Since 2001, the price of the war in Afghanistan has been steep: over $1 trillion spent and 20,000 US military casualties, not to mention the tens of thousands of Afghans who have been killed or wounded. Three successive presidential administrations have ordered some of the finest men and women to deploy to Afghanistan under different commanders and countless strategies. Seemingly, none have worked; it would be hard for an observer to declare the conflict in Afghanistan to be coming to a close anytime soon. As the war enters its 17th year, I sat down with Dr. Sajjan M. Gohel, a guest teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, International Security Director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation and Senior Advisor to the Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group to talk about the realities, challenges, and path forward in Afghanistan.
JG: Let’s start by talking about your background.
SG: Okay, sure. So I have various different hats. One of them is being a guest teacher here at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the International History Department. I was a student here; did my masters back in 2001-2002, just a few weeks after the September 11th attacks. That is what got me very interested in trans-national terrorism, the ideology with terrorist groups and how they operate. At that time, a lot of the focus was on Afghanistan. I did my PhD here also at the LSE. At that point, I looked at Egyptian ideologues, because that was very much the strain that influenced al-Qaeda’s thinking. Hassan a-Bannah, Sayyed Qutb, Ayman al-Zawahiri who is now head of al-Qaeda. The other work I do is I work with the think tank Asia-Pacific Foundation, looking at counter-terrorism issues globally. And then my third hat is I’m a Senior Advisor to the counter-terrorism working group, which operates under the umbrella of the Partnership for Peace Consortium, which is collection of different defense institutions including NATO. The aim is to pull together best practices from people from different countries.
JG: Is the counter-terrorism working group focusing on the conflict in Afghanistan now?
SG: The aim was to see what can be done to deal with trans-national terrorism both from a counter-terrorism perspective but also from a countering violent extremism perspective too. Both hard power and soft power. The aim was also to pull together people who are practitioners from the military, governmental bodies, but also academics and the civil society as well. It’s a very unique forum and you wouldn’t necessarily get that kind of situation normally. But the belief is that if you put together everybody’s expertise – different scenarios and different backgrounds – then you can get more ideas. And the aim is also to act as a tool to assist NATO in future operations and also to give recommendations to governments on soft power strategies.
JG. Would you say it has been successful?
SG: One can give recommendations. How they’re implemented is the challenge. Often they will get scrutinized, sometimes listened to, but administrations and governments also change. Priorities also alter, and we have to move with that. The other factor that is unpredictable is that we don’t know the types of threats that will emerge in the future. When the CTWG was created, it was predominantly designed to look at al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Then from 2011 onwards, with the Arab Spring we saw the emergence of Daesh or ISIS – however you want to call it – and we started looking more at that. I think again we’re going to start looking at al-Qaeda because the group is on the rise. It’s quietly rebuilding, replenishing, not trying to attract too much attention, deliberately so.
JG: When the group was formed it was working with the Bush administration, then into the Obama administration, and now with the Trump administration. How would you characterize working with all three?
SG: When I started looking at this from a multilateral perspective in 2007, the Bush administration was still there. Obviously the focus at that time was more on Iraq than it was on Afghanistan. The problem was that you had an insurgency movement that had grown and proliferated inside Iraq. But under General Petraeus’s “Awakening” strategy, there were more positives coming out of the fact that al-Qaeda in Iraq was being isolated. The Sunni tribesmen that had been ostracized following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime had been brought back into the political fold and it looked like the country was getting a fix on the insurgency that had been set up. Afghanistan was not getting as much attention as it needed to. We should remember that after 9/11 the priority needed to be Afghanistan but resources were taken away from Afghanistan and put into the war in Iraq. That allowed the Taliban to reconstitute and regrow and I think one of the tragedies that we will look back on in 2003, at the start of the year, that it looked like the Taliban were on the verge of being totally decimated. And the focus on Iraq took away resources from Afghanistan, which gave the Taliban the space they needed to recover and regrow. And also for al-Qaeda to remain active in Pakistan, where a lot of their resources have been transferred to.
With the Obama administration the aim was to pull out of Iraq, which was eventually achieved. One of the problems though was by pulling out, when it happened, Iraq had not established itself as a state with sustainable working institutions and there was still a strong degree of sectarianism and communalism in its political institutions. After the US withdrew, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took it upon himself to start persecuting Sunni politicians that were part of the government. Once again the Sunni Muslims in Iraq were being ostracized and isolated. Then there was unrest taking place in neighboring Syria with the fallout of the Arab Spring. These two separate elements ended up convening and it gave birth to Daesh or ISIS. No one could have probably predicted that, but because there wasn’t a proper security apparatus in Iraq, there was a conducive environment for Daesh to breed and expand.
