Afghanistan: How to define failure

The recent report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is bad news for those who believe in a military solution to the conflict. The report offers further evidence that the U.S.-led counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan has been unable to defeat or weaken the Taliban.

For the year 2013, the United Nations has reported an 11% increase in violent attacks and security incidents during the summer months, and a 14% increase in civilian casualties for the year as a whole. The U.S. military claims lowers numbers, but most analysts consider the UN figures more reliable. Unpublished assessments estimate a 15-to-20% increase in violent attacks for 2013, according to the ICG.

Violence appears to have escalated in the early months of 2014 as well. An Oxfam statement, quoted by ICG, reports “clear signs that armed opposition groups have gained ground in rural areas where security responsibilities have been transferred to the [Afghan security forces]. …  Security has deteriorated in some provinces and areas that were previously considered safe.”

Whatever the exact numbers, the trends show continued and probably increased levels of violent insurgency in Afghanistan. Little or no success has been achieved in suppressing what General David Petraeus described in 2011 as “an industrial strength insurgency.”

This after 13 years of U.S. and allied military effort, including the ‘surge’ of American forces under the Obama administration that brought U.S. troop levels to 100,000. This after the buildup of Afghan security forces to an estimated 345,000 troops by January of this year. This after estimated U.S. expenditures in Afghanistan of $641 billion through fiscal year 2013. This after tens of thousands of soldiers, insurgents and civilians have lost their lives.

After all that cost and effort, the Taliban is stronger than ever, and insecurity reigns through much of Afghanistan. That’s how you define failure.

Reflections on the 10th anniversary

I’ve been invited to The Hague this week by the International Center on Counter-Terrorism for the presentation “Reflecting on the Effects of Counter-Terrorism Measures since 9/11: A Civil Society Perspective.” My talk focuses on the erosion of political freedom and human rights in many parts of the world resulting from repressive counter-terrorism measures.

It feels strange to be here in Europe during such a traumatic week in the U.S. The constant commemorations are reminding us of that terrifying time, what we were doing when the planes hit, how we responded to the horror of so many lives lost.

In that time of foreboding ten years ago, many of us felt a double fear—from the menacing threat of al Qaida’s murderous attacks, but also from the risk of an overly militarized reaction from the U.S. government. Our fears were sharpened soon after the attacks when President Bush declared a ‘global war on terror.’

During that time of fear I worked with friends in the religious community, Reverends Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, to help craft a statement appealing for “sober restraint” and warning against indiscriminate retaliation that would cause more loss of innocent life. The proper response to the criminal attacks of al Qaida, the statement argued, is not war, but vigorous international police efforts to apprehend perpetrators and prevent future attacks. “Let us deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image,” the declaration read. It was eventually signed by more than 4,000 people and published in The New York Times on November 19, 2001.

Ten years later that message remains relevant and necessary. The ill-fated military occupation of Iraq is finally coming to an end, but American troops continue to fight and die in Afghanistan, and U.S. forces are launching a dozen or more drone bombing strikes and commando raids every day in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries.  Civilian deaths in Afghanistan are at their highest level since the UN began reporting such figures, and many are dying under our bombs in Pakistan as well. More innocent lives are lost, and more seeds of revenge and future armed conflict are sown.

When will we learn that war is not the answer? That policies of civilian law enforcement and conflict transformation offer a better strategy for preventing violent extremism?