Did America lose the Afghan War? It travelled thousands of miles from her base, invaded a country — she could be faulted for that among other things — occupied it for as long as she wanted to and left it when she felt the need after twenty years of occupation. And she lost the war? Of these twenty years the last few were with troop levels varying between 10,000 and 2,500, in a country of forty million where the contending Taliban forces numbered around 100,000. And America lost the war? Which American city stands pulverised because of the war? Where do signs of devastation, of death and destruction exist on ground? Which terra firma hosted boots on ground and where were those pummeled? The US lost around 8,000, all told, souls in the war in comparisons to the around 200,000 odd cadres and civilians of Afghanistan including the Taliban.
Let’s define a military victory through other means — boots on ground: those who remain are the real victors; the Americans came and couldn’t stay; the Taliban have stayed and thus prevailed, could be the refrain. By such definition the sub-continental Indians were the real winners of the wars that Britain imposed on it in its utmost glory and occupied India with only 10,000 British men beginning 1757 till they left in 1947. The British left; the Indians remained. Indians should have been the victors. Try making that argument at the risk of your credibility. The Mongols came, Alexander came, as did the Mughals and the Persians and ravaged India to their heart’s content and left. The natives subsisted and remained yet were plundered — pulverised is still the most telling explanation — and by this contrived definition of victory that is under celebration should have declared themselves the victors. The Afghans have been through a lot. The Brits, the Soviets and the Americans took turns at reducing them to their rocky roots as they conquered and occupied a nation.
None remains forever. In fact the most sticking critique of America’s Afghan war will always be its overstaying the mission — the US should have vacated after 2011 when OBL had been hunted down and America had lost its moral justification to keep another country under occupation. Military employment is mission-specific and must vacate its role after the mission is done. When militaries arrogate political objectives they enter a realm far beyond their capacity and lose the war. You can only be oblivious if one is history-proof or hubris-driven. The days of the soldier-statesman are no more. It is a far more specialised warfare than simply driving hordes into lands for occupation. That is what we mean when we say the nature of war has changed and anyone not heeding this dominating lesson from the twentieth century will do so at his peril. It is not the boots but the minds on ground that count.
The strategic objective of a modern war is to coerce an adversary through pain and punishment to conform to a desired state of conduct. This needs tools to deliver instant and lethal riposte to an excess than embroil in a prolonged intractable conflict. If anything the US’ Afghan war should reinforce this abiding lesson to all purveyors of military power. Some of those tools will increasingly include Cyber, AI and Robotics. Political tools of war are equally devastating to an economy if a side has control over them. Wars are meant to be efficiently prosecuted to minimise waste in time and resource. Technology drove Al Qaeda out and then over series of applications reduced its existence to a nominal presence. Technology also helped pin OBL and take him out. And then the US stayed to pursue undefined and unachievable goals. The war became inefficient.
Today Afghan cities are lain in ruins with scars of war. The Afghan society was unable to intrinsically develop for four decades under an imposed order. San Francisco, Chicago, Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad and Lahore have kept thriving in the meanwhile. The Afghans now have another chance at rebuilding their lives and their society and their politics but the depredation that was visited upon them means they neither have the human nor the material capital to resume that journey. It remains a Faustian bargain forcing them to fall back on the same international community to help them survive and sustain which had appropriated their aspirations. US, Russia and China continue to be what they were before — in situ and anvil superpowers despite their extended and meaningless forays. Whose loss is it?
1898 was the last time America let a war get as close to its shores as in the Spanish-American War in Cuba. The American military system is an expeditionary army meant to fight in foreign lands against inimical forces that they perceive may bring a war into America. All of America’s wars in the twentieth and the twenty-first century have thus been fought on foreign lands true to its military’s intended role. This has kept mainland-US war-proof. ISIS and Al-Shabab etc are someone else’s pail, thousands of miles away from the US. One can question the politics of America’s wars and its ingrained altruism in characterisations of ‘just’ and ‘moral’ but from a militaristic point of view it only counts for useless polemics.
Beating drums, firing in the air, and fuming success in mouthful claims are indicative of delusionary, make-believe world — one seeped in serious miscalculations shorn of strategic sensitivity. Don’t get me wrong; it is a unique moment in Afghan history to try one more time to rebuild an Afghan society and a nation. But without the wherewithal. That’s the irony. Those that came violated its dignity along with its possessions and stayed long enough to decimate its ideational roots. The number of Afghans who want out aren’t all scared of the Taliban but betray their own lack of faith in the Afghan future. And even though they may be miniscule in comparisons these are the ones who found a reasonable chance to escape; others simply did not and stayed. When a nation is faced with a human and food emergency for survival as a war finishes it isn’t too difficult to know which way the scale points.
We have other challenges to contend as a nation than trumpet what remains a largely neighbourly predicament. We should help as much as possible but without gloating over one more imaginary victory over another superpower that we wrongly ascribe to ourselves. We have held well through testing times and that isn’t a mean feat considering the odds but needless chest-beating should wait. From this Afghan experience may rise further challenges to our state far deeper in extent and impact. If indeed Afghanistan is history’s graveyard of empires it is for Afghanistan to carry the chip, not us. What should worry us instead is having a metaphorical graveyard as a neighbour. If so, it might haunt us forever with effects far more lasting than battlefields will ever deliver. It is time to take stock instead.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2021.
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