A pyrrhic victory for Pakistan and America

Published: September 12, 2011
The writer works as a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley

The writer works as a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley

The gods of fate have a wicked sense of humour. When they want to destroy someone, they make their dreams come true but then soon turn them into nightmares. So they did to the odd couple, the American and Pakistani establishments, who were proud victors of the first Afghan war.

The former USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and soon, thereafter, disintegrated. There was little doubt then about the loser, although difference of opinion existed about the real winner. For Americans, capitalism won against communism. For the ‘mujahideen’ and Pakistan’s establishment, jihad and divine help caused its collapse. In reality, the Soviet demise was due to its own stagnant economic system, which had started exhibiting signs of terminal disease since the 1970s. The Afghan war was merely the last straw that broke the camel’s back. This is an important lesson to note for the jihadists who harbour visions of a similar victory over India. This is a dangerous illusion as the USSR of 1989 and India of 2011 are two different creatures. The USSR was a decaying economic power with little emotional investment in the Afghan war. India is an ascendant economic power with heavy emotional investment in the Kashmir case. These subtleties may be lost on avid believers in the infinite elasticity of the results possible from religious fervour alone.

However, the more interesting aspect of this story relates to what happened subsequently to the immediate victors and losers. Russia, successor state to the USSR, remained mired in economic and political chaos for another 10 years, i.e. till the end of the 1990s. Russia subsequently turned itself around, based on its enormous natural resources and is bracketed together with Brazil, India and China, today, as one of the four ‘BRIC’ (initials of their respective names) countries that are emerging as future economic superpowers. Thus, the collapse of the empire catalysed by the loss of the Afghan war, eventually helped Russia get rid of the dead weight of its colonies and emerge as an economic dynamo.

What about the victors? Surely, if even the loser has done so well, the victors must be doing even better! They actually did, but unfortunately only for a few years, precisely the years that Russia was languishing. The marriage of convenience ended as the odd couple drifted apart and went their merry ways. America went on to become the world’s sole superpower and essentially forgot Afghanistan. Flushed in its victory, it embarked on 10 years of remarkable economic expansion, financed by heavy public and private debt. It also launched several limited military expeditions globally, successfully in Kosovo and Bosnia but less successfully in Somalia, from where it beat hasty and timely retreat. Somalia was, unfortunately, just an ad of what was to come in the new century for the US, from ill-conceived military expeditions. Pakistan’s achievements were more modest but still exciting for the worldly masters of its fate. Its establishment did not forget Afghanistan and actually helped establish a supposedly pliant government there to achieve ‘strategic depth’. Spurred by the obvious dividends paid by the Afghan jihad, it turned its attention eastwards to apply the same tactics that had worked so well on its western borders and got engaged in the Kashmir turmoil that had started in 1989, as a locally inspired struggle against serious Indian atrocities.

However, around the time when Russia was pulling itself up by its bootstraps out of the abyss, luck started running out for the title holders of the Pyrrhic Afghan victory. Even the most creative writers of Bollywood movies or Greek tragedies would struggle to conjure up such ironic coincidences and fates. While glimpses were on display earlier — in the form of the attack on US embassies in Africa, the attack on the Twin Towers and bombing of the USS Cole — the real proportions of the horrific Frankenstein that the victors had unwittingly procreated, and then allowed to grow by inattention and indirect support, became apparent only on 9/11. Thus, in September 2001, after 10 long years of estrangement, the odd couple found itself sitting awkwardly and embarrassingly across the table to discuss how to clean up the mess, much like a divorced couple brought together by the mess caused by a problem child, acting out as a consequence of being ignored for long by its parents.

Fast-forward 10 years to September 2011 and the ‘victors’ are still stuck, clueless in the Afghan quagmire. America’s unipolar moment is a distant dream as it confronts the costs of its economic and military excesses since 1990. Pakistan’s fate is worse. Ravaged by terrorism, it struggles to extricate itself from a bottomless pit. Some winners, indeed! Its politicians have caused much damage to Pakistan through corruption and inefficiency. However, this harm pales into insignificance in comparison with the incalculable harm caused by the mindless adventures of its jaunty generals. The real intelligence failure of Pakistan’s establishment reflected by the Abbottabad fiasco is not, in the spying sense of the word, in not detecting Osama or the American attack. It is in the IQ sense of the word, in following senseless policies over 20 years which have ravaged Pakistan’s ordinary people. The same is true for America. As it collapsed under its own weight, the USSR would have left Afghanistan in any case without the liberation war and the subsequent horrors that it spawns till today, as it left the other five Stans peacefully. Saddam too may have gone more easily, as shown by the Arab Spring.

