German Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein titled his memoirs published in 1955 Lost Victories. Unquestionably, he was one of the finest operational commanders that Germany had. It is said that if Hitler was not his Supreme Commander and if he was allowed to have his way Germany would have attained most of the military objectives that it set out to achieve. Political and military history of the world is full of examples where men with lesser ability and competence were imposed on men with great skills and talent — such men only underachieved because they worked under the shadow of ‘lesser professional ability and competence’ thus they could never leave their mark as their services and potential were underutilised. The defeat of the Danish fleet in 1801 by the British navy in the battle of Copenhagen is another classic example of such kind of military leaderships (Parker and Nelson) — given in epic detail in Robert Greene’s book The 33 strategies of war. But my mind actually turned to this subject when I read in Bob Woodword’s book Fear — Trump in the White House that “Afghanistan is not just the graveyard of empires but careers” — and my heart goes out to the responsibility that the shoulders of US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad carries. Not only him but also Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s point man in the region, Mohammad Omar Daudzai, who was recently in Pakistan. If Americans and the Taliban are sandwiched in talks Mr Omar’s statement was a ‘cheese adder’ to it. Just a day back on visit to Pakistan he said, “I don’t want to get into the past, but in the present, there is much evidence that Pakistan is playing a positive role in Afghan peace talks” and he also said “Pakistan’s government and security establishment were on the same page” and now if we compare his statements with those of Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, who speaking just a couple of days earlier said, “American withdrawal is just an excuse for continuation of war for gaining more opportunities” and that “Taliban’s not changed and even the country that supports them its policies not changed” — is creating a favourable and enabling environment of peace talks not a collective responsibility of the political and military leadership of all stakeholders in the Afghan conflict? It didn’t end here.
We had Indian Army Chief General Bipin also speaking on the subject. Before writing what he said I would recommend the readers to read a column I wrote in The Express Tribune on September 28, 2017 titled ‘The Bipin Doctrine’ — a general who draws fame for conducting surgical strikes in Myanmar and who continues to threaten Pakistan with doing the same when asked about the ongoing peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban answered “we welcome peace talks as long as they don’t have any pre-conditions.” If war is an art or as Carl Von Clausewitz defined it as a political act then are not these politicians and the generals the artists? The job or function of any good artist is to express the sentiment of the people which they feel but cannot articulate. I think there is an overwhelming demand for peace in Afghanistan not only by the domestic audience but by all the neighbouring countries and the international audience as well.
The Taliban’s preconditions of the exodus of US forces from Afghanistan and their unwillingness to talk to an Afghan government that they consider a puppet have been there for 17 long years and they came to the negotiating table carrying the baggage of this demand. Even the US tacitly agreed and the announcement of withdrawal of US forces by President Donald Trump became the very reason for the Taliban to indulge in talks in the first place. Why is General Bipin not aware of it? Even the fourth round of talks between the Americans and the Taliban has been called off due to the incompatibility of understanding on the issue of involvement of Afghan officials, ceasefire and prisoners’ exchange. The real issue should be how to address these incompatibilities and how to reach a negotiated settlement? Not be seized by an impulse and give political statements that can further derail the peace dialogue. Seventeen years of war and the unending political plight in the country yet the political leadership in Afghanistan seems averse to the fact that a negotiated settlement or a dialogue process would need a favourable environment to proceed forward. Such statements would only add padlocks to a deadlocked peace process that has been brought to life after great difficulty.
We already have precedence in Lebanon where a militant organisation, Hezbollah, sought and was granted political representation. It won 13 seats in 2009 elections but in the elections held in 2018 along with its allies and current coalition partners, Hezbollah now holds 71 seats out of 128 in the Lebanese parliament. Would Hezbollah be representing the people in parliament if Israel was still occupying Lebanon? Was their fight against the invading Israeli army in Lebanon unjust? The relative peace and stability that Lebanon has experienced is because of the success of political process. Under the Hamid Karazai government in Afghanistan, it is a matter of record that the Tajiks headed the key ministries, they even made up 70% of the Afghan Army’s battalion commanders (only 27% of Tajiks are Afghans). For years, US air strikes pounded the Pashtun regions and the Taliban, and during that time the Tajiks not only held positions of power and authority but also appeared to grow rich and wealthy.
The US war in Afghanistan was also doomed because the US underestimated the power of group identity. There was deep division amongst Afghanistan’s Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. The US would do well to influence the domestic leadership in Afghanistan by preventing it from speaking in a retaliatory and vengeful language. This only adds fuel to the burning fire that many stakeholders together want to put out. Those that charge the Taliban with committing heinous crimes against humanity must also give an alternative way on how to achieve the goal of “never allowing Afghanistan to serve as a platform for international terrorism”.
Lastly, when Turkey allied with Germany in the First World War, weren’t we Muslims not once fighting against our own Caliph under the British Raj. Truth is a great healer and so is forgiveness.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 13th, 2019.