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The Economist, August 17, 2019

Violence in Afghanistan last year was worse than in Syria

As NATO draws down forces, the Taliban have reclaimed much of the country

On august 19th Afghans will take to the streets to mark 100 years of independence from Britain. They have more to protest about than to celebrate: their country has not known peace for 40 years.

Afghanistan’s modern woes began in earnest in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded to prop up a communist regime. In response, America funded mujahideen rebels, escalating a bloody proxy war. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 was followed by infighting among warlords, and then by the brutal rule of the Taliban, an Islamist group that took over much of the country.

After al-Qaeda plotted the September 11th, 2001 attacks from Afghan camps, the United States and its allies invaded. nato-led troops have been stationed there since 2003. American negotiators and the Taliban have recently held talks about a peace deal, but the Afghan government has yet to participate formally (see Asia section).

Westerners often assume that the war was fiercest in 2010, when the annual death toll for nato forces peaked at 710. The coalition has pulled back since then, with the number of American troops falling from 100,000 to 14,000. As a result, just 94 nato soldiers have died since the start of 2015. Donald Trump wants a full exit by 2020.

This hardly reflects a mission accomplished. Violence between Afghans has soared during nato’s retreat. In 2018 some 25,000 people were killed in the conflict—the most since at least the early 1990s, the earliest period in which detailed records based on contemporaneous reports are available. (Prior figures are estimated by historians, and are less reliable.) This toll is greater than the 20,000 or so who died last year in Syria, where violence has declined.

Facing less pressure from nato, the Taliban are overwhelming the Afghan army, spreading to cities such as Kunduz from their stronghold in the south. A majority of Afghans now live in areas controlled or contested by the Taliban, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks the conflict. Gallup, which has polled Afghans since 2008, finds that record numbers fear for their liberty and safety.The survivors are destitute. Historical economic records are patchy, but Bill Byrd of the United States Institute of Peace, a think-tank, describes a “lost quarter-century of development” after the Soviet invasion. The Maddison Project, which makes back-dated gdp estimates, suggests a deep recession in the 1990s. A recovery since 2001, aided by foreign spending, has sputtered. Afghanistan is the only country in Asia or the Middle East where people are still poorer than those alive in 1950 were.

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