WHY AMERICA LOST THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

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The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s swift victory in Kabul has damaged American credibility as a global power; according to the UN, the combat has produced 2.7 million more Afghan refugees this year alone, and at least 1,000 Afghan civilians have died in the past month

OPINION

Ishtiaq Ahmad

Exclusive for Islamabad POST

Tuesday, August 31, marks the D-Day for the end of 20-year American intervention in Afghanistan. The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s swift victory in Kabul has damaged American credibility as a global power. It has particularly exposed two bitter facts: first, the fragility of the Afghan regime that the US and NATO had propped up in the past two decades; and, second, even more so, a strategic miscalculation of epic proportions, for which the blame rests entirely upon the Americans and their Western allies.

The 300,000 or so strong Afghan National Army failed to resist the advancing Taliban combatants, despite the fact that it was trained by the US and NATO militaries at a staggering cost of $83 billion. Incompetence and corruption may have plagued its ranks, but why the Afghan army lost the morale to fight is the real question to ask.

All fingers point to the US decision to withdraw all foreign forces from Afghanistan under the agreement it unilaterally concluded with the Taliban in February last year, thereby delegitimizing the Afghan government, demoralizing the Afghan army and emboldening the Taliban. The UN twice warned about the continuing Taliban nexus with Al Qaeda, which they had pledged to renounce under the accord. Yet, the Biden administration went ahead with the withdrawal decision, setting August 31 as a deadline, while denying the US air support to the Afghan army in the process.

Now, with the US suffering a humiliating defeat, the war-ravaged nation faces acute uncertainty about its future fate under the Taliban. This puts in jeopardy all the proclaimed social, economic and political gainsAfghanistan has made in the past 20 years.The neighbouring countries like Pakistan are particularly worried, as it shares the longest border with Afghanistan straddled with Pashtun population and has paid a great price, both human and economic, due to the successive rounds of Afghan warfare since 1979.

Since October 2011, when the War on Terror in Afghanistan began, the United States has spent close to $1 trillion in Afghanistan. The Brown University’s ‘Cost of Wars Project’ also estimates that 2,300 US troops have died and 20,000 of them wounded in this war. The scale of Afghan deaths is far larger: well over quarter of a million, including government security forces, Afghan civilians and Taliban combatants. According to the UN, the combat has produced 2.7 million more Afghan refugees this year alone, and at least 1,000 Afghan civilians have died in the past month.

So, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, was spot on when he told the PBS New Hour while the Afghan debacle was still unfolding that “the United States has really messed it up in Afghanistan,” pinpointing what is perhaps the greatest irony of the longest war in American history. In his opinion, the US had entered the war without a clear plan, then failed to talk when it had maximum troops and thereafter negotiated peace from a position of weakness.

However, the reasons for the American failure in Afghanistan go much deeper in history, including several missed opportunities and strategic miscalculations since the time the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

The first strategic mistake was to abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, which led to infighting among the warring Afghan factions and allowed the Arab Mujahideen to coalesce around the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. Eventually, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subsequently confessed, this mistake paved the way for 9/11. The US regional disengagement also prevented progress on several opportunities for Afghan reconciliation during this time

Once the Taliban rose to power, the United States made the second mistake of misperceiving the Taliban and the Al Qaeda as similar entities with a shared agenda of committing international terrorism. Yes, this was indeed the declared goal of the Al Qaeda. But the Taliban were a local militant movement thatwanted to rule Afghanistan, and there were serious divisions in their leadership ranks about whether to host Osama bin Laden or not. 

The United States would not abandon this presumed Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus for years after the fall of the Taliban regime. Hence, not only the opportunity for resolving thebin Laden issue with the Taliban was missed before 9/11, the 2001 US-sponsored Geneva talksalso produced an interim administrationthat was not genuinely representative of Afghanistan’s complex ethno-religious makeup. A weakness that would ultimately contribute to the Taliban’s resurgence in 2006.

Thirdly, for half a decade after the Geneva accord, when the writ of the new Afghan government was sufficiently established and the Taliban were at their weakest moment, no effort was made to reconcile with their pliable leaders. Eventually, some Taliban leaders, including the ex-foreign minister and ex-ambassador to Islamabad, would reside in Kabul, who could have facilitated the reconciliation process before 2006. Instead, the US opened a new battle front by attacking Iraq in 2003. This was a major military distraction from the theatre of Afghan war.     

Frustrated with the Taliban insurgency thereafter, the Obama administration opted for the surge of US troops up to 150,000 as part of the AFPAK strategy in 2009. Prime Minister Khan, in his interview, considers this to be the most appropriate time when the US could have negotiated from a position of strength. In fact, the 2010 London conference on Afghanistan did propose reconciliation with the Taliban, but without any tangible outcome.

The real mistake that the US then made, the fourth in a row, was when the AFPAK strategy paradoxically linked the option of US troops surge with their withdrawal by the end of 2014.

The 2012 Strategic Partnership Agreement, and the NATO summits at Lisbon and Chicago as well as international donors’ summit in Tokyo held in the same year, provided further indication of the growing American weariness and impatience with the Afghan war. Even if strong commitments were made for Afghan security and development in the decade beyond 2014 till 2024, the stress on the Afghan security forces’ ownership of the war strengthened the Taliban’s resolve to fight.

Henceforth, the Taliban would not come on board and fail the Karzai regime’s peace efforts through the Afghanistan Peace and Integration Program and the Afghan High Peace Council. A Joint Peace Commission with Pakistan could not produce any result. The Americans also held direct talks with Mullah Omar’s envoy in Germany, but they also quickly floundered on the issue of prisoners’ swap. With a nod from the US, the Taliban set up an office in Doha to sort out differences, first with the Karzai regime and subsequently with the Ghani government – but only as a means to buy time and expand military clout ahead of the end of international security commitment in Afghanistan. 

This brings us to the final phase of the Afghan debacle in August 2021, wherein the US has essentially reaped the whirlwind of its final strategic blunder waging the Afghan war.Clearly, in the rush to save face from the lost war, the US failed to make its military drawdown conditional to the declaration of ceasefire by the Taliban. Instead, it chose to legitimize this militia of religious zealots, thereby paving the way for their reconquest of Afghanistan.

What happens next, we do not need to wonder: the mayhem inside Afghanistan, its horrific implications for Pakistan and the region, extremism and terrorism once again reaching the world afar, forcing it to act again from the start. So, in this sordid tale of Afghanistan, we may see the history repeating itself for worse, simply because its global stakeholder hastily walked away in denial of the impending disaster.

Or, we can wish that all of the above does not happen. There are so many preconditions, or ifs and buts, in the way. There are things that the Taliban are expected to do, and there are things the international community is obliged to commit. Can something good come out of the current Afghan mess? But that’s a different story. 

The author is an academic and author based in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]