- This would not end conflict
As spring heralds in Afghanistan so do peoples’ yearning for talking peace. This cyclical process has gone on for the most part since Afghan War started in October 2001. In all probability, this year may prove no different than any of the past 16 years. However, there are a few things that could give rise to a new assessment of the state of play in the Afghan conflict.
First, there is a new US administration that has made no prior commitments for Afghanistan. Second, the defence team President Trump has inducted has vast experience of fighting nearly all battles since the Gulf War and thus have a better assessment of how far the US can carry the ‘stalemated’ war. Third, a number of sombre voices (including Ambassador Olson, Stephen Headley, former National Security Advisor, renowned historian Andrew Bacevich and Peter Beinart contributing editor of Atlantic) are counselling Washington restraint and to urging it to bring the Afghan conflict to an end. Finally, greater interest is shown by Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Islamabad to expend joint efforts to fend off the rising threat of ISIS/Daesh in Afghanistan even though the US has shown no inclination to become part of this process.It may be useful to recount the fundamental reason for starting the war in Afghanistan. The primary aim was to go after Osama bin Laden as he was declared the chief architect of 9/11 attacks, and the Taliban Government was allegedly harbouring him. It needs to be underlined that Taliban were never accused of taking part in planning or executing the 9/11 attacks. Taliban reportedly made several offers such as expelling Osama (who was invited not be Taliban but Ahmed Shah Masood) to a third country, handing him over to an independent international tribunal and even to US if supporting evidence of his involvement was provided to Afghan Government. But the US fury on the face of 9/11 attacks was boundless and such overtures were contemptuously rejected. Sixteen and half years from that fateful day of 7
It may be useful to recount the fundamental reason for starting the war in Afghanistan. The primary aim was to go after Osama bin Laden as he was declared the chief architect of 9/11 attacks, and the Taliban Government was allegedly harbouring him. It needs to be underlined that Taliban were never accused of taking part in planning or executing the 9/11 attacks. Taliban reportedly made several offers such as expelling Osama (who was invited not be Taliban but Ahmed Shah Masood) to a third country, handing him over to an independent international tribunal and even to US if supporting evidence of his involvement was provided to Afghan Government. But the US fury on the face of 9/11 attacks was boundless and such overtures were contemptuously rejected. Sixteen and half years from that fateful day of 7th October 2001 US remains dishevelled in a war that has earned the notoriety of being longest in American history, a forgotten war (the last public opinion survey was done in 2015), Osama was captured and killed in Pakistan after nearly a decade, well after the aims of intervention in Afghanistan had transfigured to nation-building; in the process, US and its Allies have lost 3532 soldiers, significantly more than the 2996 deaths recorded in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks. Then there are tens of thousands injured or have committed suicides on return from combat. The US alone has spent nearly a trillion dollar on the war. The Watson Institute Report estimates deaths of Afghan forces at 30,470, Taliban forces at 42,000, and civilians at 31,00 during the period 2001-16. The destabilising effects of the war in the region, particularly on Pakistan, have been devastating, as nearly 70,000 soldiers/policemen and civilians have been killed. Ironically, far from acknowledging its sacrifices, Pakistan has been cast as a villain contributing to the failure of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The nation-building efforts include raising, arming and training Afghan Security Forces, building the infrastructure of roads and bridges, and running of civil administration. In its latest High-Risk List Report (Jan ’17), the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) writes: ‘The U.S. investment in Afghanistan has been extraordinary. Since 2002, Congress has appropriated more than $115 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. It is the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our nation’s history. This tremendous amount of taxpayer money has been used to train Afghan security forces, stand up the Afghan government, and develop the local economy. Despite this enormous expenditure, the reconstruction effort remains tenuous and incomplete. U.S. and international donors recently pledged to financially support Afghanistan through 2020, with our contribution expected to remain at or near $5 billion a year.’
What kind of nation building results has been achieved? In a March Op-Ed in New York Times, the renowned war historian, Andrew Bacevich writes: ‘Afghan security forces continue to be plagued by the problem of inflated rolls, with local commanders pocketing American-supplied funds to pay for non-existent soldiers; according to the report, ‘The number of troops fighting alongside ‘ghost soldiers’ is a fraction of the men required for the fight.” Large-scale corruption persists, with Afghanistan third from the bottom in international rankings, ahead of only Somalia and North Korea. Adjusted for inflation, American spending to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the total expended to rebuild all of Western Europe under the Marshall Plan; yet to have any hope of surviving, the Afghan government will for the foreseeable future remain almost completely dependent on outside support.
And things are getting worse. Although the United States has invested $70 billion in rebuilding Afghan security forces, only 63 percent of the country’s districts [which is further dropped to 52%] are under government control, with significant territory lost to the Taliban over the past year. Though the United States has spent $8.5 billion to battle narcotics in Afghanistan, opium production there has reached an all-time high.’The problems of ghost soldiers, corruption in government, and record growth in poppy cultivation, and the general failure of governance and unending foreign dependence of Kabul to fund its activities make the entire nation-building effort an exercise in futility. If there are other aims that call for the perpetuation of this war, it is has become increasing difficult to hide them behind the mask of nation building. Even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of Afghan people would suffice to refute any proposition that they would welcome a foreign power to engage in their internal affairs.