Unfortunately, there are other losers too, in this drama who deserve full sympathies — the Afghans whose country has been destroyed by their own elite and outsiders. Redemption may come for Pakistani and American rulers if they plan a solution which benefits the Afghans rather than them. These lessons also apply to other budding superpowers, notably China and India, who may be tempted to use Afghanistan for their own designs. Beware both, for the gods of fate have a wicked sense of humour, indeed.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Sajida
    Sep 12, 2011 - 9:33PM

    According to William Polk Both America and USSR were losers in the Cold War.
    All the articles available on his website are worth reading. They are all a very interesting read.
    Talk before the 21st Century Club of Cleveland, Ohio, Friday, September 20, 2008
    Talk at Bennington College students and faculty on September 15, 2008
    See for Polk, a retired consummate insider:


  • N
    Sep 12, 2011 - 9:44PM

    “Redemption may come for Pakistani and American rulers if they plan a solution which benefits the Afghans rather than them.”

    Very well written.
    No one can bring peace to Afghanistan if the local Pashtuns (and Taliban in their mix) and their patron – Pakistan, don’t want to.

    It is a clash of ideologies and world views – one side seeks the future, the other the past – a reactionary state, completely controlled by us. USA would like to vacate. But the government in Kabul will not survive. And no one wants the past to come back and haunt the world one more time.

    It is not a pyrrhic victory. This is a generations long war. The USA has clearly won by containing the most violent threat to modern societies. If we come to the party, we can save our religion, our nation and us. We can be a force of good and help the world achieve a permanent victory sooner. But with or without us, the world will prevail over Al Qeda and its ideology.


  • Ashok
    Sep 12, 2011 - 9:45PM

    Good article. However, the last sentence, while masked as a universal truth, conveys anguish and a dash of hope from a Pakistani national that India does not involve itself in Afghanistan in a way that would be detrimental to the interests of Pakistan. There is apparently a theory that is floating around in some circles that Pakistan’s military has calculated that the most significant singular threat to the unification of Pakistan lies in Pashtun nationalism – hence the need to keep Afghanistan a hotbed of chaos and demonstrate relative security of Pashtun majority territories administered under Pakistan. The problem with this ‘endgame’ is that there is no neat final end, and that chaos will continually spill over from Afghanistan into Pakistan so long as the status quo endures.


  • Bangash
    Sep 12, 2011 - 10:03PM

    Fresh and excellent views.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 12, 2011 - 10:10PM

    So easy to say in worm bedroom sitting on the couch watching 42 inches plasma T.V ……….


  • Post from New York
    Sep 12, 2011 - 10:20PM

    What an irony. Two of world’s economic power China and India are both Pakistan’ neighbors – one is an all weather friend and other- an all weather enemy. If Pakistan could have made peace with India, the state of its affairs would not have been like this.


  • Nasir
    Sep 12, 2011 - 11:21PM

    @ Ashok

    I dont agree with this theory. Pushtoon have spread throughout the country and have established their business. you will find pushtoon in every part of the Pakistan. It is economically, socially, and even emotionally irrational for them to demand for a separate country, get it, and pack up their businesses and relations to go to this newly achieved country. And even if they had not flown to other parts of the country, still pushtoon of Pakistan have never even threaten the Pakistani establishment with separatist movement. they have not burnt Pakistani flags and haven’t asked for a greater paktoonistan as is the situation in Baluchistan or frequent use of Sindh Card by the PPP, despite the current chaotic situation. I know it because I am a pushtoon myself. God forbide, if this country has to be divided, we will be part left behind, as we will never initiate and rather resist such threat to Pakistan.


