The Afghans are back in control

With the Taliban being far more deliberate, adaptive and sensitive to their perception among the world at large

Shahzad Chaudhry August 20, 2021
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

Kabul fell, not to an outside force as is being made to seem but to contending Afghans who wanted foreign forces out of their country. The Afghans had lost their country to outside forces since 1979 except for a brief period in between from 1996 till 2001.

Let that sink. In December 1979 the Soviet Union marched into Afghanistan and occupied the country; the entire world records it as a period of ‘Soviet occupation’. True they always had a Babrak Karmal or a Najibullah as their poster boy but the Soviets controlled Afghanistan.

The US reacted in an outrage to the 9/11 catastrophe attacking Afghanistan in 2001and remained in control of the country for twenty years till announcing to vacate by August 31, 2021. Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were America’s poster boys but it was theUS which was in control. When the US decided to leave, so did Ghani stealthily decamping overnight to the dismay of his US masters who had entrusted him to keep the order going for another six months enabling the US a face-saving exit.

The US itself in a strange twist decided to leave much before the announced date. They had earlier given September 11 as the deadline to leave Afghanistan more in remembrance of the event that first brought the US to Afghanistan. The US had attempted at turning Afghanistan into a model state where terror may not find footing and where democracy would be the model of governance, quite the extension of how America sees itself.

The latter resulted out of the ‘creeping mission goal’ of a deployed military and a redefinition of the objective – without much thought, we can now conclude (although literature on record abounds with such commentary at the time) – from an impulse to purpose to delusion. Impulse was hubris and arrogance, purpose was justifiable and achievable – the US forces decimated Al Qaeda and hunted down OBL – and delusion (nation-building) was just that, delusionary.

COIN experts with expeditionary spirit and a job half-done in Iraq became the architects of what was tobecome the foundation of a tragic drawdown of the world’s lone super power at the hands of a rag-tag militia still given to their stone-age but highly relevant ways of war given its nature, the terrain and the combat environment.

If there is one lesson that militaries need to draw from this historic episode of American humiliation it is that oft repeated lesson from history, ‘War is too serious abusiness to be left to the generals alone’. Imbibe this; have it written on the wall and let it sink deeper into the vestiges of your being as politicians. Whenever this rule from history is defied, nations will only rue.

The US may be a hurting superpower but come the next day or the week it will still be a superpower. A very strong military affords it the chance to make for political blunders or strategic missteps and yet recover albeit abashed. Not another ordinary country. Even the USwill do well to face up to how they were led on to this creeping and misplaced idealism.

There is much to learn from the political-military interplay here and how leadership must have the steel to call curtains when it is the moment. Military application, per se, must create space for a political way-forward. When it doesn't, or closes the options instead, it is an abject failure. Politics in Afghanistan at the endof its twenty years occupation by the US created only sufficient space for what is being termed as the ‘Great Retreat’ but not sufficient enough to enable Afghanistana political solution to its four-decades old predicament. That's an ‘F’.

Biden is right as are those few who have supported his decision to quit. Rational thought from a US perspective will lead anyone to suggest that after OBL was hunted and taken out each day in Afghanistan for the US was beyond its sell-by date. Military objectives must be clearly defined and must be achievable within available capacity.

The US military fulfilled its military mission in 2011 but was kept deployed to pursue an oblique political purpose – the fallout of an overzealous COIN doctrine which the US military felt it had honed over its years-long stay in Iraq and other places. Even Iraq turned a chimera and needed to be revisited. Biden was bold to cut his losses and accept the futility of US’ Afghan mission. Militaries serve apolitical purpose by enabling pathways but cannot be political vehicles. When they become one they falter. Could Afghanistan have been done better?

Surely, and that is where history will judge Biden to have been found short. He says, “Ghani wouldn'tlisten’. It wasn't about Ghani not listening, it was about making Ghani listen and that is where American honour took some blows and lost Afghanistan its chance to orderliness. The US had to go, then only Afghanistan would have returned to the Afghans; whether to the ‘Kabul elites’, Ghani clones, or to the rustic ‘rurals’, the Taliban.

Afghanistan is back with the Afghans but without the time and plan for an orderly transition. Hence the chaos and the speculative apprehensions of the return of the darker days from 1996. Yet it hasn't been the case. The Taliban are far more deliberate, adaptive and sensitive to their perception among the world at large.

None of the conquering chants but a steadied discourse first addressing what was ofimmediate concern to the world and what could be twisted to tarnish their image. This time round, they don't want to be isolated in their pursuit of passion but will link with the world for rebuilding Afghanistan for its people and to return peace and stability. Their policy principles are based on inclusivity in the government and fair representation.

Their economic imperatives will force them to largely align with global standards of human rights and freedoms enunciated for women and minorities. To survive as a ruling Afghan entity this iteration of the Afghan ‘Taliban’ of essence will need to be different from its earlier copy.Pakistan has a major role ahead of itself which largely builds around restraint and not jumping the gun in exuberance.

Pakistan remains tied to the Afghans because of the dictates of terrain, first, and then for housing over five million refugees in the last four decades, many of whom now call Pakistan home. Such bonds excited Pakistan in 1996 to missteps exposing its flanks to inimical forces. We will need to be far more deliberate this time around.

Our effort should to be to help Afghans findstability which can sustain. Our recognition of the new regime in Afghanistan must come in the company of all neighbours of Afghanistan but importantly China and Russia. We may provide all support that Afghanistan may need in these turbulent times but never at the cost of accentuating any of our vulnerabilities. It will need a positive, assured and a deft handling of the rapidly changing context in Afghanistan.


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