War-weary Afghans continue to long for peace amid a deadly and resurgent insurgency 17 years since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, the longest war by the U.S. claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and costing trillions of dollars.
Many observers in Afghanistan see the resent U.S. push for a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict with the Taliban in clear contrast to the essence of the OEF. Others see it as a realization by the Americans of the bitter truth in the country marred by decades of armed conflict.
Exactly 17 years ago, American and British forces began aerial bombing in Afghanistan against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda positions after the 9/11 attacks in New York that killed close to 3,000 people, according to think tank Global Security.
Within months of the OEF, the U.S. and local allied forces of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan managed to topple the Taliban regime, but they later emerged as a resilient guerrilla group staging deadly coordinated assaults, suicide bombings and inside attacks on the U.S, the NATO and Afghan forces in all corners of the country till date.
A staunch critic of many military tactics and strategies adopted by the U.S. in the country, Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhail, former chief of the Afghan Air Force, told Anadolu Agency things could have been different had the U.S. adopted a more reasonable approach. “The Taliban had quit when their regime was toppled, they announced to have nothing to do with the state affairs anymore, many of their leaders went into exile and the foot soldiers went home, mostly to Kandahar and other provinces, but the local elements supported by the U.S. went after them in their homes, villages, caused killings of civilians, which resulted in resentment that got support from the neighboring countries and resulted in rebellion.”
Based on U.S. estimates, this war is costing a whopping $45 billion per year. Randall Schriver, U.S. Defense Department’s top Asia official, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year the $45 billion total for the year includes $5 billion for Afghan forces and $13 billion for U.S. forces inside Afghanistan. The rest is for logistic support. He said back then these expenditures were around $100 billion prior to the end of combat mission in 2014 when the U.S. had as many as 100,000 soldiers in the country.
More than 3,500 U.S. and allied forces members were killed in this period, according to iCasualties, formally the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent website tracking casualties in the Afghanistan War and Iraq War.
– Afghan casualties higher
The casualties among the Afghans – rebels, civilians and government forces included – are much higher.
Moderate estimates suggest some 217,000 Afghans have died as a direct result of the fighting while millions are forced into exile. Latest figures released today by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) show continuing record high casualty rates being inflicted on the Afghan civilian population by the warring parties. Covering the period of Jan. 1 to June 30, 2018 findings include the killing of more civilians in the first six months of this year – 1,692 deaths – than at any comparable time over the last ten years since records have been kept.
The Taliban, on the occasion of the anniversary of the OEF, renewed their call for the ‘occupying forces’ to leave the country. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [Taliban’s shadow government] severely condemns the ‘brutal invasion’ of American and their allied forces and its continuance by reminding the foreign ‘occupiers’ on the eve of 17th Anniversary of their brutal invasion’ to withdraw their forces from our homeland by ending their ‘occupation’ and ceasing further bloodshed of innocent Afghans by their ‘abominable’ presence, by leaving the Afghans to decide about their country and future themselves…This is the only sound and rational way reiterated by the Islamic Emirate for as a realistic and factual solution of the issue,” read the statement issued by the group on Sunday.
Amarkhail believes the rebels as well as other individual warlords are now getting support from Iran and Russia as well, a charge Moscow and Tehran have denied. “They [rebels] would continue to pose threats as long as they have sanctuaries and support from Pakistan,” he added. Islamabad, too, dismisses such allegations.
Officially, the OEF was concluded by former U.S. President, Barack Obama, at the end of 2014. His successor, President Donald Trump later revived the combat mission with his new South Asia policy with some modification, and special focus on aerial offensives, transforming the OEF into a continuing full-fledged war with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, Col. Knut Peters, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support, told Anadolu Agency the OEF was a milestone in demonstrating the world’s commitment to fight international terrorists in Afghanistan. “Today, 41 nations, including Turkey, consider Afghanistan important enough to commit their sons and daughters there. The overall purpose remains the same, to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a terrorist safe haven where globally connected terrorists can plan, inspire or conduct attacks against our countries.”
The Afghan government under President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has hailed the new U.S. policy particularly effective in terms of forcing the rebels to enter the peace process. Ghani offered two unprecedented conditional cease-fires to the Taliban this year, but only one was reciprocated by the rebels.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Jawed Ghafoor, told Anadolu Agency the nascent Afghan forces need aid, support and training from friends and allies to confront the global terrorism on the frontline. “Our historic army vanished following the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s, now our emerging security and defense forces are proving their courage and determination in the face of international terrorism with up to 20 terrorist groups aiming to destabilize the country, we still need the training, support and assistance from friends and allies.”
As the newly appointed U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, tours the region, including Pakistan, the Afghan officials see it as a new lease for life for the peace process. Syed Ehsani Tahiri, told local Tolo News Khalilzad’s engagements during his trips to a number of capitals in connection with the push for truce are well-coordinated with the Kabul government.
On the part of the U.S., there is an evident push for negotiations with the Taliban. “Taliban are Afghans and key players in an Afghan solution involving political reconciliation and realignment. The Taliban must realize their violence is counter to this cause and until they understand this, our Afghan partners will fight them. The Taliban is not a direct threat to our home countries; the instability they create by fighting produces safe havens is. The coalition will help to facilitate an Afghan solution which removes the terror threat. Our common enemies are international terrorists,” Peters told Anadolu Agency.