JG: A lot of critics have pointed to that moment that you mentioned in late 2002 to early 2003 and the moment when the upcoming war in Iraq became the priority for the Bush administration as the moment in retrospect that we “lost” Afghanistan. Would you agree with that?
SG: I would say that Iraq wasn’t a necessity or a priority. It didn’t’ need to happen when it did. Saddam Hussein probably needed to be looked at in some way in terms of how he stirred up problems in the Middle East. He himself always gave the impression that Iraq had a nuclear weapon; that complicated the situation. But there was no necessity to prioritize Iraq over Afghanistan when the US was attacked on 9/11 by al-Qaeda with assistance from its affiliates and support from the Taliban which then simply moved next door into Pakistan. A lot of positives were being achieved following Operation Enduring Freedom, in liberating Afghanistan. Senior members of al-Qaeda were being picked off in Pakistan, and then suddenly the momentum changed and shifted toward Iraq. My view is that wars of choice always can create long-term consequences and in many ways that’s what Iraq has done.
JG: We’ve seen a variety of strategies shape up in Afghanistan over the years, but nothing seems to have really worked. Why have we been so unsuccessful?
SG: This is the key issue that doesn’t necessarily get enough attention. Things were working in Afghanistan following Operation Enduring Freedom up until 2003, against the Taliban and against al-Qaeda. Then what I was mentioning earlier with the war in Iraq started. Resources were taken away – the focus left – and Afghanistan was seen as a secondary issue. A much lower down priority compared to Iraq that gave all the negative forces like the Taliban to regrow and replenish, especially from sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Following the change in administrations from Bush to Obama, Obama’s policy was to reduce the footprint of the US in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
JG: But he also called Afghanistan the necessary war. Right?
SG: Obama did seem to suggest Afghanistan was more of a priority than Iraq, but even then there was concerns that he wasn’t prioritizing it as much as was required. In 2009, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Stanley McChrystal, had long requested that a kind of surge policy was required in Afghanistan, similar to what was required in Iraq. And some of the criticism was that his concerns were not being taken seriously or acted upon. And when it was, it was caveated with timetables for eventual withdrawal. One of the problems with that is that the Taliban was given advance notice of when the US intended to leave, so for them it was a question of biding their time and using some of their foot soldiers when required to create attacks and kill innocent people and Afghan and ISAF soldiers to further add impetus to the withdrawal date. The withdrawal took place, there was a skeleton force afterword, and the Taliban were regaining a strong footprint across southern Afghanistan but also other parts of the country, including central Afghanistan. Even today, now they’ve taken places in northern Afghanistan that they didn’t have during the 1990s when they were at their peak. The Afghan security forces are not able to deal with this situation on their own; they obviously need more support for training, for security sector reform – these are challenges that need to be urgently addressed.
JG: This leads us into where things stand now. What do things look like, what’re the problems, what’s the reality like?
SG: So officially, according to the Iraqis, Daesh has been defeated inside Iraq. That’s a positive. Now the question is how will it fix things in the aftermath, how will they strengthen civilian institutions, in society, for participatory democracy? Reintegrate the Sunni Muslims that have felt disenfranchised. Try and create an environment that won’t allow the nefarious elements like Daesh to grow like they did following the Arab Spring. One of the key issues in Afghanistan is that you don’t just have the Taliban. And when we talk about the Taliban, it is in many ways a generic term: you’re looking at the Quetta Shura Taliban that were once controlled by Mullah Omar, who refused to give up Osama bin Laden. You also have the Haqqani Network, which is both a criminal organization and a terrorist enterprise, which is making money through all kinds of activities including import/export, hospitals, car dealerships. They’re involved in the drugs trade. These elements then nurture and assist the terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. And if that is not enough, you have the ISIS-affiliated in Afghanistan, Wilayat Khorasan. And all these different groups are operating, literally fighting like different gangs over turf and territory, including against the Afghan government. Afghanistan, just like it was prior to 9/11, in many ways it is again the priority that we need to pay attention to. And I understand the notion that we’ve been there for 16 years, but it’s what we haven’t done in 16 years. There hasn’t been a strategy to achieve anything and sustain any achievement. Whatever achievements have been made, it was like one step forward and one step back. Those achievements were never preserved.
JG: Do you think that the product of just the fact that there are different administrations and different strategies, and that’s the way our government works with turnover and replacement?
