Another year, another general and another non-victory in Afghanistan


James Michael Page and John Williams[1]

We are, once again, witnessing a changing of the guard at the head of the military missions in Afghanistan. General John Campbell ends his tour of duty in March, to be replaced by General John Nicholson. Campbell’s recent Senate testimony highlighted how the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated in several key respects since the transition to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission at the start of 2015, with its focus on ‘train, advise and assist’. Continuing US military operations in Afghanistan, of which Campbell was also in charge, are at such a level and intensity that President Obama’s intent to scale back US military personnel in Afghanistan to 5500 (from their present 9800) during 2016 is no longer planned to take place.[2]

The President’s statement that the US was ‘ending’ the combat mission in Afghanistan now looks more like an open-ended and flexible notion. This is in contrast to a one-way process with a defined end-point of the departure of the last US service personnel, and the proclamation of some sort of ‘victory’. Whilst the NATO-led mission largely concentrates on advising, assistance, and training – with emphasis on capacity building – the US military is still regularly engaged in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and not infrequently close air support for Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANSDF). Indeed, on occasion, as in Kunduz Province and city in October 2015, US (and other states’) Special Forces are prominently on display in direct combat with the Taliban and others. Less high profile Special Forces operations are a routine part of the US operation across conflicted areas of Afghanistan, most recently in response to Taliban incursions in Helmand, under the counterterrorism effort asserted by President Obama, and provided for under the Afghanistan-US Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). A key challenge is, those contested areas are growing in size and the diversity of insurgent groups is greater. For example, there is an increasingly prominent ISIL / Daesh offshoot established in eastern Afghanistan, particularly in Nangarhar Province. Counterterrorism efforts, aimed at the ability of groups such as al Qaeda, Daesh, Haqqani Network[3] and various elements of the Taliban, have accelerated in 2015, including the growing use of drone strikes within the kind of targeted killing paradigm familiar from Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Syria.

Securing ostensible gains in Afghanistan, along the following lines, appears to be in doubt: (re-) establishing capable governmental institutions; protecting, promoting and supporting the resilience of civil society; building effective professional ANSDF forces; embedding democracy; growing, diversifying and strengthening the Afghan economy; and, weakening the insurgency. Indeed, Afghanistan sees rising levels of violence,[4] its economy only generates 40% of the government’s expenditure[5] and Afghanistan is rated the third most corrupt state in the world.[6] In 2015 the aid effort to Afghanistan passed a milestone: the monies committed by the US to help rebuild and secure Afghanistan since 2001 passed the value of Marshall Aid (in real terms), which did so much to rebuild western Europe after the Second World War.[7] Although we should be cautious in comparing the two, it has political resonance.

In this context, the idea of ‘victory’, and the moral value of ‘victory’, in Afghanistan appear to be deeply conflicted. What once seemed to be about the reconstitution of Afghanistan as a state in the aftermath of continuous conflict dating back to at least 1979, if not further,[8] has become more about the tolerable terms on which leading Western powers, especially the US, can become ‘reasonably’ disengaged. The changing role of drones in Afghanistan is emblematic of this. Since 2001, drone use in Afghanistan has been very extensive, and yet there is little study of the phenomenon, particularly compared with their use in neighbouring Pakistan. This is principally explained by the lack of legal controversy surrounding drone use within a recognised zone of armed conflict, and by their control which is largely carried out by the US Air Force, in contrast to the CIA’s control of strikes elsewhere. The latter are invested with extensive licence and secrecy arising from the Title 50 US legal regime, under which the CIA operates. Moreover, while drone strikes were being used for ISR and close air support roles in Afghanistan, as part of a sizable international coalition counter-insurgency campaign, the controversy associated with targeted killing was muted.

Since the start of 2015 this situation has shifted significantly and drone strikes have become more about counterterrorism. The character of drone use in parts of Afghanistan, such as Nangarhar where such operations have been among the most pronounced, is becoming more like that across the border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Similarly, ‘Precision strike’ has become a more commonplace official explanation of drone strikes in Afghanistan and the related explanation of ‘protecting the force’ appears to be an expansive one, with Taliban, ‘al Qaeda remnants’ and, now, Daesh presenting the perceived threat.

