The situation in Afghanistan is in a state of flux. Even before vacation of the notorious Bagram Airbase, the taliban have been encircling major Afghan cities under hostile rule. Though well trained and well armed, the Afghan troops usually preferred to take to heels rather than ferociously resist the taliban onslaughts.
The US president, in an interview, said that he decided to exit from Afghanistan as the objective of taking out Osama bin Laden had been achieved besides limping Al-Qaeda. The European troops had already left Afghanistan quietly. Thus, the Afghan government is now faced with the grim challenge of facing the taliban with about 25000 troops and 650 US marines. The US is now more concerned about rescuing about 50,000 contractors (translators, informants and their ilk).
In an interview, the US president boasted that America had achieved the main objective of taking out Osama bin laden and limping Al-Qaeda. The affluent Afghans, in search of a better future, feel cheated. They thought that the USA longed for warding off obscurantism and transforming the Afghan society into a vibrant enlightened polity.
They question the costs of war in money and human toll. The US spent US$2.261 trillion on the Afghan war during the period from 2001 to April 2021. About 1, 74, 868 lives were lost. They included US military 2,442, contractors 3846, other/allied troops 1144, Afghan troops and police69,000, taliban 51,191, and Afghan civilians 47,245.
The real reason for decision to exit
American mothers were unwilling to contribute anymore aluminum caskets to Arlington Cemetery. American mothers became war weary after receiving 58,200 body packs during Vietnam’s war. Majority of Americans believe America failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan (PEW Research Center poll). They were fed up with wars started by the US presidents. This issue exerted an impact on presidential elections also.
Afghan government’s misjudgment
The Afghan government presumed that the Americans would never leave Afghanistan. They would never strike a deal with the taliban. The government never prepared itself to make the most of training and equipment provided by the Americans. It never tried to become a viable force after the American exit.
The afghan government failed to notice that the taliban had become flexible during the course of war. They were striking compromises with not only the Americans but also with the Northern Alliance. The taliban were no longer fully under Pakistan’s influence. They held negotiations even with India to Pakistan’s disenchantment.
The Americans, on the other hand, struck many compromises with the taliban. They began to ignore SOS calls from the government troops under taliban fire. Devoid of air cover, the taliban used to breakfast with about 20 to 40 casualties of Afghan troops each day.
Why did the USA lose?
The Afghan debacle is the cumulative outcome of Afghan government’s across-the-board mismanagement and shifting goalposts of the US objectives.
Why Taliban’s narrative appeals to the lay mind. The taliban see the USA is an aggressor. They draw inspiration from (22:39-40). `Permission to fight is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed . . . those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah.”
Taliban fighters rightly say `The Americans have the watches, but we have the time’. Taliban’s thinking is akin to Vo Nguyen Giap’s. ‘I could lose every battle and still win the war. US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara had worked out that I was controlling the frequency and scale of engagements to deep my losses just below the birth rate that way the Vietnamese could fight for ever’ (Nigel Cawthorner, Victory: 100 Great Military Commanders, 2003, Arcutus Publishing Limited, London).
How long can Ashraf Ghani’s government last?
Ghani admitted on 60 minutes, ‘without US and NATO support’, his government would fall in six months. `It would fall within six days’ (Newsweek Nov. 24 to Dec. 6, 2018, p. 27). With Afghan border fenced, over 30, 000 fleeing `traitor’ (besides troops and Black Water contractors) may have to be airlifted to Oman, Qatar and Bahrain through airborne brigades and US 5th fleet, if Taliban win. Over 60 percent physical area, and over 90 percent ideological areas, is already under Taliban’s influence.
Lessons of history
History is on taliban’s side. USA’s 18,000 troops plus 27,000 contractors (Black Water) proved to be handy prey. Despite lure of dollars in elite leaders, majority of Afghans nurture an independent mind and loathe foreign dominance.
In 1842, 16,000 British troops evaporated. In 1942 (WWII), British again failed to civilize (gun-point democratize) Afghanistan. Britain realized `masterly inactivity’ is the best policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is commonly known as the graveyard of empires. Several rulers tried to overpower it. , But it was in vain. They had to bite the dust. Genghis Khan lost a son during the siege of Bamian. Alexander the Great had to beat a hasty retreat. In the nineteenth century `Great’ Britain, at the height of imperial power, invaded Afghanistan. It was humbled, marking the beginning of the British Empire. They never again attacked Afghanistan taking refuge under their strategy of ‘Masterly Inactivity’.