The problems of ghost soldiers, corruption in government, and record growth in poppy cultivation, and the general failure of governance and unending foreign dependence of Kabul to fund its activities make the entire nation-building effort an exercise in futility. If there are other aims that call for the perpetuation of this war, it is has become increasing difficult to hide them behind the mask of nation building. Even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of Afghan people would suffice to refute any proposition that they would welcome a foreign power to engage in their internal affairs.
It was incumbent on President Bush to have brought the Afghan conflict to an end when he opened another front for US forces in Iraq in early 2003. Yet, the hubris afflicting his administration failed to recognise the limit on US military power in a country that has a long history of opposing the foreign occupation, the last of those being aided and abetted by the US against the Soviet invasion in 1979 that lasted for a decade. In order to deflect the charge against Democrats for being soft on security, President Obama embraced Afghanistan as a ‘just war’ while opposing Iraq War. He sent nearly 47,000 additional troops taking the total to 100,000 for winning this just war while his generals experimented with new doctrines such as COIN to achieve their goals. It was a hopeless enterprise, as not only those high-sounding military terms yielded little success in pushing back Taliban momentum but also in the process some of the finest generals fell on charges that reflected poorly on their characters. Even Mr Karzai, the man who was supported by US for nearly a decade turned out to be an unreliable partner when he refused to sign the security agreement beyond 2014 at conclusion of US forces draw down. As the withdrawal date approached, when only 1000 soldiers were to be left, the generals pushed hard to secure, first 5000 soldiers, and finally 8400 soldiers, effectively continuing US engagement in the conflict.
For a number of US presidents, it was a mortifying thought to withdraw from Vietnam as no one wanted to be lynched by the opposition (most famously President Johnson’s fear of Senator Barry Goldwater) for throwing the region to Communists. It was a terribly misplaced fear. Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies and despite all its frills and trappings of socialism, it is the capitalism that is reining supreme. Alas, US has lost a generation and part of its soul in that conflict with nearly 60,000 of its men and women consumed in that aimless war.
President Trump has made no promises on Afghanistan. If anything, he has shown disdain for the notion of nation building. In none of his
key speeches (at the convention, foreign policy in August 2016, inaugural or in the joint session) and during three debates (excepting Clinton’s lone remarks) he made any reference to Afghanistan. Would he be the saviour of his nation by refusing the generals’ likely demand for sending more troops and setting a firm date for disengaging from Afghanistan?
In a July 2010 article, soon after WikiLeaks were unveiled, Simon Jenkins, the highly influential historian, wrote: The war logs are not so much sensational as relentless. Most of the material was known. It is the detail that bears devastating witness. Afghanistan 2001 now enters firmly into the pantheon of folly, from the wooden horse to Napoleon in Moscow to Vietnam. Indeed it bears the added crassness of coming two decades after the Russians committed the exact same folly in the same place.
The inexorable casualties of an endless war are rationality, wisdom and sagacity. Many had hoped that the new defence team assembled by President Trump would quickly bring the Afghan conflict to an end. Rather it is apprehended that generals are planning to seek more troops to Afghanistan. The hope is not to turn the tide against Taliban but to exert sufficient pressure to bring them to negotiating table. One is amused on such a strand of thought. It is pathetic to continue to brood with such ideas after witnessing the colossal failure of President Obama’s surge which lasted for six years until 2014. Yet, it was during this period that Taliban gained more ground than at any time since 2001. And what kind of talks were expected from Taliban when their leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who had participated in the quadrilateral talks a few months earlier in Islamabad, was killed in a drone attack on Pak-Iran border. Sending more US troops in harm’s way would be nothing but a folly that has become a norm in this hopeless war.
The sensible course for the US would be to hold direct negotiations with Taliban for withdrawal of their forces. Let Afghan peoples decide their fate in whatever way they want. Taliban have no regional or international designs to project their influence. The White House had defended the bold statement of Vice President Joe Biden, in 2011, that the Taliban were not the enemy of US. Doomsday scenarios sketched by many after withdrawal US forces and resurfacing of Al-Qaida terrorists to plot against US homeland are no different than those painted for the rise of communism in Vietnam. Since 9/11, US has developed sufficient capacity to interdict terrorists aiming to attack its homeland. In a recent CNN report Peter Bergen, a security analyst, has noted: “Every lethal terrorist attack in the United States in the past decade and a half has been carried out by American citizens or legal permanent residents, operating either as lone wolves or in pairs, who have no formal connections or training from terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda or ISIS.” Indeed, the Taliban are fully capable of facing off the rising threat from ISIS within their country, which would otherwise be unchallenged so long as their efforts remain focused on fighting foreign occupation. Given the ISIS challenge, US should partner with other regional stakeholders both to seek guarantees against terrorism at Afghan soil and to bring an orderly transition in Afghanistan.
In April 2013, in an introductory article for his latest book ‘Return of a King’, William Dalrymple, the authoritative historian of Afghanistan, drew many parallels between the First British-Afghan War and the modern invasions. After an in-depth examination of those similarities he noted: The closer I looked, the more the West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to resemble the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the war of 1839 was waged on the basis of dubious and doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare—in this case, about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador wrote from Teheran: “We should declare that he who is not with us is against us … We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus was brought about an unnecessary, expensive, and entirely avoidable war.