By YANA ZLOCHISTAYA
Junior Copy Editor
When President Obama announced on January 11 that coalition forces in Afghanistan would be stepping into a “support role” this spring, several months ahead of schedule, people all over America let out a collective “Huh?”
Though this has become the longest war in the history of the country, most Americans have, at best, a hazy understanding of what is really going on. Even the basic facts are unclear: A poll conducted by ABC shows that 42 percent of Americans think that the United States is winning the war in Afghanistan, while 36 percent think that we are losing.
This is partially the media’s fault, which tends to favor sensationalism over complexity, and partially the result of decades of ambiguous foreign policy that is bound to make anyone’s head spin. So, for those of us who need a bit of a refresher when it comes to international relations in general and Afghanistan in particular, here’s a little rundown on why we went to war, what took so long, and why now is the time to leave.
America’s involvement in Afghanistan really begins in the late 70s, when the Soviet Union sent in troops to preserve the country’s communist leadership. The US, displeased by the Soviets’ efforts to gain influence in that part of the world, began to provide millions of dollars worth of aid to the Mujahideen, a resistance group fighting Soviet intervention.
As a result, the communist leadership was ousted and, in 1988, the Soviet forces pulled out from the region, leaving serious political unrest in their wake. After a bloody civil war, the power gap was filled by the Taliban, an extremist Muslim group that governed based on Sharia law, which bans women from the work force and encourages punishment such as stoning and amputations. Among other things, the Taliban government provided refuge to the leader of another Muslim extremist—Osama Bin Laden, founder of Al-Queda.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the US turned to the Afghan government to capture Bin Laden and send him to the US for trial. The Taliban refused, denying any connection to Al-Queda or any knowledge of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The United States, however, had overwhelming proof that Afghan leadership was purposely sheltering the terrorist leader, and, as a result, pledged to remove the Taliban from power.
A month after the attacks, the US began an air raid of the country, followed shortly by ground assaults led by US and NATO troops. Later that year, Afghan officials met with UN representatives and chose Hamid Karzai to lead the interim post-Taliban government. Karzai remains in power to this day, but plans to step down in 2014.
The next 12 years have been dedicated to diminishing Taliban influence within the country, a process that is made more difficult by the group’s popularity in many regions, as well as by the ineffectiveness of traditional army techniques in the face of the Taliban’s guerilla tactics.
Furthermore, America has been afraid that if our troops leave too soon, the political instability would lead to another power grab by the Taliban or other extremist groups. The hope is that when the time comes for US soldiers to withdraw, the Afghani military forces will be sufficiently trained to maintain internal stability without foreign support.
Meanwhile, many Americans remain oblivious to the terrible consequences of this conflict. Since 2001, over two thousand US soldiers and about 16 thousand civilians have died in the war, with the annual mortality rates rising rapidly from year to year. Furthermore, data from the Afghan Ministry of Public Health indicates that about two thirds of the native population suffers from mental health problems while, according to the CIA, the average life expectancy in the country is 49 years.
In spite of these sobering statistics, President Obama has come to the conclusion that US goals in the region are “within reach” and plans full withdrawal by this time next year. And as we prepare to pack our bags and return home after 11 long, bloody years, it remains to be seen whether our good intentions have led to more harm than good in a historically war-torn region.