is that the threat is controlled. That means there’s no end in sight for the US and Australian defence forces.
It means splashes of violence like the incidences this week will, sadly, continue to haunt the headlines. Simple promises of ‘crushing evil’ are almost impotent in light of the complex history and web of relationships at hand.
For more on Afghanistan, I recommend this video, which neatly showcases the maddening web of relationships that stand in the way of any peace. This article on the opium trade also showcases the finances that keep the Taliban alive.
Photo at the top courtesy of The New York Times.
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