British combat operations in Afghanistan have ended after 13 years of struggle against the Taliban. With the US also in withdrawal mode, the onus is now firmly on the Afghan security forces to try and implement a degree of stability in this desperately troubled country. Unfortunately, in a nation which has constantly been subjected to foreign intervention and internal strife, recent history suggests that the prospects for enduring peace are slim.
The last major withdrawal by an international power from Afghanistan was when the Soviet Union conceded a stalemate against the Mujahideen after a decade of conflict and departed in 1989. Of course, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is somewhat different from the US-led intervention in 2001, yet there are some undoubted similarities. A foreign state fought an indigenous movement for control of the country, with a plethora of warlords, ethnic militias and rival factions aligning and re-aligning themselves between the two main players.
Ultimately, the Soviet withdrawal paved the way for the Afghan Civil War and the eventual seizure of power by the Taliban in 1996. It is certain that the initial Soviet invasion created the conditions for the rise of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and their presence in the country was anything but stabilizing. Their withdrawal then precipitated the rapid rise of these extremists, who sidelined the more moderate leaders of the Mujahideen and their supporters.
It did not take long for American and British forces to overthrow the Taliban government in 2001, yet eradicating this terror-loving group has proven to be a monumentally difficult task. Despite being ousted from large parts of the country, with much of its leadership eliminated, the Taliban continues to wage an insurgency. The Afghan security forces will find this increasingly hard to resist when American combat operations cease.
Despite some excellent achievements and phenomenal sacrifices, the international intervention in Afghanistan has fallen short of complete success. Unless a significant number of American troops are retained in the country for the long-term, then the Taliban will regain control of much of the country. This is partly as a result of their ability to exploit the ethnic and regional divisions of the Afghan people. Mainly, however, it is due to the fact that it has always been able to count on sanctuary in Pakistan.
Northwest Pakistan is a lawless wasteland beyond the reach of Islamabad. American drone strikes have claimed the lives of countless Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives and leaders in the region. Yet the support from the tribal elders who control much of the territory in places like North Waziristan has allowed Islamic extremists to launch cross-border raids against Afghanistan on a regular basis.
With an ineffective Pakistani political class – which has long remained subject to the desires of the military and ISI, whose support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is barely disguised – the international coalition has been unable to deliver the death knell for the Taliban.
Put simply, it is not just Afghanistan itself but its geo-political environment that is irreparably compromised. It seems an almost impossible situation to solve and the best the Afghan people can hope for is for it to be managed effectively enough to deliver a semblance of peace.
Without British and American troops, and the sacrifices they have been willing to make, this will not be possible.