Longest war winds down after decade of bloodshed
The NATO campaign in Afghanistan is finally drawing to a close, as officials hand control of safe areas to Afghan troops. Is this transfer a victory – or a humiliating retreat?
After ten years of brutal fighting, and thousands of casualties, NATO forces yesterday began the slow process of withdrawing from Afghanistan. There was little celebration. The ceremony – to mark the transfer of Bamiyan province to Afghan control – was short and low key, with few journalists there to record the historic moment. Afghan and NATO officials flew in by helicopter, exchanged formalities and then departed, moving quickly to reduce the risk of a Taliban bomb attack.
Bamiyan, a poor and dusty region of central Afghanistan, is the first Afghan province to be handed over by Western forces. In the coming weeks, more provinces and towns will follow, marking the first phase of NATO's long retreat. By 2014, it is hoped, the US, UK and allied soldiers who garrison the war-torn nation will finally have left for good.
It will take less time than that for the Afghan war to make its mark on the record books. Already, the decade long campaign is the longest war in US history, surpassing both the American Civil war and the endless jungle bloodshed of Vietnam. In 2012, it will also become Britain's longest war since the Middle Ages.
As Britain and the USA depart, one big question becomes ever more pressing. After all the blood and all the billions of dollars spent, what has the West achieved in this epic conflict?
Back in 2001, the aim was clear: Afghanistan was to be liberated from fundamentalist Taliban rule. Al Qaeda training camps in the country were to be eliminated. Most of all, Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was to be hunted down and killed. On all three of those counts, the war has been a success.
But, after a decisive initial victory, things started to go downhill. The Taliban were pushed out of power, but they had not been defeated for good. Armed fighters retreated to the mountains, from where they have waged a brutal guerrilla war. Western casualties mounted, and true peace for Afghanistan became an ever more distant dream.
NATO leaders are desperate to claim the Afghan war as a victory. After all, they point out, the main objectives have been achieved, and although Afghanistan remains a fragile country, it does now have a semi-functional army and police force which can take over the slow and difficult job of nation-building.
Others say the Afghan war has been a catastrophic defeat for the West. A coalition of the most powerful military nations on the planet was outfought by an untrained rabble of Afghan tribesmen. This is no withdrawal, they say, but a disastrous and humiliating retreat.
- Should Western troops have gone to Afghanistan?
- Is it wrong of NATO to leave Afghanistan while there's a chance that the Taliban could return to power? Why / why not?
- Choose a famous defeat from history and write a political speech, trying to portray that defeat as a victory.
- Do some further research on Afghanistan and its history. Why do they call it the graveyard of empires?
Some People Say...
“Afghanistan may be a mess, but it's better off than under the Taliban.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How can tribesmen stand up to the combined Western armies?
- By refusing to fight a Western-style war. Taliban fighters lay ambushes, set roadside bombs and use snipers to strike from afar. They also hide among civilians, knowing that Western rules of engagement prevent them from striking back. They also do assassinations.
- Does that work?
- Very much so. The Afghan President's brother was killed this month, and one top official was murdered only hours after yesterday's transfer ceremony.
- Evil, but clever.
- They've had a lot of practice. Back in the 1980s, many of these same fighters defeated Soviet armies which were trying to occupy the country. In the 19th Century, Afghans inflicted terrible defeats on British forces. Some call the country 'the graveyard of empires'.
- The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a military alliance that includes the USA and most European countries.
- The Taliban are a faction of fundamentalist Islamists who enjoy strong support among the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and northWestern Pakistan. They ruled Afghanistan for five years from 1996 to 2001, during which time they banned music and television, introduced strict rules on women's appearance and held public executions for crimes including adultery.
- Guerrilla war
- When two military forces are unevenly matched, the weaker one often resorts to guerrilla tactics, hiding in remote areas and only striking when there is a clear tactical advantage. Good guerrilla armies are very difficult to defeat without using brutal methods, which Western leaders are unwilling to contemplate.