Colonel's Corner: Afghanistan, Five Years Later

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan
September 15, 2006

The news these days from Afghanistan hardly seems reassuring compared to the news of a year ago, or even a year before that. As most of us remember, we went into Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, and within a few short months had the Taliban routed and a friendly, pro-democracy regime installed. Shortly thereafter there was an international donors conference, where many of the major economic powers pledged vast sums of money to help the new government rebuild what had been destroyed by years of fighting and Taliban rule.

With a semblance of order in place, general elections were held, which saw over 70% of eligible voters coming out to elect their leaders at the local and national level. Hamid Karzai was elected president and continued on his path of trying to both stabilize and normalize the country. Now, nearly five years after the fall of the Taliban, news reports from Afghanistan paint a rather unsettling picture.

To be sure, there's been what is proclaimed a "Taliban resurgence." The reality is that the Taliban have always been there since they were ousted from power in 2001. Those who weren't captured or killed on the battlefield simply took their weapons and returned to their villages, often in the mountains. Many who were captured were later released and they, too, simply returned home. So while these former fighters didn't represent an organized enemy any longer, they were still an enemy in waiting. And now, their time seems to have come.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan have been engaged with these remnant Taliban almost continuously since they fled the seat of power. But the level of engagement for the first year was barely enough to make the front page. By the time the war in Iraq began, fighting in Afghanistan essentially became a footnote to the news.

Two key aspects have facilitated their return. One is the tempo of allied operations against them. Unquestionably, the war in Iraq diverted resources that could have been used to press the attack. The limited military resources left behind could not have worked harder, as they continue to do so to this date. While that effort has whittled away at the Taliban, it's never been enough to decimate them.

Concurrently, despite their pledges, many of the donors have failed to come through with the money they pledged to assist the Karzai government. Much of that money was destined to help rebuild infrastructure, such as the network of roads which would allow the economy to flourish, produce to get to market, and establish long-neglected links across the country. Instead, lacking an extension of government services, support, and presence in the outlying regions, the Taliban have been able to fill that void.

So where does that leave us now? Like Iraq, victory will not be assured by military force alone. Certainly NATO forces, who assumed control recently of military operations in Afghanistan, must continue to seek out and destroy the Taliban, who obviously still exist in large numbers. The recent photo of nearly 200 of them gathered at a funeral attests to that fact.

Separately, the Karzai government must continue to get the non-military assistance it still desperately requires. Besides help in building out and equipping its own army, it needs continued help in training and deploying police forces. They, not U.S. or NATO forces, are the ones who can provide the security required for the rural economy to take hold and for government institutions to be able to provide the goods and services which the population requires.

It's likely that Afghanistan will continue to take its place in the news for some time. The Taliban will continue to see sporadic successes, as will our allies. But the real battle, the successful build out of Afghanistan's still-fledgling government, will be the one which determines Afghanistan's future.

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally-acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. He spent 11 years doing undercover operations in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. Read his full bio here.