October 27th 2014 - Camp Bastion was handed over by Coalition forces to the Afghan National Army. Combat operations by UK, US and associated International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) have ended. Afghanistan is now responsible for its own security.
13 years of war; almost three and a half thousand ISAF forces killed (overwhelmingly from the United States and United Kingdom); billions spent in security and development assistance. What is the result?
Over the past week, several newspaper reports have focused on the fact that large proportions of the population of the two countries who gave most to the Afghan campaign, the US and UK, believe either that the conflict has made their country less safe, or that the Afghan government is not able to protect its own citizens, or that the war was not worth the cost incurred.
There are obvious limits to the usefulness of polling people on complex questions of foreign policy. So much comes into judging the Afghan campaign that it is incredibly hard for someone with only a cursory understanding of military affairs and geopolitics to form an informed view. The view held by so many in the public, however, that either Western countries or Afghanistan are less safe today than they were, or would have been better off but for our intervention, is demonstrably false.
To address whether or not the war in Afghanistan was worth it one must consider three things.
First, did the Coalition invade Afghanistan for legitimate reasons and behave in a legal and moral manner in carrying out its mission?
Second, have conditions improved in Afghanistan in terms of security, education, economic development and quality of life since ISAF was created and the post-invasion period began?
Third, was ISAF successful in ending Afghanistan as a safe-haven for terrorists that threaten the West, thus making Western countries safer?
On all three measures the Afghan campaign has been a success.
The invasion of Afghanistan by Coalition forces in October 2001 was an assertion of the collective right to self-defense after the grotesque terrorist attacks committed against the United States by Al Qaeda on 9/11. That self-defense, guaranteed under Article 51 of the UN Charter, was targeted at both Al Qaeda and those who supported and hosted them (the Taliban) and was recognized in UN Security Council Resolutions both before and after the invasion (UNSCR 1368, 1378, 1383).
Post-invasion, the Coalition was reorganised under the internationally recognised flag of ISAF (with NATO playing a lead role) which took primary responsibility for security while supporting the development of a national Afghan government.
Instead of simply packing up the military cargo and shipping out of Afghanistan once the Taliban had been routed, Al Qaeda displaced and the country turned upside down, the Coalition decided to remain and help to build a functioning and inclusive state somewhere it had never existed before.
Many commentators suggest that it is the nation-building in Afghanistan that the real disaster began. Unfortunately for those who advance that argument – but very fortunately for the people of Afghanistan – it is utterly unsubstantiated by evidence.
Before the Western intervention in Afghanistan, calling the police or army meant calling the Taliban. A ‘ragtag’ bunch of religious fanatics who drove around in old abandoned Soviet trucks touting AK-47s. Today Afghanistan has over 300,000 soldiers and police officers. Although they are naturally not as well trained, disciplined or equipped as the ISAF troops they are replacing, they represent a backbone to the Afghan state that will seek to combat the Taliban insurgency.
When Western forces cleared out the Taliban, Afghanistan was one of the poorest places on earth with a GDP per capita just over $100. Today it is six times higher. Education was a pipedream for most Afghan children pre-2001, particularly girls who were forbidden from going to school. Almost 50% of Afghan girls go to school now, and over 60% of boys. Other indicators including life expectancy (up 10 years despite the ongoing fighting), number living in extreme poverty, hope for the future of the country and various health aspects have all improved.
By any economic, health-related or educational standard, Afghanistan is a much better place today than it was under Taliban rule. Furthermore, to suggest that such a transformation of society would have been even possible – let alone likely – had the Taliban been left in charge is absurd. The progress that has been made is a testament to the sacrifices made by Afghans and Western partners in combating the religious fanaticism of the Taliban.
The final measure for the conflict from a Western perspective must be to ask whether Afghanistan is still a safe-haven for terrorists who threaten global security. The answer is emphatically that it is not. While some of the groups have morphed and moved, using Pakistan or Iraq as their bases now, what is absolutely evident is that Afghanistan is no longer the open-source base for anti-Western terrorism that it was before the invasion.
For those who argue that extremist Islamic terrorism is a product of deprivation, exclusion and oppression, modern-day Afghanistan is less likely to produce terrorism than it was under the Taliban, considering that there is far more education, considerably less poverty and a much more open political culture.
On the other hand, those that believe Islamist ideology of a global jihadist nature is caused by religious fascism rather than injustice, the new Afghanistan is nonetheless better equipped to combat such an ideology thanks to the socio-economic advances brought about by the invasion.
Economists tell us Afghanistan is richer.
Health experts tell us Afghans live longer.
Human rights activists tell us Afghanistan is more democratic, and that Afghans have more human rights.
The UN demonstrates to us that Afghans are better educated.
Yet people consider this mission a failure.
The only failure here is the lack of gratitude given to the sacrifices made by ISAF soldiers, and the decision not to acknowledge the strong willpower demonstrated by political leaders who stood by an intervention long after it had become unpopular.
Afghanistan today is a long way from perfect. It is however a much better place for Western intervention. What other measure could exist for whether or not the campaign was worth it? The question that the West should really be asking itself is whether or not it should be leaving Afghanistan at all.
By Philip A. Gardner