On the 5th October, U.S president Donald Trump announced plans to send a further 4000 troops to Afghanistan, thus pushing the total number deployed to 15,000 men and women. He also scrapped rules limiting American engagement of the enemy and gave new powers to his defence secretary, General James “Mad-dog” Mattis. The move reflects a transition of the American ‘Taliban bashing’ strategy, from expensive nation building to the use of sheer military might.
Morally speaking, to bring everything possessed by the American arsenal raining down on the Taliban is the right thing to do. Since the drop in American troop numbers in 2014, units of Afghan troops have performed miserably. Taliban insurgents have practically strolled down from the hills, scattering the Afghan National Army (ANA) like headless chickens. More Western boots on the ground (especially on the frontline), coupled with ramped up airstrikes promises a more effective campaign against the enemy, and there is no denying that a halt of the Taliban advance would be a great thing.
Stopping the insurgents would prevent the re-emergence of the Islamic Emirate which the Taliban proclaimed in the late 1990s, and which offered sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and other fanatical enemies of the West. The Emirate subjected its people to a medieval conception of Islamic government, whilst expanding its frontiers through a frenzied Jihad. It was the first incarnation of the 21st century caliphate and provided radical inspiration to thousands of young disenchanted Muslims across the globe. Public executions, lashings, and a claustrophobic moral code were features of this attempted Muhammadian theocracy. To see this Emirate rise again would be a disaster for Afghanistan and the world, and an apocalyptic conclusion to the project for which so many have lost their lives.
So the moral case against the Taliban and for renewed military action in the country is clear. Yet, from a practical perspective it is clearer still that any foreign campaign in that inhospitable land is doomed to futility.
First and foremost, the Afghans are a fiercely independent martial people. Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, British, the Soviets, and NATO have all taken turns at conquering and pacifying them, and all have consecutively failed. The Afghans are masters of the mountainous terrain and the unforgiving elements which torment it. For them, war is a part of existence, and the powerful commitment to the future of their kin lends them the patience to wait years, even decades, to strike when the time is right. They are also ruthless by nature. In 1842, when the British were besieged in Kabul, the Afghan prince Wazir Akbar Khan promised the colonial troops safe passage back to Jalalabad. This promise was almost immediately reneged, and the 16,000 strong column was massacred in the infamous Khyber Pass. Just one man survived. It is this cold-heartedness and maniacal determination that makes any Afghan campaign for any invading army so bloody and long.
Moreover, even if a renewed Western effort in Afghanistan did well, truly crushed the Taliban and removed every last fighter and resource which they possessed, countries like Pakistan will let more militants in almost immediately. Indeed, the Taliban is in many ways a Pakistani creation. In the early days, the vast majority of insurgents were Afghan orphans living as refugees in Pakistan, who received an education at extreme Islamic schools in Peshawar. “Taliban”, after all, means “students”. The Pakistani military was, and still is, happy to turn a blind eye to this relationship, as an Afghanistan in some way indebted to them, or one that is plagued with anarchy can be swung into so as to outflank an invasion from India. So, as long as Peshawar remains a bubbling cauldron of Islamist radicalism with the army happy to let it stew, the Taliban will just re-infiltrate Afghanistan even if their predecessors were totally annihilated. The Islamist mentality which obscures a fear of death makes this even more likely.
For these reasons, America should abandon her project in Afghanistan. A ramped up military campaign is appealing, satisfying, and will probably deliver some fruit. But history suggests that the human toll will be devastating, and the achievements short lived. Whether they melt back into the mountains or regenerate in Pakistan, the Taliban will never be defeated, and America will never win the war.
by Neelam Shah / third-placed winner of the LSESU Poetry Society’s Summer Competition Hope One Day I hope one day there will be end to