‘Don’t send more American forces to Afghanistan,’ says an open letter addressed to US President Donald Trump published by the Afghan Taliban. The letter suggests the US president should adopt a ‘strategy of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan instead of a troop surge’. What does this mean for future of Afghanistan? Will the Trump administration heed the Taliban’s suggestion? In the overall cost-benefit analysis of this long fought stalemated war, I think it should.
The big question that has been asked by the strategists for over a decade and a half now is — what would yield a stable Afghanistan? Post-9/11 the stability of the world has been associated with the stability of Afghanistan — billions of dollars have been spent in a stalemated warfare there to convert it into a stable and peaceful state that may eventually become inhospitable to terrorists.
The attainment of this goal has so far eluded the Americans and their many military and political strategists who tried their luck unsuccessfully — the latest to that list now would be the Trump administration which is soon going to reveal and unfold its new Afghan policy. How different would it be from the one proffered by Obama, Bush or Clinton?
President Obama’s administration went all out to execute a deep surge strategy in Afghanistan thus raising the cost of the Afghan war there by spending $100 billion a year on maintaining a troop surge of over 100,000. Two of America’s best generals — General Stanley McChrystal and General David Petraeus — executed the best possible military doctrine that could be executed in an irregular warfare implementing counterinsurgency operations and through it focused on ‘winning hearts and minds’ in a political and military strategy that had a clear and an unambiguous aim of ‘clearing, holding and building’ Afghanistan. But the efforts proved insufficient to turn the tide.
Seen in hindsight the United States employed counterterrorism as its core strategy in Afghanistan — executing air strikes, special operations raids which didn’t have a lasting impact. The counterinsurgency strategy was only introduced and implemented in 2010. Even the US presence in the Taliban stronghold districts like Helmand and Kandahar was negligible and these districts were secured with military presence only after the beginning of the counterinsurgency operations in 2010.
One of the fatal mistakes made in Afghanistan has been the American assumption that only military actions will contribute to an overall strategic win. Military actions, as is historically proven, only create suitable conditions and an environment for a political solution. Was not initiating ‘political activism’ more important than conducting military operations in Afghanistan? It seems that American political and military strategy in Afghanistan has been marred by a lack of ability to define a priority — was it good governance or was it defeating the Taliban? Or, was it both with the result that in the end America ended up achieving neither. If it was assumed that good governance will follow Taliban’s defeat than neither have the Taliban been defeated nor has the governance in Afghanistan improved. Today as the Trump administration’s new policy in Afghanistan is eagerly awaited one thing seems certain — Afghanistan may slide back into a full-scale civil war if Washington stops providing serious and sustainable help to it.
Since the time they have been ousted from the government, the Taliban have been fighting a violent war with the aim of seeking back, if not all than some, share of power in Afghanistan. Had the early American intention been to seek a deal with Taliban’s rather than try to drone and bomb their leadership to defeat the political and strategic environment in Afghan war today may have been entirely different.
Fighting a guerrilla war, the Taliban always had time on their side. Witnessing the lack of American willingness to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan and the continuity of American military goal of obliterating the Taliban leadership through drone strikes the Taliban preferred to wait out the Americans rather than concede to the their offers of dialogue that they considered non serious.
At the height of the troop surge and with the military presence that the Americans maintained in Afghanistan pushing out the terrorists should not have been their most sought after goal — ‘getting rid of the bad guys and the post-war peace will take care of itself’ was an American assumption that never materialised.
Utilising the space and time to build up a corruption-free and legitimate Afghan government could have been the other important goal. Ignoring the making and creation of a political state of Afghanistan was a mistake. Improving civil services, Afghan justice system, doing everything to allow the rule of law to take root by improving the political system and making the executive accountable were very much achievable targets. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai was considered by many as nothing more than a mayor of Kabul yet the Americans did little to change this equation and do anything to extend his authority. Max Boot, who is a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, made a very sound observation when writing a piece for Foreign Affairs magazine (Nov/Dec 2014) — ‘More Small Wars — Counterinsurgency is here to stay’, he mentioned that the ‘State Department and other government agencies could never provide enough skilled personnel in Afghanistan in such areas as governance and economic development to complement the military’s efforts; soldiers wound up filling many of the jobs.’
In hindsight when one looks at the amount of money that the Americans spent and poured into Afghanistan, it is not only the Americans who failed but actually the Afghans themselves as well. Lack of national reconciliation and lack of effective government only added to the choices that many tribes in Afghanistan made to side with the nongovernmental actors such as the Taliban rather than siding with an unpopular, non-delivering and dysfunctional government. If the Americans wanted to project themselves as the protectors of the Afghan society, the people of Afghanistan never accepted that and when the Afghan government like the one of Karzai was as corrupt as it was Afghans only looked at Americans as supporting a government that was corrupt and not people-friendly. Afghanistan didn’t need just military action it needed huge Afghan governmental strides in social, political and economic reform — that never came.
Showcasing a well-financed and well-resourced ‘winning political and military plan’ why did America fail in Afghanistan?
A large part of the American excuse for this failure is put on Pakistan’s shoulders. The US describes the Afghan insurgency as made in Pakistan. In the ‘slow motion version’ of its defeat that the world has witnessed, Pakistan also had a share of its losses and contrary to how the world looks at the violence being exported from Pakistan to Afghanistan — instead violence in its worst forms has continuously visited and entered Pakistan from the Afghan border.
The movement and the organisation that the world recognised as the Taliban has over the years evolved and now converted from being a unilateral, independent monolithic actor to a ‘difficult to keep united’ and fragmented alliance of many factions. Today very few Taliban fighters reside on the Pakistani side of the border; military action against them has pushed them to the Afghan side.
To summarise the American military intervention in Afghanistan, it would not be wrong to say that they have been fighting to sustain themselves rather than to achieve their mission and the world may witness a similar military disaster if the Trump administration does not learn lessons from a hard-fought Afghan war in which it hopped from executing one strategy to another. The new Afghan policy must have a well-defined political component that should extend a legal status to the Taliban as a political party thus providing them space for political participation. Else there would be no end to the war in Afghanistan and war in the final analysis war in Afghanistan will continue to remain a contest in stamina between these opposing forces.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2017.