The main United States response to 9/11 was a "war on terror" that began with the termination of the Taliban regime and the dispersal of the al-Qaida movement in late 2001. It appeared to work in a matter of weeks, though almost immediately the George W Bush administration became fixated on Iraq, leaving the Europeans to pick up the pieces. The United Nations and other experts soon issued warnings that Afghanistan needed immediate aid to fill a security vacuum; too little was offered, though, and the new International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) lacked enough personnel to ensure security outside Kabul and a few towns.
This vacuum persisted until 2005 and was then slowly filled by the return of the Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs), leading to what amounted to Nato's reoccupation of the country. The Taliban was, if anything, energised by this; they saw the foreign troops as occupiers who in addition were keeping in power a corrupt and inefficient government.
By 2009, the incoming Barack Obama team had decided that the war was unwinnable, but drew the conclusion that the injection of a 30,000-strong "surge" of extra troops would create a position of strength and thus make possible a negotiated withdrawal. When this didn't work, the US decided instead on a timetabled withdrawal. Soon, Afghanistan was becoming almost as unpopular as the Iraq war had been.
By the end of 2013, nearly half of the remaining 100,000 troops will have left Afghanistan, and by the end of 2014 all regular combat-troops will be out. “Regular”, since the US's intention is that special forces and support-personnel for drones will remain, their role being to prevent any re-emergence of transnational jihadist elements (and perhaps also limit the extent of the Taliban's role in Afghanistan's post-occupation governance).
Behind the screen
The fundamental issue here is that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is being decided not by success in the war but by domestic politics, especially in the United States but also in Britain. This is not something talked about in polite circles; it follows that there has to be a single-minded propaganda offensive to convince people that the withdrawal is made possible only because there can now be an ordered handover to the Afghan security forces.
The reality, however, is highlighted by two themes in a new report from the UK House of Commons select committee on defence, Securing the Future of Afghanistan (10 April 2013). The first is that there is deeply conflicting evidence as to whether the Taliban are actually in retreat; the second is that the committee has faced great difficulty in trying to find out how Britain plans to aid Afghanistan after the withdrawal.
These points are well taken. It almost impossible to get an accurate picture of developments across the whole of Afghanistan, especially when western military sources produce a stream of stories about successes against the Taliban and about these forces' ability to hand over to the Afghan national army (ANA).
There is, though, much evidence of continuing conflict, especially in the south and east of the country. The recent examples include a bomb-attack against a United States convoy on 6 April that killed state-department officials, and a Nato air-raid in support of an ANA operation on 7 April which mistakenly killed many children.
It is probable that there genuinely has been some progress on issues like health and education in much of north and west Afghanistan. That is hugely welcome and comes at a time when Taliban/AOG activity in these areas is low, but it may well be that they are simply biding their time as the deadline for withdrawal approaches. After all, why fight an occupier who is already preparing to depart?
In much of south and east Afghanistan the Taliban/AOG combination is very much in evidence, and maintains control of significant territory. Moreover, there is huge corruption in and around government, with senior politicians and officials attempting to store as much as they can (and while they can) in foreign bank-accounts so that they will be able to relocate in Dubai and points west if chaos ensues after 2014.
In all this it is appropriate to remember what has happened in Iraq and even more in Libya, both of which (unlike Afghanistan) have huge oil resources. Iraq remains very insecure as the Nouri al-Maliki government remains determined to minimise the role of the Sunni minority, while working increasingly closely with the Iranians. His exclusion of the Sunnis is doing much to aid support for radical Islamist paramilitaries; these often embrace the al-Qaida outlook, and some are linking with the al-Nusra front in Syria in its fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Thus, Iraqi Islamist groups are bonding with the Syrian rebels just as the al-Maliki government helps arm the Assad regime by allowing transit of Iranian supplies from the east. Iraq is now involved in both sides of the Syrian civil war, carrying the huge risk that Iraqi insecurity and the Syrian war slowly meld into a single conflict with implications that stretch across the region.
Where Libya is concerned, two years after the start of the Nato air campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi the country's major towns and cities are plagued with competing militias that owe little or no allegiance to central government. Yet there is scarcely any reporting of Libya's widespread insecurities (the conscientious reporting of Patrick Cockburn apart), and even less of the relationship between Libya and the evolving paramilitary insurgency to the south in Mali.
In Iraq and now Libya, then, the outcomes of external military intervention have been radically different to what was expected in official circles. It looks all too likely that the same will be true of Afghanistan.
In the British parliamentary system, select committees are (with a few exceptions) not particularly effective at calling governments to account - and usually this is even more true for the defence committee. Its Afghanistan report is different: a welcome sign that at least one part of the political system is trying to get a stronger focus on what is really happening in Afghanistan, and whether the UK and other governments should be replacing their "boots on the ground" with much greater efforts to help Afghans rebuild their own country.