Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is a CNN Senior International Correspondent who has reported from Afghanistan frequently over the last 10 years.
Afghan forces, battling the Taliban, pulled out of some parts of Helmand this week
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh examines why the war has taken such a human and financial toll, for little apparent gain
It is worse in Afghanistan now than I ever could have imagined. And I was a pessimist.
Fatigue was always going to be the decider. Western fatigue with the horrors their troops saw, and with the violence inflicted daily on Afghans themselves. The fatigue of the financial cost, where a power station that was barely ever switched on cost Uncle Sam a third of a billion dollars.
And the other fatigue – the one felt by the Taliban – mostly distinguished by its absence; they felt only the tirelessness of their cause.
Sometimes the occasional jolt reminds the world that the war is still ongoing. The conflict, begun initially to oust the Taliban that sheltered al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., has cost the lives of more than 3,500 Coalition service members and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.
This week, Afghan troops, after months of fury at poor supplies and low morale, fell back from two vital positions in the volatile Helmand province. It leaves Lashkar Gah and Sangin as the major strongholds the government still holds, and a sense of foreboding that the opium-rich southern region will eventually entirely belong to the Taliban.
The war also moved back into focus three weeks ago with the death of Wasil Ahmad. Wasil learned firearms and commanded a unit of anti-Taliban fighters briefly, before Taliban gunmen on a motorbike mowed him down as he bought food for his mother and siblings. Wasil was just 11 years old.
Before the Coalition came
Known as the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan has a reputation for humiliating would-be conquerors. Both the Soviets, in the 1980s, and the British, during the 19th century, were forced to beat bloody retreats from Afghanistan, deprived of what looked, on paper, to be easy victories.
Time has changed the definition of what people nowadays call an “empire,” but not this perception. The U.S. military liked to feel wise as they repeated the maxim that they had the “fancy watch, but the Taliban had the time.” In truth, the American watch ran out of batteries, leaving the Taliban owning both the aphorism and the clock.
The rise of the Taliban before 9/11 owed much to the country’s ethnic divides. In the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Pashtun forces swept in from the south, towards the capital Kabul, and pushed the Tajiks back to the north.
The U.S. special forces harnessed the losing side in that civil war, and other purchasable warlords, to oust the Taliban from Kabul. There they installed the smooth and charismatic Hamid Karzai as president, who battled through the country’s myriad complexities to bring it together. Bin Laden was on the run; so was the Taliban, some of them hiding in Pakistan. For a little while.
Time passed. The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. The Taliban found its feet again. The U.S. began to get mired in Iraq. The insurgency picked up. The Afghan government started losing ground. By 2008, it was a full-on emergency and the U.S. realized – even from the liberal anti-war perch of President Barack Obama – that this was the “just war” that it must fight.
And then, the war ramped up
For about three years, there was intense focus. First came the surge. Up to 100,000 U.S. troops (as part of a NATO force) at one point, pressing into the darkest Taliban valleys. Holding ground – spending millions every month to maintain a presence in tiny dusty villages in faraway places like Kandahar to show the insurgency the U.S. had the resolve.
But it was never going to last. In fact, that was always an advertised part of the plan: the U.S. and NATO would hold the land for a few years – until they thought the Afghan troops were ready – and then they would pull out. The Taliban had to hope the Afghans wouldn’t be ready, and just wait. It seems they did.