Afghanistan Still Hasn’t Recovered from the Soviet Invasion

Afghan Local Policeman Abdul Salaam provides security along the edge of a compound in Loya Darvishan, Afghanistan. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps

The basics of the conflict have barely changed in decades.

In mid-July, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford relayed to the media cautious optimism regarding the war effort in Afghanistan. Afghan security forces—reeling from a bloody 2015 fighting season, which witnessed the first collapse of a major population center since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001—appear to be making slow and steady progress on the battlefield, a rare piece of positive news emanating from the war-torn region.

A multitude of factors are showing encouraging signs for the fledgling Afghan military. Afghan security forces are applying lessons learned to last year’s harrowing fighting season by reducing static checkpoints and pushing for more offensive operations. Prioritizing strategic terrain and pulling back forces from less populated regions, such as the withdrawal from Nowzad, has ushered in new offensive capabilities and strengths for Afghan security forces.

New technologies, to include a fixed-wing close air support platform—the A-29 Super Tucano—and the employment of surveillance drones, has bolstered the capabilities of Afghan forces and improved morale of fighting forces on the ground. President Obama approved new rules of engagement for U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan under the train, advise and assist Resolute Support mission, to assist their fellow host-nation forces in targeting the Taliban.

All of these steady improvements appear to be showing signs of relative success, as the number of attacks in the country has decreased and Afghan forces continue to conduct offensive combat operations to root out the Taliban.

Though the tactical improvements on the ground should be praised, they underscore a major issue regarding coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan: our nearsighted focus on military operations, and not on the political developments that are necessary for lasting peace and stability in the region. After fifteen years of war, the major social, economic and political dynamics that exacerbate tensions in the mountainous country are still very much prevalent in the country, and risk a relapse into the chaotic period that preceded the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Despite rhetoric emanating from the twenty-four-hour media cycle, the basic fundamentals of Afghanistan’s conflict have changed little since the rise of the Taliban in 1994. After the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989 and the ending of financial assistance in 1992, Afghanistan descended into financial oblivion. The very foundation of Afghanistan’s economic system and livelihood prior to the Soviet Union’s intervention was primarily dependent on muscle labor and rural subsistence farming. The subsequent invasion wrecked a system of living that had endured for centuries, and was replaced with a war economy dependent on foreign aid, monetization and the displacement of rural societies into urban environments—groups that would eventually become dependent on state assistance and welfare.

The destruction of Afghanistan’s social fabric during the Soviet occupation, and the displacement of rural societies, would eventually breed resentment and fundamentalist groups throughout the country. The 1992 ending of financial aid was the culminating spark that would light the fire that gave rise to the Taliban. As financial aid ended, and the Najibullah government no longer became the flag bearer of welfare disbursement, Afghanistan descended into a period of warlordism, with an economy centered on the black-market smuggling of precious gems, minerals and drugs.

Enter the modern era, under the Ghani administration: one can see the parallels between the ending of the Soviet era in Afghanistan and today’s steady withdrawal of NATO. Despite battlefield successes, and a sizeable and capable Afghan Army, the basic issues that brought rise to the warlord period in Afghanistan are still alive and visible today.

Afghanistan is still highly dependent on financial aid that is steadily decreasing. Coupled with increased security issues and a resurgent Taliban, Afghanistan is seeing a massive flight of capital and dwindling in investments in the country.

Afghanistan’s endemic corruption issues are also a major issue of contention within Afghan society and the central government. To continue to receive international financial assistance from the international government, Afghanistan is required to meet various standards as set forth in the 2012 Tokyo Conference. The Ashraf Ghani administration has made corruption a central tenet, but despite pledges by the National Unity Government (NUG) under Ghani and his Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan was downgraded in 2015 by Transparency International’s corruption index.