How the west was won

Others simply won it with guile, stratagem and the fluid nature of irregular war


Shahzad Chaudhry September 24, 2021
The writer along with his team was intimately involved with institution of planning and execution processes including doctrinal adjustments that enabled the PAF to turn into an effective counter-terror force while retaining its core competencies along the full spectrum of war

If you missed a former DG ISI, Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi’s interview with a private channel a few weeks back, you need to sift it out and watch it for its immense value of information on the formation of the Taliban movement and of Pakistan/ISI’s role in it.

You may be surprised. He lays it all out in his inimitably easy style. It is in two parts and one may have some reservations on the part-two of it for some embellishment et al considering he is not going to give it all away but he in on the dot in part-one which is about how the movement began and how it came into contact with Pakistan’s ISI, or the other way round. Just as a teaser to the main course in the interview it began about trade and enabling release of a confiscated consignment of raw cotton imported from Uzbekistan by Pakistani ginners which had been hauled by a certain warlord on the way.

We need to dial back a bit — 1983. The Soviets were fully in control in Afghanistan; they had been there four years already and the US and Pakistan/ISI were forging a resistance against them. That year, 1983, President Ronald Reagan of the USA invited the Mujahideen for a chat at the White House and the Oval Office, turbans and all. Yunus Khalis led the delegation after Gulbadin Hikmetyar chose to sit himself out although he was already the Jihad’s poster boy in receipt of lavish aid from the CIA. Jalaluddin Haqqani — the founder of the (infamous) Haqqani Network — was “goodness personified” and Ahmed Shah Massoud was a proud MI6 asset. Reagan may not have called the visiting Mujahideen the “moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers” but he surely did call them “the true representatives” of “a nation of heroes”.

To Reagan’s exuberant self they may well have been one of Moses’ lost tribes. They were doing “God’s work” against the “Godless” Muskovites. The US support to build, activate and launch the Mujahideen against the “Godless” Soviets was termed Operation Cyclone and it aimed at throwing the Soviets out of Afghanistan and deny them whatever else was their agenda. That Mikhail Gorbachev came handy with his “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” was the culmination of the Operation in 1989. Soviet Union became Russia restructuring a significant land mass of Eurasia into multiple political definitions. Some of these later became NATO.

Javed Ashraf Qazi was the DG ISI under Benazir Bhutto in 1993-95 and closely saw the rise of the Taliban. The Taliban rose as a force to reckon with in the Afghan countryside, and with hardly a fight kept winning influence and adding to their numbers. The strategy was simple: they would go, sit outside a village or a placement and wait out the warlord or the leader of the clan to simply know there was no other way but to submit to this growing throng outside. As he did so his militia would join the Taliban burgeoning their size and numbers. This cyclone simply kept billowing into a storm through negotiated accession or a siege and kept winning village after village and district after district till most of Afghanistan was with them and under them. Kabul fell to them in 1996. Qazi explains it all extremely eloquently in his above-mentioned interview.

To understand irregular war one must revert to the masters: Yip Man — Bruce Lee’s master Martial Art specialist — may have derived from Confucius when he taught him to become water to fill in the shape that fell his way. Not expend energy against a wall, rather save it for the right moment. Flexibility and fluidity were the underlying teachings. Sun Tzu taught the world, “winning was best accomplished without firing a shot; the greatest victory is that which requires no battle”, and “let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night…”. Mao, Giap and those that waged irregular wars against regular armies taught one basic lesson to their cadres, ‘Is the enemy strong? Avoid him’. They urged, ‘rapidity and surprise in attack and retreat’. And if there is one lesson that irregular wars must encapsulate to be victorious it is to melt in the shadows to reappear when the enemy least expects. Become the water and ‘melt’ with the surroundings. To recede is as crucial a tactical move as is to attack. Those that know when and how to retreat to reappear when right carry the moment. Such wars are won through small victories exhausting those who only know annihilation and use of overwhelming force.

For the last forty years the Mujahideen and their successors, the Taliban, have only perfected the art alongside building a political wing to their movement. This hypothesis is moot; but, the Americans wanted out and gave Ashraf Ghani time to evolve a power-sharing mechanism with the Taliban. He spurned the thought hoping power will ultimately be his to keep only if he did not relent. Seeing him obstinate the Americans are likely to have told the Taliban, ‘we are out’ and they may work out what works best for them. The withdrawal plan with its mechanics along a fixed time-line was agreed to. The Taliban were to lay the siege on Kabul in a hope to force Ghani to relent and agree to power-sharing. He instead decamped. If the Taliban seem a bit overwhelmed and inadequate they have been thrust far ahead on the time-line much too fast and quite away from what may had been scripted in the end-game.

But how did they navigate their way to another ascendance without having to fight ANSF as America withdrew? They negotiated with the tribal and regional leaders and as each fell into the Taliban camp their followers, now normalised as ANSF cadres, began melting away into the countryside if not filling the Taliban ranks dismantling any resistance. The ANSF was on the face a regular army but in actuality was a composition of groups from various regions, tribes and sub-nationalities. They wilted with their elders and the ranks of ANSF emptied at a rapid rate. Anyone who knew Afghanistan well should have understood the composite nature of the country and its unique institutional characteristics with its idiosyncrasies. Those who did not met grief and embarrassment.

The only West that was won with force was the ‘wild west’. Others simply won it with guile, stratagem and the fluid nature of irregular war. When Tora Bora was being bombed with MOAB and the Daisy Cutters only the Al-Qaeda fled into refuge in Waziristan or those recognised as the Taliban leadership. Others, the majority, simply melted away into their familial surroundings. By day they were farmers, by night warriors. Welcome to the irregular war. It won them the west.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2021.

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