The character of ‘victory’ in Afghanistan for the US is shifting towards the defeat of al Qaeda remnants, Daesh and other ‘terrorist’ organisations, as President Obama noted last October.[9] The consequences of such counter-terror oriented operations are, however, potentially detrimental in very important ways for the account of ‘victory’ that stressed stabilising Afghanistan as well as restoring and reinforcing viable and effective governance, social, and economic structures. These are now secondary aims compared to the principal objective of preventing Afghanistan ‘from being used as a safe haven to attack [the US] again.’[10] Ambitions for the Afghanistan mission since 2001 have been altering; changing the justifications for the commitment of substantial amounts of blood and enormous amounts of treasure. ‘Victory’ now looks to be about containing the ability of Afghanistan-based terror-related groups to commit acts of violence beyond its borders, especially in areas central to US and wider western interests.

Recently attracting attention as the barometer for the attainment of the latest version of ‘victory’ are: the battle for Kunduz last October; recent attacks in Kabul city; violence across Helmand Province; and, serious security incidents in Jalalabad city in Nangarhar Province. ‘Successes’ claimed include destroying terrorist training camps, such as that in Kandahar Province last October;[11] and killing High Value Targets, for example, Taliban leadership figures. However this neglects impacts on Afghan society already asserted with regard to Pakistan: the disruption drones cause to the socio-economic practices of ordinary citizens. High-profile critiques of drone strikes in Pakistan along these lines, such as the 2012 Stanford and New York University report ‘Living Under Drones’[12] and the 2014 ‘Drone’ documentary,[13] have come in for trenchant criticism by drone advocates. They have been accused, among other things, of over-stating their case; methodological inadequacies; lacking appropriate appreciation of the effectiveness of drones in targeted killing; and, undervaluing the contribution of drones to achieving counterterrorism policy goals.[14] Normative judgements undergird much in such critiques and surrounding discussions. This may be in classic just war terms, such as the extent to which drone strikes are fulfilling the requirements of proportionality or discrimination; and in the ways that drones may reduce the ethical and political barriers to the initiation of hostilities. It may also be in relation to the ethical hierarchy the debate sustains, in which ‘effective’ drone strikes are ones that reduce the level of terrorist violence;[15] especially terrorist violence that targets western citizens and interests.

Absent in these discussions, however, is the normative perspective and lived experience of Afghan citizens inhabiting areas, such as significant parts of Nangarhar Province, where drone use has accelerated in recent months. In the Pakistan research carried out for ‘Living Under Drones’, the experience of Pakistani civilians was parsed through the language of human rights and, in particular, human rights law, in order to validate it. This is irrespective of whether or not such language and reference points would be deployed by Pakistanis typically possessing conservative Islamic and tribal views and reference points. This validation mutes more complex and interesting accounts of the experience and assessment of drone use, by requiring both individual and communal understanding to be packaged to fit pre-established categories largely derived from individualised and universal rights and their legal institutionalisation.

The costs of such an approach are revealed by preliminary analysis of fieldwork interviews commissioned in September and October 2015 in two districts of Nangarhar Province, bordering Pakistan, where drone strikes have been frequent.[16] Amongst a largely homogenous Pashtun population, with a notable history of support and loyalties towards Kabul, a vivid picture emerges of a population under immense pressure, caught between drones on the one hand, and resurgent Taliban and expanding Daesh on the other. Drone strikes receive widespread support, as long as they effectively and accurately target Taliban, Daesh and elements from Pakistan believed to create and perpetuate these groups. Indeed, these insurgent and terror-group elements are clearly seen by citizens in the fieldwork areas as their enemies – and enemies of Afghanistan.

As the specific mechanism for such strikes, drones are widely perceived among respondents as supremely accurate – almost supernaturally so amongst some. The fear they instil in Taliban and Daesh members, and consequent disruptive effects on their movement and activity, is lauded. Yet, simultaneously, the impact of insurgent groups and drones on respondents’ quotidian practices is telling. Fear of becoming caught up in a drone strike as a result of running livestock, collecting firewood in the mountains or cultivating fields where insurgent groups hide and pass through is economically damaging and encouraging depopulation. Activities that manifest and reinforce important social ties and networks are curtailed by the presence and fear of drones. This includes: providing hospitality to strangers who visit homes and may turn out to be Taliban; gathering to celebrate weddings; observing funerals; discussing the day’s issues at night after subsistence work; and simply moving around the village after dark.