  • Ashok
    Sep 13, 2011 - 12:04AM


    Here’s another question I pose to you – would it be economically, socially and emotionally rational for Afghanistan to merge into Pakistan officially or unofficially into one larger Pakistan? After all, what really is the rational ‘need’ for Afghanistan if there is also a Sunni majority Pakistan that is seen as being a benefactor to Pashtuns? I think the long term planning of Pakistan’s military is towards this end. If Pakistan could take successful bets in the East with acquiring Gilgit Baltistan, attempt to retain East Pakistan unsuccessfully at a significant cost, acquiring Balochistan in the South-West, what prevents it from taking a similar bet in the West with the acquisition of the Afghan south? Tajikistan would be more interested in the North of Afghanistan, and would be in conflict with any attempts by Pakistan to acquire Tajik dominated northern Afghanistan, since a success on this front would open up the possibility of Pakistan later advancing towards militarily acquiring Tajkistan. Do you see where I am getting at? Pakistan has never shown comfort with the status quo throughout its military history – despite having more land per capita in 1971 onward than India did, this did not prevent Pakistan from militarily pursuing Indian administered Kashmir to its own significant detriment from a human capital perspective. Similarly, why should Pakistan fight shy of pursuing the Afghan south?


  • Tony C.
    Sep 13, 2011 - 12:16AM

    What can one say? Dr. Murtaza is right as far as it goes, but there are just too many variables for a complete and correct assessment of what are really world problems.

    America is a wild card, still re-living their Wild-West days, albeit on a world scale, and appears to be totally out of control. I do not think anybody really knows who is in control of America or any other Western country for that matter, but we can guess.

    Britain, America, and others, have carried out massacres in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. They obviously have no respect for human life and dignity. The Middle-Eastern and Eastern countries also pose a conundrum. They are letting the U.S./NATO countries pick off their brother countries one by one, and not only do they not lift a finger to help, appear to agree with the west.

    I do not know where Pakistan and India are heading or who controls them. They keep their idiotic arguments about Kashmir going with no end in sight. They allow America to use Afghanistan as a plaything. Can anybody really believe it takes in excess of ten years to settle the problems of a country with the weakest military, a few thousand rebels and, apart from a flourishing drug culture, the poorest economy. It is reasonably obvious that Afghanistan is in a situation of planned chaos, and I do not think my saying it is a conspiracy theory.

    I do not see any hope for the world. Western countries go rampaging around the world killing people in appallingly huge numbers, and stealing resources. if anybody resists they are called terrorists. Instead of using their wealth for killing they could use it to help less well endowed countries. I think that countries such as India and Pakistan, which pretend to take the moral higher ground, could do much more in the areas of critical assessment at institutions such as the U.N., or those within the Eastern block. Unfortunately, it is not readily apparent that they are doing so.

    Obviously, the world problems in general, and those of Pakistan in particular will not improve quickly. Mankind is in desperate need of Statesmen and Stateswomen who really are Statesmen, and have the ability to lead and solve problems without resorting to military adventures.


  • Observer
    Sep 13, 2011 - 1:24AM

    One of the best analysis and reviews of this complex situation I have read to date. Good one Dr. Niaz Murtaza


  • vivek
    Sep 13, 2011 - 11:27AM

    An excellent article with a perfect truth.The problem is that the so called super winner of Afghan war is unable to see it.The lunacy for defeating India and cutting it into thousand wounds gave you a situation that cannot be controlled.India was much weaker during 1989-1999 period but managed to counter the Mujahidin tactic in Kashmir.Now India has become stronger and well-capable to face any threat.


  • Feroz
    Sep 13, 2011 - 11:46AM

    Afghanistan will continue to be the graveyard of those trying to subvert it. As long as the Taliban and Pakistan are on one side and the World on the other side, chaos will continue in Afpak region. Only a Talaq can improve the situation.


  • Santosh
    Sep 13, 2011 - 11:57AM

    A pragmatic assessment. However, the audience is wrong. ET’s reach may by <2% and I believe the Army Generals are definitely not one of them. Please ask them to subscribe ET. ET and Dawn are two sane & progressive voices of Pakistan.

    -an Indian well-wisher.


