The words of Gen Douglas Lute ring in the ears: “What are we doing here?” He was referring to the US involvement in the Afghan war
. He was a top adviser on Afghanistan to presidents Bush and Obama. The Afghanistan Papers also reveal how the American public was misled by claims that the US was making progress in an unwinnable war. And now when the end of the conflict is in sight, some Pakistanis — both officials and non-officials — are ‘warning’ against the withdrawal of forces.
Alarm bells are ringing in Pakistan and the ‘consequences’ of withdrawal of foreign forces are being critically analysed. One wonders how such analysis could fail to dig deep into the genesis of the conflict and bring in more objectivity to the prevailing politico-military situation of the war-torn country.
But as one historian candidly remarked, “The US will do the right thing only after exhausting all other (wrong) options.”
Lessons of history are easily forgotten. Not long ago the US plunged itself into a war in Vietnam to save South Vietnam from being overrun by the communist regime in the north. In the madness that followed, 58,000 US soldiers were killed, many others wounded. Ironically, today a united communist Vietnam is an ally of the US against what Washington calls an expansionist China.
Coming back to Afghanistan, it is feared that there would inevitably be a civil war after the exit of foreign forces. Firstly, is it just and rational to block the withdrawal of foreign forces to prevent the country from descending into factional fighting? Is the continuance of the status quo a more favourable option?
More than 100,000 people have lost their lives. Millions displaced. Hundreds of thousands have left the country, face uncertain futures in Syria, Turkey, Europe, Australia and parts of Central Asia. Opium production has increased to 7,500 tons from 50 tons in 2001 with drug addiction at a high. Unemployment is over 55%. The government controls just half of the territory. The other half is either administered by the Taliban or is contested. The Taliban have their own system of administering where they collect taxes, adjudicate upon disputes and help run institutions like schools, dispensaries, etc.
The 300,000-strong Afghan National Army is losing about 9% of its personnel annually by desertions. Any spike in defections could be costly and would entail awful consequences.
What has this whole ‘resistance’ about been? The Taliban rose to fight invading forces. The expulsion of foreign forces has been their consistent demand. Now when after 20 years, the Americans realise the futility of the adventure, they have decided to end their involvement. This is called a hasty withdrawal!
The grim picture of chaos, fighting, civilian casualties and nose-diving economy are not the only outcomes of 20 years of occupation. There is the menace of Daesh, Fidayee Mahaz and other brutal outfits that target civilians — another gift of US-sponsored systems. And the Pakistani ministers call for a ‘responsible’ withdrawal. If by this they mean a peaceful transition that delivers power to a regime that is acceptable to the people and brings lasting peace, they are ignorant of ground realities and of the dynamics of the conflict.
And surprisingly the ministers also assert that Islamabad would not go along with a Taliban-led government or one that gains control by force. In 2001, when the US occupied the country, Islamabad lent full support to the new dispensation. But now if the Taliban gain control, that will not be acceptable! How could Pakistan claim to generate goodwill in a country that has long accused Islamabad of seeking to promote ‘favourites’ to influence policy in Kabul? Pakistan does not seem to have learnt any lessons.
If a transition is brought about by a Loya Jirga for a fixed-term that will meet the criteria of justice and equity, that should not cause alarm. The Loya Jirga would decide upon the tenure of the transitional government and allow such amendments to be made in the constitution. The only real obstacle to such a transition would come from the current rulers in Kabul who have survived on the back of strong US financial support. They are a product of the status quo that is premised on the receipt of external military and economic support. They would desperately hang on to power as long as they can manage. That is for the US to manage — how to pressure the Kabul government to agree to be sidelined by a transitional government brought about by a Grand Assembly. If the idea of a transitional government does not find support from the Afghan government, the stage would be set for a confrontation between the Taliban and the Afghan army. Inevitably. such a fight would result in fatalities on both sides, besides civilian losses. It is for all stakeholders to consider how to avoid a bloodbath between two warring entities if a compromise is not reached.
The writing is on the wall. The Taliban victories in the last two months have shown how the power struggle is taking shape. The Taliban are in a mood of defiance after successes in the field and in diplomacy. China, Russia and Iran have established ties with the group. All three regional countries believe Daesh is a threat to their borders and only a Taliban-led government can eliminate the brutal outfit. This has added to the group’s hopes and spirits. The Chinese also believe only a strong government supported by the masses can help in achieving the goals of their flagship project, BRI. Beijing has made huge investment in minerals in Afghanistan — in copper mines in Logar province and oil and gas in the north of the country. They have a stake in the country’s peace. And that worries the US which finds it difficult to accept China’s dominant role in Afghanistan after having invested so much in the country. But China’s role is a bitter pill that Washington will have to swallow. The US investment in blood and treasure is a reality but so is its legacy of devastation.
The only prudent and far-sighted approach that can help salvage America’s credibility would be to work vigorously towards the goal of creating conditions for a transitional government that is Taliban-led and includes other factions through the time-honoured Loya Jirga. The Taliban-led government would make every endeavour to maintain good relations with the US just as it would keep warm relations with Russia.
Objective realities should dictate policies rather than emotions. For all stakeholders time has come to embrace the on-ground realities.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2021.