November 14, 2016

The fall of Kabul - 15 years later

Kabul under Northern Alliance attack - November 2001

On November 14, 2001, the Afghan capital city of Kabul fell to the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance after a short but intense battle. The Northern Alliance was supported primarily by U.S. airpower controlled by American special operations troops and paramilitary officers of the CIA.

Fifteen years later, what have we accomplished?

Let's remember why the United States invaded Afghanistan. Following the al-Qa'idah attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Taliban government of Afghanistan was given the opportunity to respond to a request (actually, it was a demand) to turn over al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin to American authorities for trial.

The Taliban, citing the tribal code known as pashtunwali, refused, claiming that bin Ladin had been granted sanctuary in Afghanistan and turning him over to a foreign power would be a violation of their honor.

In response, President George Bush authorized the invasion of Afghanistan, pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) passed by the Congress on September 14, 2001 - the President signed it into law four days later. The law authorized the President to employ the armed forces of the United States against those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as any entity who harbored said persons or groups.

By refusing to turn over Usamah bin Ladin to the United States, the Taliban met the criteria of the authorization. On October 7, 2001, American forces began the campaign known as Operation Enduring Freedom by dropping bombs and firing cruise missiles against Taliban military and communications facilities, as well as al-Qa'idah training camps in the areas of Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat.

It was the beginning of the longest war in American history.

On November 14, the capital fell. The Taliban was forced from power, and al-Qa'idah fell back towards the Pakistan border.

In the battle of Tora Bora - December 6 to December 17 - the United States relied on local Afghan allies, including the Northern Alliance, to arrange the "modalities" of bin Ladin's capture or surrender. I remember wondering who made that fateful, ill-advised decision - you cannot outsource your fighting. There were additional American troops available, but the U.S. military commander did not commit them to the fight. Big mistake.

The result was predictable. Whether tribal loyalties came into play, or money changed hands, or some other deal was struck, Usamah bin Ladin escaped across the border into the Pashtun-controlled tribal area of Pakistan. This event should have been a warning about any long term commitment to the Afghans.

At this point, the American military mission in Afghanistan was essentially complete, only partially accomplished, but complete. Al-Qa'idah no longer had a base of training and operations in Afghanistan, but they merely changed venues. They initially moved to Pakistan - who has been virtually no help - then to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, and even to Syria where they were the predecessor of the so-called and self-proclaimed Islamic State.

It was not until 2011 that justice was finally delivered to Usamah bin Ladin, then living in relative safety in Pakistan. Yet, for ten years preceding that raid, American forces were involved in a civil war in Afghanistan. Even after the killing of bin Ladin, American forces remain in Afghanistan. After 15 years, we have lost almost 2400 troops killed and over 20,000 wounded. Although the cost is pegged at over $700 billion, the actual costs when long-term medical and disability bills are included is much higher.

What have we accomplished in Afghanistan since the Battle of Tora Bora that justifies the blood and treasure? It depends on who you ask, but since this is my article, I'll answer.

What was the mission? Get al-Qa'idah and bin Ladin - once that was accomplished, the effort should have focused on the remnants of al-Qa'idah, not propping up the Karzai government, what most of us knew was going to a futile effort at creating a representative form of government. We are not very good at this.

So now we have been there for 15 years, and have accomplished what? The Afghan military is incapable of quelling the violence, the Taliban is on the ascent, and we insist that our "advise and assist" mission is still viable.

Solution? I guess we first need to define the goals. If it is to defeat the Taliban, say so and deploy enough troops to get it done (I am not advocating that). If it is an inclusive political settlement, get that process moving.

What we are doing now is not working.

Not much. Why not? Because have never really defined a mission beyond 2001. Why are we there? To defeat and expel al-Qa'idah from the country? That was accomplished years ago. To defeat the Taliban? The Taliban does not pose a threat to the United States.

Naysayers will counter that the Taliban will allow al-Qa'idah to return and re-establish training bases, and later mount operations against the United States and/or its allies. I think we have demonstrated that we are capable of devastating the country - again - if the Taliban is stupid enough to allow that to happen.

In simple terms, tell the Taliban - or whichever corrupt warlord eventually seizes power in arguably the most corrupt country on the planet - that if al-Qa'idah comes back to Afghanistan, so does American military power.

And we won’t be coming to nation-build….