  • gul jan
    Sep 13, 2011 - 12:44PM

    Excellent article. I have come across few articles which have attempted to dispassionately explain the roots of all of all evils that are afflicting Pakistan today. How can we make the hamidguls of this country understand that we have played with fire that has become an inferno which has set the whole country ablaze. We now have the notorious distinction of “the most dangerous on the earth”: We are ranking high on the table of failed state. All the extremists and radical Islamist have made Pakistan their safe haven. The proliferation of religious schools with petro-dollars will produce a generation of ultra radicals having nothing to do but fuel terrorism. More worrying is the fact that the zaidhamids of this unfortunate country wants to establish caliphate over the entire globe probably to have himself as a caliph. But the tragedy is there are thousands around who aspire for this coveted position.


  • Naeem
    Sep 13, 2011 - 12:55PM

    A well-written article. I would like to give the following comments:

    a. I agree with Nasir, Pushtons in Pakistan are now part of the politico-economic mainstream; unlike the 70s. They are now a major stake-holder in the status quo.
    b. It is still possible to “reconcile” the Taliban; and whereas there is a tactical affinity between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, there is a strategic divergence; Al-Qaeda seeks a pan-Islamic Caliphate, whereas, Taliban endeavour to get rid of the foreign occupation. Therefore, there are no easy/ early solutions. The regional situation is bound to aggravated; if and when the Americans upstake from Afghanistan. The other major aggravating factor would be the disparate interests of various region actors/ neighbours.
    c. In any case, Pakistani establishment needs to eschew the disastrous and self-debilitating policy of “strategic depth”, forsake proxy jihadi militias and try to achieve a lasting peace with India.
    d. Unless sanity prevails among the power-brokers in Pakistan, it would implode under its’ internal and external contradictions.
    e. Finally, the Soviet eviction from Afghanistan was not a victory; not even Pyrrhic, but a pre-cursor to existential disaster.


  • Paras Vikmani
    Sep 13, 2011 - 1:38PM

    Too good article!


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Sep 13, 2011 - 3:36PM

    @Ali Tanoli:

    I am sure the good doctor does not have WORMS in his bedroom. I think you meant to write “WARM”.


  • Sep 13, 2011 - 5:22PM

    No body really achieved victory in war-ravaged Afghanistan but they were only looking for face-saving. The Americans are doing the same things. Latest news are that the Taliban have stormed the American Embassy in Kabul.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 13, 2011 - 6:32PM

    @ Meekal Ahmed
    You got it bro, i hope he does not have worm they are good for fishing.


  • Sep 13, 2011 - 6:45PM

    Intervention in Afghanistan was a unmittigated disaster for former USSR.It proved as USA exploited both USSR and Pakistan.History is full of such misadvanture.The unintended consequences are now fully hatched chickens for any sane eye to see.The jihadis in Pakistan,the collepse of USSR,the over reaching by Al-Kheda in 9/11,the Iraq and Afghanistan war and “strategic depth misconception by military in Pakistan.America is a large economy and very vibrant democracy,it will recover after paying a stiff price just as Russia has now as it is part of BRIC.India has become a triving economy and people over there are waking up to corruption and poor GOI poor mangement,it will only get better as there is always growing pain and’ cause and effect’ for any action such as bad goverance and massive corruption.The day of reckonning is there for every one.No mistake about it.Human beings are endowed with mind and common sense.Even Pakistan will correct its unwise policy,there is no other way,that is how pendulum of time and history works,it always has.The question is how stuburn one is.The British gave up the “RAJ” after it became untenable after 2nd world war.The only problem I see in Pakistan is the wrong belief about the true nature of of interpreting religious dogmas,even that will resolve itself,human do not like a knot on their heads when they butt heads on thick walls,that is universal truth,but it takes time for thick shull to understand but at the end wall does not give in ,humans do.GET IT ?Thanks.


  • observer
    Sep 13, 2011 - 9:01PM

    @Ali Tanoli

    So easy to say in worm bedroom sitting on the couch watching 42 inches plasma T.V ………

    I hope you are ‘worm’ enough. Or are you getting ‘weight’ in the ‘reigns’.


  • Aziz Akhmad
    Sep 13, 2011 - 9:12PM

    A very good sum up of the happenings of the last three decades, on one page. A good analyses of the motivations of the different parties involved in the conflict.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 13, 2011 - 9:23PM

    @ Observer
    haha funny haha


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