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Cover Story

US legacy in Afghanistan: What 11 years of war has accomplished

The lives of four Afghans provide a lens on how America's longest conflict has changed a nation – and the divisions and dangers that persist.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / June 10, 2012

Young Afghans peer out from a popular overlook at Kabul. This is the cover story in the June 11 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff


Kabul, Afghanistan

It has become the longest war in US history – nearly 11 years. It has consumed $57 billion in American development aid. The US military has spent more than $517 billion trying to subdue and secure one of the most invaded countries in human history. What, in the end, has the United States achieved after all this time and treasury spent in Afghanistan?

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It's a valid question to ask, especially in an election year. And it's a question that many Afghans themselves are asking in earnest, as the US considers withdrawing troops by 2014.

Answering this question is tricky. US military spokesmen point to the dismantling of Al Qaeda and the buildup of an Afghan National Army increasingly capable of protecting the country from its internal and external enemies. Aid donors point to increased political freedoms, improved economic opportunities, thousands of newly built girls' schools, and rising survival rates for newborn infants and their mothers.

Add all this up, though, and the whole is a bit less than the sum of its parts. Security is faltering, as support for insurgent groups like the Taliban grows in rural areas. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civil servants have received world-class training from the West, but corruption within government remains a huge problem. Women and girls have far more access to education, health care, and political rights than during Taliban times, but those rights could be diminished if the Taliban enter a coalition government with President Hamid Karzai.

Americans have become increasingly weary of the war. A Monitor/TIPP poll conducted in May found that 63 percent of Americans oppose a newly signed security pact that would keep many US soldiers in Afghanistan after the majority of combat troops are withdrawn in 2014. Many Afghans, including insurgents interviewed for this story, say that a swift pullout will lead to the collapse of the Afghan government, the breakup of the national army, and the spark of a new civil war. Still, the past decade hasn't been a waste, many Afghans say. At least it has created a window of relative peace in which Afghans can create institutions that are worth defending.

Success – defined by both the Americans and the Afghans as a stable, sustainable, and effective government – will largely depend on what happens in the next two years. If Americans correct past mistakes and build on achievements, they still have a chance to leave behind a country that can survive on its own. If past mistakes are repeated, the withdrawal could be a messy one indeed – and may prove an ignoble ending to one of the costlier ventures in modern American history.


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