SG: That’s exactly the problem: each administration has a different outlook on any specific country or region, which they are entitled to. But the problem is that Afghanistan has been a problem since the Soviets occupied the country. We could go back to the Carter administration, to whether they made the right move to provide funding to the Afghan mujahideen. The Reagan administration increased it tenfold. Then the George Bush senior administration decided to end support in Afghanistan because the Soviets had been defeated. So the country was forgotten, the Taliban came to the fore in the 1990s and brought al-Qaeda with them. The Clinton administration did combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda to a little degree following the 1998 bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but it wasn’t a substantive policy and not seen as a priority. Al-Qaeda saw this as an opportunity to further escalate attacks, culminating in 9/11. The Bush administration, as we’ve discussed, decided to reprioritize Afghanistan after going into Iraq, and the Obama administration although looking at Afghanistan as more important than Iraq also drew down forces without there being a resolution to the problems in Afghanistan. And the thing is, history has a very unfortunate way of repeating itself, and if Afghanistan is abandoned, those same nefarious forces that set up shop in Afghanistan, that planned trans-national terrorism, will carry out further attacks in the future if and when they are afforded the time to do so.
We have to think about the humanitarian elements too. These Taliban elements in Afghanistan are repressing the local population. Women who want education, who want job opportunities, are being prevented in Taliban-controlled districts. They are attacking women, they are intimidating people. They are not looking to develop the country in a meaningful way. They are setting back civil society by generations.
JG: If it’s acknowledged that each administration will have different tactics and strategies for Afghanistan and that’s part of the problem, why should keep staying? Why are we continuing to spend billions of dollars and send people to die there if there’s no hope of achieving anything?
SG: There’s no hope at achieving anything if the strategy keeps changing. Of course each administration has a different priority. In our conversation, I think the key word is “consistency.” There has to be a consistency in prioritizing on Afghanistan, which has been lacking since the 1970s. Let’s not even talk about 16 years, lets take it to the 1970s. If there’s no consistency since the 1970s, there are so many things that can go wrong for generations and decades. One hopes that – and this is hope, as opposed to feeling confident – that there can be consistency. The US Resolute Support Mission Commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson, knows what’s required and has made requests for assistance and support. Which for the time being he’s been given. Now the hope is that support is sustained. And he needs support, backing, from the Trump administration as well. If the Trump administration faces internal challenges and things alter in the US, which we don’t know what may happen as things are very unpredictable, I hope that doesn’t impact on Afghanistan.
JG: So, currently there’s a small residual force of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. As of this morning when I checked the Afghan government controls 64 percent of the country. They are sustaining a casualty rate of about 3,000 soldiers, police and civilian personnel per month. Obviously things aren’t going well. What needs to be done now? What is necessary for some sort of, what is necessary for success? If you got to make all the calls right now, what needs to happen?
SG: One thing that has not been done properly since 9/11 is pressure on Pakistan. The Pakistani military in particular supported the Taliban, helped its rise, because it saw them as a strategic ally that gave them strategic depth in Afghanistan. Historically, Pakistan and Afghanistan have had very poor relations, predominately over the Pashtun issue, which Afghanistan feels its Pashtun identity has been cut in half over the Durand Line – colonial politics which is another story altogether. Pakistan was turned to after 9/11 to provide the solution, to deal with al-Qaeda, to deal with the Taliban. The military there has simply not done it. The civilian government in Pakistan – if they were allowed to operate independently – would be a very useful ally for the West because they are democratically elected and they don’t want these centrifugal forces growing. Unfortunately the military in Pakistan has a different set of priorities and objectives which don’t converge with the West. You have various generals over the years saying the safe havens in Pakistan have allowed the Taliban, the Haqqani Network to operate and function. Why doesn’t Pakistan dismantle them? We don’t always get a straight answer as to why that’s the case. But the problem is that if those elements continue to exist in Pakistan, they can move over into Afghanistan. It is not difficult and there aren’t any barriers preventing them from going from Pakistan into Afghanistan. So more does need to be done to get Pakistan to cooperate and to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in their country, which then fuels the insurgency and the security problems in neighboring Afghanistan.
JG: Do we need more troops in Afghanistan?
SG: We cannot stay in Afghanistan indefinitely even though I’m saying we need to commit. My view is that we need to have more troops to provide support to the Afghans. Eventually, Afghans need to be in charge of their own affairs but they need better training, better support. Afghanistan needs to be given the infrastructure. Also, you can have all the troops in the world but if the back gate is open in Pakistan for the terrorists to go back and forth, it is very hard then to stop that problem.
JG: Various US administrations have tried to put pressure on Pakistan, to little or no success. What can we do to seriously pressure them to seriously tackle and dismantle these groups and networks?