Erstwhile Soviet Union rushed its troops to Afghanistan in aid of the tottering Afghan government. In retaliation, the USA and its allies cobbled up Afghan resistance, mujahideen, to fight the Soviet forces. The Soviet Union had its nosed bloodied on Afghan soil. It retreated. Meanwhile, several component countries under Soviet umbrella rebelled. The Soviet Union broke into congeries of several independent republics, confining the Union to Russia. A Taliban government emerged at the helm after Soviet departure.
The sole superpower, the USA, attacked Afghanistan to oust the taliban. The ostensible reason was that the Taliban had sheltered Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11 attack on the twin tower of the World Trade Centre at New York. The taliban had no answer to incessant aerial bombing. Their government collapsed. For a while it looked as if the Afghan invincibility had been proved to be a myth. After decades of fighting, it dawned on the USA that the Afghan intervention was a misadventure.
How Afghan government was weakened?
The puppet Afghan governments were more interested in making money than fighting the taliban. Like American soldiers, Afghan trainees too realized it pays to connive at taliban presence and let farmers grow poppy.
Afghanistan became a kleptocratic state where every government posting and promotion depends on power and patronage.
Afghanistan produces 92 per cent of the world’s opium, with the equivalent of at least 3,500 tonnes leaving the country each year. This racket was secured by drug kingpins like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the beloved brother of former president Hamid Karzai, and other influential persons. The essence of UNODC’s policy is that there is a causal (a priori or cause-and-effect relation) between poppy cultivation and the ongoing insurgency. Afghan government handpicks pliable provincial governors for eradication of poppy. These governors feed fictitious figures to the UN agencies about their landmark achievements in rooting out poppy cultivation at its various stages. These focal nodal prodigies have created the euphoria that government-controlled provinces are poppy-free.
Aside from euphoric reviews, the factual position is that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is flourishing by leaps and bounds. The governors are motivated more by self-interest than by national objectives. They are minting money from all quarters, including India’s intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing. The RAW is more interested in turning influential Afghans against Pakistan, and planting insurgents in Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, than in poppy eradication. The RAW understands that there is no single fail-safe panacea for eradicating the poppy curse. Exterminating the menace of poppy lies outside the RAW’s mandate.
Poppy, a cash crop
Aside from the RAW’s machinations, the problem of poppy cultivation calls for a closer look in a multi-dimensional perspective. Afghanistan has a predominantly agrarian economy. Opium production contributes35 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product while cereal crops only about 27 per cent. There is no industrial structure to name, despite its tall claims, India has not been able to lay tangible industrial infrastructure to boost Afghan economy. Afghanistan is one of the world’s least developed countries and the poorest in Asia. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the majority of the country’s population is concerned about physical needs (food, clothing and shelter).
Poppy cultivation is the main avenue of physical security. There is a symbiotic relation between the people’s needs for socio-economic security and poppy cultivation. Majority of the population is preoccupied with how to survive by ensuring food security by getting employed in poppy cultivation. Yet, they find it difficult to make ends meet. The UNODC’s observation that about 14 percent of Afghans are employed in poppy cultivation does not reflect the real life situation. The agricultural-production system is mostly dependent on seasonal rainfall and poor water-management. As such, productivity per hectare is low. The centuries-old traditional cultivation system impedes their economic progress. The system is pivoted on salaam that is cash advance given on security of future crop yield. Poppy is the favourite crop by way of security rather than wheat, black cumin or some other crop. Afghan government could veritably be termed a poppy syndicate because of its lack of interest in poppy eradication. The governors look like custodians of poppy-growing lands. How could this coterie axe its own interest?
Peace in Afghanistan may remain elusive for quite some time due to a complex situation.
It has too many stakeholders. Besides USA, Pakistan and taliban, India (Chahbahar Port), Iran, China and Turkey (Turkmen-Turkic community) have stakes in Afghanistan? Afghan economy is in shambles, and needs economic support. . Could the US spend $43 billion (it would save annually from exit) on Afghanistan development? Could China, India, Iran and Turkey together (besides the USA) start a nouveau Marshall Plan in war-ravaged Afghanistan to avoid a clash of interest? What about the post-exit 250,000-strong Afghan army with taliban? Will there be no spill-over effect of taliban-enforced Shari’a on modernist Pakistan? How would rebellious Pakistani Taliban and recalcitrant elements in Balochistan react to the US exit? Will the Ashraf Ghani government and other puppets reconcile, at heart, to US exit?