January 26, 2015:
While most Americans and the mass media worldwide have declared the 13 year U.S./NATO effort in Afghanistan a failure, most Afghans disagree. Although over 100,000 died during those 13 years (2,400 of them Americans and another thousand foreign troops). Nearly half the deaths in the 13 year war were Taliban, other Islamic terrorists and their drug gang allies. Another 30 percent of the dead were civilians, usually the targets of Taliban or gang intimidation. The Afghan security forces (mostly the police, plus the army) suffered 18 percent of the deaths. A little over three percent of the deaths were foreign troops, who gave the government forces an edge in firepower, support, intel and tactical leadership.
The death toll since 2001 is a lot less than the millions who died during the decade of fighting the Russians and less than suffered during the 1990s when Afghans fought each other. Most Afghans are well aware that in many way their lives are much better. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year. In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are eight million in school, and 40 percent are girls. Back then there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all land lines in cities. Now there are 17 million cell phones with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now 85 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy last place in Eurasia). This is apparently the highest life expectancy has ever been in Afghanistan and the UN noted it was the highest one decade increase ever recorded.
Opinion polls show 60 percent of Afghans believe the country is going in the right direction and 90 percent respect the army (and 70 percent the police). Only ten percent respect the Taliban, despite foreign media predicting that the Taliban will soon regain control of the country. Afghans scoff at that, if only because most would rather die fighting rather than submit to Taliban rule again. Foreigners tend to forget that angle, but the Afghans don’t. While many Afghans are saving to pay a smuggler to get them to the West (where they can make a lot more money and live even longer) most are staying and see better prospects than have existed for decades.
There are only a few old timers to tell of how optimistic everyone was in the 60s and 70s and how different life was. The good old days are coming back, as long as you can keep the hostile foreigners (meddling Pakistanis and Iranians plus assorted Islamic terrorists) out and local religious fanatics under control. Actually, the “13 Year War” continues, as it has since the mid-197os when the tribal unrest (against efforts to introduce 20th century ideas) began to expand. The last four decades have been largely years of terror and seemingly endless violence.; This was how the bad guys kept people in line and is the main reason the Taliban and drug gangs never had the support of many people (a fifth of the population at most).
Some (about 15,000) of the foreign troops will remain to provide some of those support services (especially intel and air support) as well as trainers and advisers. The traditionalists and their drug gang allies will continue to fight, but such long-term violence is nothing new in Afghanistan and the battle against the future could go on for decades. Victory not only comes at a price, it comes with a warning.