Patriarchal family relations are weakened as men feel, and ostensibly are, unable to effectively meet their (widely expected) role as protectors of women and children frightened by the sound of drones, especially at night. This is connected to heightened levels of mental illness. The authority structures and problem-solving mechanisms of traditional tribal structures in areas remote from meaningful official governmental authority are eroded by an intense combination of both insurgent pressure on tribal elders to toe their line, and the wider population’s belief that elders are powerless to deliver any let up in drone surveillance and strikes. Religious leadership, similarly, is either co-opted by insurgents or afraid to address controversy for fear of violent reprisals. The US and NATO are universally indistinguishable to a population unaware of and uninterested in the complexities of institutional design, and suspicious of foreigners. Religious differentiation resulting in distrust or even hatred of ‘Americans’ as infidels is less extensive, but far from unknown.

It isn’t ‘rights’ that matter, per se, to the populace, at least not in the abstract sense of political philosophy or the institutions stressed by international human rights law. Not dissimilarly, ‘victory’, and its moral value, is not about disrupting, dismantling or defeating remnants, or otherwise, of terrorist organisations. It is not even about the consolidation of a functioning Afghan state. The moral value of operations in Afghanistan, at least for those interviewed, is about finding a solution that relieves them of the unyielding pressure of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s a perspective that may not resonate on Capitol Hill or even apparently in the military staffs charged with operationalising the increasingly notional mandates of Resolute Support and the US counterterror mission in Afghanistan. The surge in drone use may garner support at one level amongst locals in hard-pressed areas like districts in eastern Nangarhar, and killing Taliban and Daesh may be welcomed by local inhabitants there. However, the limits of drones as a platform are thrown into harsh relief by consideration of what would count as a moral victory for those living in places like eastern Nangarhar, and what the implications of this state of affairs might become.

[1] James Michael Page is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study and School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University. Previously, he was a Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan (UNAMA) for extensive periods between 2009 and 2015. John Williams is Professor of International Relations in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

[2] E.g. Missy Ryan (2016), ‘Outgoing Afghanistan General: US Needs to do More to Beat Back Taliban,’ Washington Post 5 February 2016 available at

[3] U.S. Foreign Terror Organization list:

[4] See, for example, the UNAMA Protection of Civilians Report and also the UNAMA Report to the Security Council, available, respectively, at: , and:

[5] Based on World Bank figures. See, The World Bank (2015), Afghanistan Economic Update, p. 19. Available at Even the this economic figure is thought by a number of analysts to be overly-generous, as a sizable proportion of aid, including to the Afghan authorities, is not very clearly accounted for.

[6] Transparency International (2015), Corruption Perception Index available at

[7] E.g. Jesse Byrnes (2015), ‘Afghanistan Rebuild Costs US More than Marshall Plan’ 31 July 2014 available at

[8] For example as noted by T. Masadykov, A. Giustozzi and J.M. Page (2010), continuous conflict in Afghanistan can be traced for 150+years. Available at:

[9] ‘Statement by the President on Afghanistan’, 15 October 2015 available at

[10] Ibid.

[11] E.g. Barbara Starr (2015), ‘Major Al Qaeda Camp Was Unknown to US for Months’, CNN 21 October 2015 available at

[12] Available at:

[13] Available at:

[14] E.g. C. Christine Fair (2014), ‘Ethical and Methodological Issues in Assessing Drones’ Civilian Impacts in Pakistan’, Washington Post 6 October 2014 available at

[15] E.g. Patrick B. Johnston and Anoop K. Sarbahi (2016), ‘The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan’, International Studies Quarterly advance access available at

[16] Interviews were conducted by a specialist Afghan research organisation with extensive experience of working for a wide range of European and North American universities, aid organisations and governmental and inter-governmental agencies. Interviews were conducted within a closely defined remit and in accord with relevant research ethics standards. The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support provided by the Durham Global Security Institute that enabled the research to take place.

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