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Afghanistan: Chronicle of a defeat foretold
Laurent Saillard

Following the fall of the Taliban, the war appeared to be practically won. Eight years later, the spectre of defeat looms large. How has this happened? Between false premises and the devastating effects of certain tactical decisions, Afghanistan is currently on the edge of the abyss, moving closer and closer to another civil war.

In his treatise on war, Carl Von Clausewitz wrote: “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means”. Even though this definition is applicable to conventional wars like the ones which took place in Europe during the19th and 20th centuries, wars like the one currently raging in Afghanistan, one of the principle theatres of the Global War on Terrorism or, as it is now known, Counter Insurgency (COIN), appear to obey a different set of rules. Rather than serving a precise political agenda, these wars create only a persistent vacuum, which leads only to disillusionment, rejection and the spectre of a serious political defeat for the West and its belief in the universal nature of its values.

Following the attacks of September 11 2001, the whole world seemed to approve of the USA’s military intervention and its crusade against terrorism, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The vast majority of the Afghan population welcomed the foreign armed forces with open arms, seeing them as liberators. Very quickly, all that was left of the Taliban was a small band of diehards in disarray, who took refuge deep in the tribal zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2002, only 10% of the Afghan territory was affected by fighting and victory seemed imminent.

Eight years on, the international military contingent, made up of around 100 000 men from 41 different countries, is still fighting in Afghanistan. Despite its undeniable technological superiority, it has faltered and is slowly heading towards what looks more and more like political, if not military, defeat. Such a statement may seem peremptory, but the evidence is there, terrible and difficult as this may be to admit. After eight years of fighting, not only has the opposition army not been defeated or destroyed, it has gained ground to such an extent that it now poses a serious threat over more than 60% of the country, perturbs economic development, defies governmental authority and inflicts losses on the Afghan and international forces on a daily basis. There appears to be so little hope for the future that a great number of Afghans are now trying to leave their country by any means possible. Disillusion is so great that many Afghans look back fondly on the Soviet era. How did the countries of the West, with all their strategic advantages, manage to mess things up so badly?