Afghanistan’s ‘Pentagon Papers’

This will not be the first time the Americans would have left the country they invaded in a mess

Shahid Javed Burki December 16, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

Of Pakistan’s five neighbours — counting Kashmir as a full-fledged neighbour along with Afghanistan, China, India and Iran — Afghanistan is the one that has affected the country the most. The cost has come in several ways, some of which are hard to quantify. It unsettled the tribal belt that borders Afghanistan, making it a breeding ground for extremists who were recruited to create disruption in the political and economic order. Millions of refugees crossed the border and came from Afghanistan to Pakistan to escape war in their country. The effort to repatriate them has not succeeded in a significant way. Pakistan will have to absorb them in its population and in its economy. The continuing war in Afghanistan has already affected Pakistan’s relations with all its neighbours as well as with the United States. Given what Afghanistan has already done to Pakistan, Islamabad should carefully study the trove of documents released by The Washington Post for public view starting on December 8, 2019.

After years of investigative journalism, the Washington-based newspaper published a story that appeared in several parts on the American failure in the 18-year war in which it has been engaged in Afghanistan. The newspaper’s disclosure has been compared to the publication several years ago of the Pentagon Papers by it as well as The New York Times. But there is a difference. The Vietnam document came at a time when the extent of American failure in that country was not known or appreciated by the American public. In the case of Afghanistan, the bad news has been coming out on a fairly regular basis in part because of the work done by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan and Reconstruction (SIGAR). Formed in 2008 in the first year of the administration headed by president Barack Obama, the government watchdog for the war in Afghanistan, released quarterly reports on the conflict’s progress, many of which publicly depicted the shortcomings of the American effort.

The American involvement began in the fall of 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 that killed almost 3,000 people in New York and Washington. The attack was planned and executed by al Qaeda headed by the Saudi, Osama bin Laden. The group was provided with a sanctuary in the southern part of Afghanistan by the Taliban-headed government in Kabul. The Americans wanted to remove the Taliban which was done relatively quickly and at not much cost with the Northern Alliance dominated by the Tajiks providing the foot soldiers. Once that operation was completed, Washington did not have any plans for the future.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star army general who served as the White House’s Afghanistan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations told the SIGAR in interviews in 2015. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” he continued.

The Americans were spending a lot of money. The total cost of the war for the United States has been estimated at $1.5 trillion. In the last three years about 60% went to training, fuel, armoured vehicles and facilities. However, unlike other overseas military efforts such as those in Japan, South Korea, Europe and the Middle East, the Americans did not create long-enduring infrastructure. “Afghans knew we were there temporarily, and that affected what we could do,” Marc Chretien, who served as the senior state department adviser to the Marines in Helmand Province, said in one interview. “An elder in Helmand once told me as much, saying: ‘Your Marines live in tents. That’s how we know you won’t be here long.’” The United States officials acknowledged that their strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money to politically, economically and socially develop the backward country. The aim was to create a modern state in as short a period of time.

Since the American entry into the war, more than 775,000 US troops have been deployed to Afghanistan. Of those 2,400 died while 20,589 were wounded. The toll was much heavier for the Afghans; more than 38,000 Afghan civilians have died and many more were injured.

The United States also tried hard but failed to control corruption in Afghanistan, build a competent police force and curb the country’s thriving opium production.

In order to understand why and where the effort had failed, Washington in 2014 launched a programme titled “Lessons Learned”. The staff engaged in this effort interviewed more than 600 people with first hand experience in the war. One report that came out of this effort was honest and direct. “We found the stabilization program and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and success in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians,” wrote its authors. As development experts have long concluded for an effort to succeed it has to be sustained.

One conclusion becomes clear from the interviews carried out by the “Lessons Learned” project. As The Washington Post author who wrote the long story for his newspaper points out, “military commanders struggled to articulate who they were fighting, let alone why. Was al Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the government never settled on any answers.”

This will not be the first time the Americans would have left the country they invaded in a mess. As shown by the experience of the Second World War, the United States performed better when it reacted to an invasion rather that started one on its own. The list is long — Vietnam, Somalia, Libya come to mind. Susan Rice, who served president Obama first as his ambassador to the United Nations and then as his national security advisor, sums up well the experience in Libya and Somalia. In 2011, the United States and its allies bombed Libya to prevent a mass slaughter by Muammar Gaddafi of his political opponents in the eastern part of the country, a mission that initially “seemed a triumph of good over evil”, she writes in her autobiography, Tough Love. But while “the US intervened for the right reasons, the result echoed the disaster of an earlier intervention in Somalia. “We made fewer mistakes and paid a far lesser price for our success protecting civilians in Libya than we did in Somalia. And yet what we left behind is not dissimilar — a fractured state without an effective central government, continued factional fighting, a lingering terrorist threat, and a source of insecurity in the region.” This is where Afghanistan seems to be heading.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2019.

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