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The Afghan quagmire

Following President Donald Trump’s announcement on Aug. 21 of a troop surge in Afghanistan, the futility of America’s longest war is strikingly clear. Since the conflict began in 2001, the US has spent more than $800 billion on the war. Compounded by supplementary funding such as veterans’ care, the number easily exceeds $1 trillion. As the Afghan government loses control over vast areas of the country, the power of the Taliban lingers.
The most pertinent feature of the struggle in Afghanistan is the central government’s state of perpetual malaise. More than 15 years after Operation Enduring Freedom began, the Taliban is making major gains — the government now controls only 63.4 percent of the country. With a life expectancy of 44 years, no wonder Afghans make up 27-30 percent of the global refugee population. 
The wobbly US-brokered political coalition of sworn enemies, put together after the fall of the Taliban, has long required review. The executive branch is split between two discordant personalities: President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. 
As Kabul is plagued by infighting, the government and US commanders have relied heavily on local warlords to govern the country. Some are aligned with the government, but the most powerful remain outside the political system, too formidable to pacify and too critical to ignore.
Infighting between warlords is what propelled the Taliban to power in 1996. It is no coincidence that where insurgents have most recently succeeded is in the northern provinces, where warlords have long been resented. In this context, it is critical that a strategy be developed whereby the traditional apparatus of governance in Afghanistan is brought into Kabul’s central decision-making process. 
Reliant on external aid, outward-looking decision-makers in Afghanistan have been able to cling to power without significant internal support. Indeed, former President Hamid Karzai held on to power for a decade despite major losses against the Taliban and the government’s failure to improve the lot of Afghans (only 6 percent of the population have access to stable electrical power).
Of course, Afghanistan’s problems existed long before US involvement. Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, the country has been in a state of continuous conflict. This has left 1 million Afghans dead and more than 3 million maimed. The self-perpetuating cycle of state collapse, radicalization and foreign intervention has caused concern among US decision-makers weary of pursuing an endless war. 
US efforts at state-building at a time of conflict are unlikely to succeed. Afghan institutions have been unable to grow amid a violent insurgency, highlighted by the fact that the loss of Afghan security forces is just shy of the number of militants who have been killed. US forces and the Afghan government have been overly reliant on local warlords to fight the Taliban; this has alienated them from normal Afghans and undermined the government’s legitimacy. 

As Kabul is plagued by infighting, the government and US commanders have relied heavily on local warlords to govern the country. Some are aligned with the government, but the most powerful remain outside the political system.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Rather ominously, America’s new Afghanistan strategy — crafted by Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — provides more troops to assist the Afghan government without outlining a clear timetable for their withdrawal. It is as though the US has reconciled itself to a generational commitment to Afghanistan in light of the real challenges it faces in keeping the peace. 
This US admission is not dissimilar to the British imperial experience. Almost continuously, between 1849 and 1947 large military expeditions left British India to quell unrest in the northwest. Before 1900 alone, there were 60 such campaigns. 
The largest British force ever deployed in Asia — 44,000 men — was sent to Afghanistan in 1897 to quell a Pashtun rebellion. The British never achieved the peace they sought in the area and simply left in 1947, having failed to achieve long-term peace and stability.
The geopolitical reality is that Afghanistan is trapped in the ambitions of its neighbors: Russia to the north, squeezed by Iran and China to the east and west, and tied up in the Indo-Pakistani war of attrition. As the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the 1990s, Pakistani intelligence filled the void, creating many of the funding and arms-smuggling networks that the US counteracts today. 
A viable solution to the war in Afghanistan requires neighboring powers to be brought into the process. Interestingly, during the first 30 minutes of his address, Trump failed to mention what role Russia, China and Iran might play to help end the war. 
The complexity of the relationship between the US and these geopolitical rivals is negatively affecting the course of the war in Afghanistan. And as the Indian government is encouraged to invest in infrastructure that Afghanistan desperately needs, Pakistani generals lament losing the upper hand among tribal factions they have supported for decades.
Amid these myriad political and geostrategic tensions, militants are able to exploit vacuums in the government’s ability to project central authority. As the US seeks to hinder the Taliban’s ability to regroup, a new challenge looms: Ethnic disintegration of the state. 
The conflict did not begin as an ethnic one, though as the state collapsed, community identities have been reinforced, hardening divisions and creating yet another barrier to peace. Given the medieval circumstances in Afghanistan, it is worth noting that state-building in similar circumstances in Europe took centuries. 
It is increasingly clear that the US model of compressed and rapid development is unrealistic, and as Rome and Britain before it, the overstretched American empire will find itself drawn into perpetual conflict.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).