Fifteen Years After 9/11, Afghanistan Finds Itself at a Major Crossroads

Afghanistan Forces tackle Taliban
An Afghan security worker keeps watch during an operation against Taliban militants in the Zakhil Khoman area of Kunduz, September 27. Bashir Khan Safi/AFP/Getty Images

Fifteen years after the post-9/11 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the country stands at a critical crossroads. While fragile gains have been made since the fall of the Taliban regime, the nation faces a daunting array of security, political, and economic risks, despite the fact that over a £100 billion has been spent by Washington alone in the country.

The biggest challenge, exacerbating all other problems, is the country’s internal security situation with insurgency from Taliban militants having spread to 31 of 34 provinces. Since 2009 alone, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has recorded 23,000 conflict-related deaths and 41,000 injuries, with some 70 percent of people living in major cities residing in makeshift camps, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In the midst of this chaos, many Afghans are leaving the country. In 2015, alone, more than a quarter of a million refugees and migrants arriving in Europe were from the country, second only behind Syrians, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

U.S. military officials, who remain engaged in what has become Washington’s longest military intervention since Vietnam, with previous support from countries ranging from the United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea, to Australia, recently asserted that the balance between the Taliban and Afghan-government led forces is effectively a “stalemate.” This despite the foreign military losses by the end of 2014 that amounted to 3,500 killed and 33,000 wounded with U.S. personnel accounting for the majority of these casualties.

The continuing foreign force presence includes around 8,500 U.S. military personnel and, while most NATO troops left in 2014, Washington will keep these officers in the country through at least the end of 2017. The international force remains vital for ensuring training and cohesion for the approximately 350,000-strong Afghan police and military personnel (which have day-to-day responsibility for security in the country) that may otherwise disintegrate.

Fears have been raised repeatedly that the current foreign force (now less than a 15th of the maximum 150,000-strong combat presence) is not big enough. U.S. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former 2008 Republican presidential candidate, has for instance said that the international drawdown has left the country vulnerable to an upsurge in Taliban violence.

Hence, the reason why another priority of the Afghan government has been advancing the currently-stalled reconciliation and peace talks with the Taliban, a process where influence of neighboring powers—especially Pakistan—could be key in facilitating any eventual deal. While any agreement looks a long way off, the government did secure a similar deal with the armed opposition group of the Hezb-i-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on September 29.

On the economic front, the news is not good either, despite the massive amount of foreign aid committed to the country, including a fresh $15.2 billion pledged last month by the international community for the next four years. Reconstruction has been slow, unemployment remains above 40 percent, and well over 1 million Afghans are internally displaced in the country, with a further 3 million refugees believed to be in Pakistan and Iran.

While it is estimated that Washington has spent around $110 billion on Afghan reconstruction since 2001, more than the cost of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War, this has not been optimally spent. It is reported, for instance, that around 80 percent of monies have been given to U.S. organizations in the form of military/security and maintenance contracts and consultancy projects.

It is also clear that, after 2001, the economy has not been diversified enough from drug exports such as opium and heroin, despite the fact that the country has abundant natural resources, gas, minerals and oil with an estimated value of some $3 trillion. A related problem is corruption, with Transparency International ranking Afghanistan as the third most corrupt state in the world.   

In the midst of this difficult, and sometimes deteriorating picture, there does remain cause for optimism, not least because numerous fragile gains remain in place from the unseating of the Taliban regime in 2001. One success in the regard is the country’s fledgling democracy, which faces its latest test Saturday with the parliamentary elections for the House of People.

Despite the problems afflicting the country, national unity government has survived more than two years after a landmark power-sharing agreement was reached in 2014 between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister. This followed a disputed presidential ballot between Ghani and Abdullah when up to 1 million votes were thrown out for fraud.

The creation of the national unity government, and the election of Ghani, represented the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. While there have been significant tensions between him and Abdullah, that could yet explode in the next presidential election, the fact that the national unity government has not collapsed has helped consolidate the power and legitimacy of the new post-Taliban political system.

Other gains include Afghanistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization and wider moves to revive economic links with the outside world, including the modern Silk Road, a new rail route connecting the country to China and Central Asia, and an electricity grid project across Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, there are greater number of children (especially girls) enrolled at schools—reportedly some 10 million; greater recognition of women’s rights; and spread of technologies such as the internet and cell phones across the country.

Taken overall, the country is facing into a major crossroads 15 years after the U.S. invasion.  While fragile gains have been secured since the fall of the Taliban regime, there is a prospect of significantly greater political, security and economic instability if the reconciliation process with the Taliban cannot be advanced.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.