Afghanistan yesterday marked 10 years since the start of the US-led war against the Taliban, with security tight after a string of bold insurgent attacks that have diminished hopes for an enduring peace.
The anniversary will be marked in quiet fashion, with little to commemorate the long years of conflict that have cost thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of US dollars.
On the frontlines, it is likely to be business as usual for the 140,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including 100,000 from the US, as they continue to battle the Taliban-led insurgency.
For many Afghans, the anniversary will be a time for reflection on what the war has meant for their country and the implications of the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
“I spent a year in the city of Kabul during the Taliban regime and they made life difficult as they banned everything. We were forced to flee the country and live in Pakistan,” said Abdul Saboor, a 30-year-old cook in Kabul. “I was very pleased when finally the dark era of the Taliban ended in our country.”
However, the anniversary will also heighten discontent over the long conflict that has left Afghanistan with a corrupt government, a widely criticized Western troop presence and only dim prospects for peace.
Street vendor Khan Agha, 30, highlighted public anger over civilian casualties and supported calls for foreign troops to leave.
“Since the Americans and their allies came to Afghanistan, our security has deteriorated and they have also been involved in the killings of innocent Afghan civilians,” he said.
Security is being stepped up in the capital after a string of major attacks, including the assassination of peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani, which has thrown government strategy for talking peace with the Taliban into turmoil.
“There will be more security, more checks. Police will be on high alert,” a senior Afghan government official said. “There will be some preparations like more security and more checks.”
About 200 Afghans called for the withdrawal of foreign troops and shouted anti-US slogans at a protest in Kabul on the eve of the anniversary.
They shouted: “Death to America and its Afghan puppets” and torched a US flag at the end of their march through the city center, a reporter at the scene said.
The war was launched to oust the Taliban for harboring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who allegedly plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US, and destroy al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
On Oct. 7, 2001, just under a month after the 9/11 strikes, US planes dropped dozens of cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs on strategic targets in Kabul and other Afghan cities.
That was followed by a ground campaign which defeated the Taliban within weeks. Insurgents lay dormant in Afghan and Pakistani hideouts for the next few years, severely depleted by the invasion.
US attention then turned to the war in Iraq, but violence flared back up again in 2007 and 2008, prompting a surge in the number of troops sent to fight the Taliban.
As those troops begin to withdraw ahead of 2014, the Taliban have increasingly focused on launching targeted attacks against foreign forces as well as the Afghan military and authorities.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force argues this shows it is winning the fight on Afghanistan’s battlefields.
Experts argue that the 10th anniversary finds Afghanistan at a key turning point.
“Time is running out to leave Afghanistan in an acceptable shape that would justify the time, money and lives spent in expanding the mission from counter-terrorism to state building,” said Terry Pattar, senior consultant at defense intelligence group IHS Jane’s.
Patar said there were “major doubts” over whether the Afghan government could enforce stability after foreign troops leave and predicted an eventual pact with the insurgents.
“There will have to be some form of rapprochement with elements of the Taliban if Afghanistan is not going to descend back into civil war,” Patar said.
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