SG: I think one important thing is to strengthen civilian institutions in Pakistan which have been weakened over generations by the military. Pakistan is one of the few Muslim democracies in the world; that should be a source of pride and something that is assisted and supported. Very often the West looks toward generals to provide easy solutions, which doesn’t end up being the result. Those generals have their own agendas. General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was seen as an ally in the War on Terrorism, but what did he actually achieve? What did he do? Very little. A lot of money was given to the Pakistani military, which went into a black hole ultimately. The Pakistani military will talk about the sacrifices they have had to make in the tribal areas, but those are against the entities that are internally attacking the Pakistani state. They don’t address those that are going into Afghanistan. So more needs to be done to support the civilian government, and also pressure the military in Pakistan to not interfere in civilian politics in Pakistan but also to clamp down on militants operating on their soil and then go into Afghanistan.
JG: Should the US engage some of these groups in the tribal areas militarily?
SG: There have been drone strike operations against terrorist groups that’ve been operating there. And a lot of senior figures within al-Qaeda and affiliated groups have been killed. Now the problem is that leads to collateral damage; civilians have also been killed. But the argument is that if the Pakistani military doesn’t want to dismantle these groups themselves, then the US needs to look at alternatives. The simplest solution would be for the Pakistani military to address the situation themselves. Then you don’t need to worry about outside interference or dropping bombs with innocent people being caught in the middle.
JG: 16 years, around $1 trillion – how much longer do you think this mission will take?
SG: It’s impossible to quantify how long this is going to take. You need to have consistency. The strategy in Afghanistan was working from 9/11 to 2003; only two years, and then it changed completely. We have not had more than two years – ever – of consistent policy in Afghanistan. So I would humbly request that we have three years of consistent policy, which works within the timeframe of one administration where there has yet to be a consistent policy. And that’s what’s required. Try for three years – consistently – I keep using that word deliberately, and then let’s reassess it.
JG: People like John McCain have been mocked for suggesting we could be there for 100 years, that Afghanistan could turn into another Germany or Japan or South Korea where we just have large numbers of residual forces stationed there. Is that a realistic possibility in your mind?
SG: I don’t think it’s desirable to be in any country as an occupying presence for 100 years or 50 years. It’s more a question of necessity of being there, because it impacts on the West directly if terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan. But also, it’s the Afghan people – what do they want? They are petrified of the West leaving, because of the alternative, as in the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Many of them remember what it was like living under the Taliban’s repression in the 1990s. If the US was to be based in Libya or to have a visible footprint in Iraq, that would be very unpopular and not something I’d endorse or advise. Afghanistan is different and that’s the thing we should always remember; we should not lump these conflicts into one size fits all. They are all different. Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan, want help and assistance. They don’t want us to be there forever. They have pride, and they want to develop their country by themselves, but they need to be given a starting point and they haven’t been given one despite that we’ve been there for 16 years. It has never developed the way it needs to. So we need to be there for the foreseeable future, but I don’t think it’s beneficial to be there beyond a certain point as long as the situation can be resolved on the ground.
JG: What does success look like? I mentioned that the government only controls 64 percent of the country, that they have a very high casualty rate, there’s constant conflict, civilian casualties. What does success look like for the Afghans?
SG: Success would be that they control their entire country. It’s not a base for the Taliban or for terrorist groups. Success would also be that they are able to implement educational reforms, civil society development, bringing institutions to the people where they can develop their own livelihoods, and that they aren’t in fear that if they walk out of their house, there’s going to be a suicide bombing. I think that is an important metric for assessment.
JG: Last question: what is something that the public should know about Afghanistan and the conflict?
SG: That Afghanistan has been let down for many years. We have not helped them in a meaningful way or a sustained way. This is not about being an occupying power. This is not about using the country to take its resources. It’s about given them an opportunity to develop and grow. And as I was mentioning earlier, Afghans are very proud people. They want to develop their country. Let’s give them the tools to do it. And let’s have a sustained and consistent policy where we can help them. They can be a great ally and friend to the West in the future. They don’t want terrorists in their country. They fear the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the affiliate Wilayat Khorasan. So it’s in our interests to help them, but it’s also the right thing to do beyond all of that. Because beyond all the mess attached to defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan and the funding that went toward doing that, and the fallout that’s taken place subsequently, we need to redress that. If we don’t, again, history repeats itself. Terrorist groups could set up shop there again. And do we come back? Do we have to have this discussion in the future? I hope we don’t keep talking about the length of time we have to be there. I hope eventually we can start talking about how we helped Afghanistan become a prosperous neighbor free of outside interference.