Blinded by hubris: Afghanistan Papers an indictment of US foreign policy

Foreign affairs and defence analysts say seeds of failure were planted at the very inception of the 19-year conflict


Zeeshan Ahmad December 13, 2019
A Reuters file photo of US soldiers in Afghan city.

KARACHI: The Afghanistan Papers – the trove of secret documents that the Washington Post released on Monday – confirmed what many in and outside the US had long suspected about the longest war the country has fought.

The confidential interviews of key US officials involved in the military effort laid bare the true picture of the conflict: that even at the highest echelons, there was no clarity on what the actual mission in Afghanistan was supposed to be. That despite spending almost $1 trillion on a war that has stretched for nearly two decades, the US was never close to making progress because its leadership had no idea what progress looked like.

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Even so, an effort to spin the narrative differently seems underway already. Given the routine American mantra throughout the 19-year-conflict has been to demand more from Pakistan, some in the US military and civil elite have resorted to the same rhetoric once again.

Speaking to right-leaning American news channel Fox News, Senator Lindsey Graham claimed the war in Afghanistan could have ended ‘in a matter of weeks’ had Pakistan ‘denied Taliban safe haven’.

Firing back at the Washington Post report, former US general David Petraeus, who commanded American troops in Afghanistan during 2010 and 2011, too took the senator’s line. “There were endless frustrations, among them the sanctuaries that the insurgent elements had in neighboring Pakistan,” he told The Daily Beast, as he continued to claim the US had made ‘constant progress’ in the war-ravaged nation.

Whatever the debate surrounding Pakistan’s role in the conflict, some of the country’s most prominent military and foreign affairs experts stressed the seeds for failure in Afghanistan were planted at the very inception.

“Blaming Pakistan is an escape argument for the Americans,” said defence analyst Maj-Gen (retd) Inamul Haq. “Whenever they want to shift attention away from reality, they try to build a narrative around Pakistan.”

A Reuters file photo of Afghans. A Reuters file photo of Afghans.

Former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad Khan agreed. He saw US leadership’s finger-pointing as symptomatic of its overall lack of vision in Afghanistan. “What Washington never understood is that a coercive and, at times, accusatory and slanderous approach towards Pakistan and its armed forces and security agencies was both reprehensible and counterproductive,” he told The Express Tribune.

“Afghanistan is in a mess not because of Pakistan. It is so because of many other well-known reasons. The US war has been failing not because of the Taliban’s resurgence; rather, the Taliban remain resurgent because of the war’s failure,” he pointed out.

For former ambassador Abdul Basit, the Washington Post report comes as an indictment of US foreign policy overall, not just the country’s engagement in Afghanistan. “The Americans hardly know this region. In Afghanistan, it is clear that they acted in haste and were and continue to be driven by their domestic political concerns,” he said.

“The same is true of the US approach to foreign policy in general. They are applying the same hubris to their South Asia policy with no concern for the harm the pursuit of their goals could cause. The same was true of US meddling in South America,” he added. “From Venezuela to Haiti, like in Afghanistan, there was no attempt to truly understand local dynamics.”

Defence analyst Lt-Gen (retd) Talat Masood pointed out that the US invasion of Afghanistan was always emotionally driven. “The 9/11 attacks forced then-president George W Bush into taking some strong action. Emotions were running high and he was under pressure to take some form of revenge,” he noted.

Masood agreed with Basit that the US lacked an understanding of Afghanistan’s local and regional dynamics. “The various phases of the conflict showed how ignorant US leaders were about the country. In their hubris, they believed they could transform Afghanistan into a modern state when it still is very much a tribal society.”

He added that Americans’ lack of understanding meant they wound up causing more destruction and found themselves in a quagmire. “It shows that even a superpower with the best military and technology in the world cannot succeed without understanding. It also shows that no country can steer another to modernity and stability and that change must come from within.”

A Reuters file photo of US soldiers in an Afghan city. A Reuters file photo of US soldiers in an Afghan city.

Discussing the revelations made by the Afghanistan Papers, Maj-Gen Inam said they clearly showed how personal gain had prolonged an unnecessary and pointless conflict. “The fact of the matter is that US generals were too proud to admit defeat. They, along with others in the Pentagon and the White House, were more concerned with their ambitions,” he stressed.

“What’s more is that the war in Afghanistan had its economy that everyone involved benefited from,” the analyst added. “The amount funneled into the country for reconstruction found its way back to the American contractors, many of whom were retired military officers. Too many people had too many vested interests in the conflict, which is another reason why it has gone on for so long.”

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Inam also drew attention to Americans’ murky reasoning when it came to the Afghan conflict. “Generally, no military goes into a war without a clear aim,” he said. “Every war, at the strategic level, has a clear political objective as well as a clear termination strategy.”

“Both of these have been missing when we look at the US engagement in Afghanistan. The Americans had no war termination strategy and as a result, their overlying aims shifted repeatedly. From eliminating Al Qaeda and removing safe havens for the militant group, the objective shifted to ousting the Taliban. Then, they decided their mission was to make Afghanistan a functional democracy,” he added.

“After 19 years, Afghanistan is neither democratic nor peaceful. It is not free of militancy and it is not a model state. Where there was once Al Qaeda, the Islamic State stepped in. And ultimately, it was not the US – which had washed their hands off the problem – but the Taliban who defeated the militant group in Eastern Afghanistan.”

“The war, in its 19th year, has been one of the costliest in America’s history and also one which has been prolonged not for national interests but by its inertia,” said Shamshad. “It was a wrong war to start with and there is no sign of an end soon coming to this unwinnable conflict. The Afghanistan Papers bring out the reality beyond any doubt,” he noted.

Asked if there were any takeaways for Pakistan from the now released secret history of the Afghan war, Basit and Masood suggested it should prompt some introspection within Islamabad as well.

“We have our faults and we have made our own mistakes,” acknowledged Basit. “I think we should always have emphasised that peace in Afghanistan is a shared responsibility. We also overcommitted by portraying ourselves as being able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. We have some influence, yes, but the Taliban are their own masters.”

“The only vindication for us, as far as I see, is that Pakistan has always stressed that peace in Afghanistan can only come about through dialogue,” he added.

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“There is no other nation that knows Afghans as well as we do, and we still made a blunder similar to the US,” said Lt-Gen Masood. “Over the decades, our Afghanistan policy has been a great burden on us. All it created is more animosity and mistrust in Afghans. Going forward, we too need to extricate ourselves and place our faith in the Afghan people. They need to determine their destiny.”

“The Afghan peace process has to be Afghan-owned without any outside interference,” added Shamshad. “We would like the US and China to continue to support this peace process. It is also important that the regional countries do not use the territory of Afghanistan for destabilising activities in third countries.”

“Regional rivalries can easily stoke the fires of conflict with regional contenders reaching out to rival factions within Afghanistan and fueling the internal conflict that can spread into Pakistan. If the US is serious in its Afghan endgame, it must control and contain these tendencies,” he stressed.

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