Does history really repeat itself? Yes, but rarely and certainly not in the way we think it does. More often than not it does not, even though some similarities between any two historical events make us believe otherwise. The reality is in historical analogies not only similarities but dissimilarities also are important, and often more important. History is a useful guide to understand the present but we have to be careful how to use it. There is always something new or different in the present and our analysis ignores it at our peril.
By the conventional view of history we feel the Afghanistan war is failing because the country has always defeated empires and it is doing the same now. This, I am afraid, is a mischaracterisation of the war responsible for many a faulty analysis. We have to ask ourselves if the old Afghanistan bears much resemblance to the contemporary Afghanistan(the post-monarchy state) which continues to be called a graveyard of empires like the old one. Did that Afghanistan have al Qaeda, the Taliban and their support base in Pakistan, drug mafia, and an ethnically-divided Afghanistan where the traditional Pashtun-dominated balance of power has been fractured. Not to mention the competing strategic interests of Pakistan, Iran and India; rising China; scramble for energy and resource-rich Central Asia; and the complex geopolitics of today?
To be specific, let us go back to the ’80s Jihad, the first war of the contemporary Afghanistan, and see who defeated whom? Did Afghans really defeat the Soviets proving the dictum of their country being a graveyard of empires? No, Afghans did not defeat the Soviets, certainly not by themselves. It was a coalition of victors comprising a superpower, the CIA, the ISI, and of course the Afghans (majority of them but not all). The Afghans were divided then as they are now. So what graveyard of empires are we talking about? It was essentially the final battle of the Cold War fought in Afghanistan in which America won but the poor Afghans ended up as losers as much as winners. They got rid of the Communists but got stuck with the Taliban. The superpowers went home but regional powers walked in. And soon sneaked in the international Jihad.
It was only a matter of time before another Afghanistan war started. At the end of all this Afghans may yet lose again but they will not be alone. Pakistan too has lost as has Washington. But this is not a defeat of America the empire by Afghanistan. Neither America went there as an empire, nor is every Afghan fighting Americans. Just a radical minority called the Taliban supported at various times to varying degrees by Pakistan, Iran and Russia. If America has failed so has Afghanistan. What graveyard of empires?
Yet another misperception about this poorly understood war, has to do with statements from official sources that Pakistan is not trying to impose any solution of its own on Afghanistan. It desires an “Afghan led and Afghan owned” peace process. This is frankly no more than a politically correct statement making Pakistan look good. Pakistan knows full well the Afghan government is weak and has a legitimacy problem with the Taliban insurgents who do not want to talk to them. By themselves Kabul cannot bring about peace. It needs the help of Islamabad and Washington.
Even this talk of a regional solution to facilitate a political solution is a myth. How can you have a political solution without an internal reconciliation in Afghanistan? And Afghans need reconciliation not just with the Taliban and the alienated population sympathetic to them but also among the divided Unity Government that masks serious internal cleavages and discord, including ethnic tensions. And how can regional countries help if their own relationships among themselves remain conflicted in which Afghanistan is more of an effect than a cause?
Finally there is the key misperceptions as to what the Trump strategy means. It is widely believed that Trump is looking for a military solution which frankly he is not. It just appears that way. Similarly contrary to appearances India is not being invited to play a security role in Afghanistan (Does India need a US invitation to get involved in Afghanistan!). India is essentially being asked to share Washington’s economic burden in Afghanistan. Trump’s speeches are heavily political aimed at his base trumpeting America First theme and burden sharing by allies. The call to India was more for domestic audience.
Unlike the failed strategies of the Obama administration, “we will fight and we will talk” and later “we will talk and not fight”, the Trump team wants to fight first and talk later. And fight with a strategy that has not been tried before — address the sanctuaries issue more forcefully, get re-involved in counter-insurgency with a different military approach and tactics and try to take the fight to the Taliban and possibly to Pakistan. The thinking is that it will force the Taliban to talk.
Does Trump have a right strategy? I have my doubts. Americans rarely have had a right strategy in fighting insurgencies, civil wars and wars of national liberation as the Vietnam war proved so tragically. Ken Burns’s 10-part documentary on the Vietnam war currently being shown on PBS Television here in the US gives an enormous insight into this failing.
Basically the Americans want to get out, of course leaving behind enough military presence for counter-terrorism operations and for an advisory role. But only after they have achieved some degree of pacification if not a peace deal. Whatever the original aim, Americans are there now not so much for geopolitics but for reasons of national security to which terrorism remains a big threat. It has been a poorly fought war, and they want to salvage their image, aiming not so much for peace with honour — whose time is long past — but peace without dishonour.
Much would depend on Pakistan’s role. It is the most consequential external player after the US but is seen, rightly or wrongly, by both Kabul and Washington as having been part of the problem. The central role will of course belong to the Afghan government whose own failure more than that of anyone else has brought this war to such a sorry pass and suffering to their great country.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2017.