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America’s Afghanistan experience: Hubris and patience at its ends

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We did not sign a peace deal, it was an instrument of surrender” – Gen. David Petraeus

One of the oldest dictums of diplomatic negotiations is that one should enter into one only from a position of strength. The fall of the United States (US) backed Afghan government in August 2021 was as rapid as that of Taliban two decades earlier. The mighty U.S. Army, when it left Afghanistan after 20 years, which took thousands of lives, limbs and billions of dollars, did not appear like withdrawing but fleeing.

By contrast, the Soviet Union when it withdrew after its defeat, withdrew in good order. With Taliban steadily gaining territory during the negotiations, the US-Taliban peace deal a.k.a the Doha Agreement seemed more akin to the US officially handing over powers to the fundamentalist group. That the ruling coalition of President Ashraf Ghani was side-lined from it, made the reality all the more apparent.

The US not just abandoned Afghans to their fate but also left behind weapons and military equipment worth more than $7 billion, making it possible for Taliban to have its own air force. Importantly, the US withdrawal also left several unanswered questions and challenges in its wake.

Most pertinent among them – why did the US hand over power back to Taliban and chose to bypass the Afghan government while doing so? Why did the US trained and armed Afghan National Army crumbled so easily? Who is going to fill the power vacuum? How does this affect the neighbourhood?

Hubris of Great Powers

The illusion of an easy victory in Afghanistan over Taliban in 2001 and in Iraq a couple of years later, may have led the US to believe the hubris of its own military power. Perhaps the lessons of Vietnam War were long forgotten. The reports from the ground by military commanders about the withdrawal of Taliban and al-Qaeda into Pakistan across the border were not paid heed to.

This was not surprising because the Bush-Cheney administration was more focused on its bigger objective of dethroning Saddam Hussein. The ill-thought and illegal invasion of Iraq, based on fabricated evidence and lies amplified by the media houses, certainly had garnered public support. But the aftermath is another story.

The euphoria of victories also led the US government officials to believe that they can create a Western style democratic state with minimal effort. This obviously showed the lack of appreciation of realities on ground in the two countries. Nation building in societies divided on ethnic and sectarian lines, coupled with lack of education, takes a lot of effort, with no guarantees of success. The blunder by Paul Bremmer of disbanding the Iraqi army would later be directly held responsible for creating the situation that led to the emergence of ISIS.

The reality started to hit home only when the US mission got bogged down in fighting the raging insurgency. The failure to defeat Taliban in battle and allowing its fighters to retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan, made it inevitable that later they will regroup and counterattack, which they did. Seeing no way out of a situation that it no longer wanted to be in, the US chose to throw the Afghans under the bus, so to speak.

The US experience of having struck a deal with the Afghan Mujahideens during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, perhaps led it to believe it can secure another deal with a fundamentalist organisation. Only this time the opponents were not “Godless” communist but Western Christians.

Patience and its limits      

Many have wondered why US the chose to make a deal with the Taliban and did so in a way that called into question the legitimacy of the very government that it had created and supported. It is true that large undertakings do take time and thus require tremendous amount of patience. However, if things don’t improve on the ground, one eventually runs out of patience.

To its credit, the Obama administration and the US military tried their best to make Afghanistan governable and self-sustaining. The lives of women and children were visibly improved, especially in cities, where they could access education and find employment. Even the parliament, built by the Government of India, saw women getting elected as legislators.

The chronic lack of revenue generation meant that the Afghan government remained dependent on foreign largesse to pay the salaries of government employees. However, the distrust among politicians and the widespread corruption and nepotism saw very little trickle down to the common man in Afghanistan.

Numerous reports by SIGAR clearly mention that the men on Afghan Army payroll simply didn’t exist. They were ‘ghost soldiers.’ A large chunk of salaries was pocketed by the commanders. The lack of political oversight meant there was little accountability. As long as the cash kept flowing from the grants by Western and other states, things seemed to be functioning. But that was just an illusion.

Return on Investment

Despite its promises and assurances, it was clear that Taliban would reverse all the progress made by the Afghan society in the past two decades. It surely, would have been agonising for the US to witness the positive returns of its investments being washed away.  

The numerous protests by women in Kabul and elsewhere have been brutally suppressed by Taliban. But the tragedy is that the acts of Taliban, though widely condemned, have actually resulted in a sort of collective punishment for all Afghan citizens.

The speech by President Biden holding the Afghan government responsible for its failure has some clues about the frustration within the US administration with Afghan leadership. Twenty years is a long time to figure out whether something is going to work out or not. It seems that former President Trump’s administration had come to the realisation that no matter how long the US forces stay in Afghanistan, governance would not improve.

Hence, it initiated the process of securing its safe withdrawal (or evacuation) from Afghanistan, no matter the price that would have to be paid for securing it. The realisation had permeated to President Biden’s administration too. Which is why he too was committed to upholding the agreement with Taliban.

The question is, why was the US in such a hurry to get out. The answer perhaps is not too surprising – the political culture of Afghanistan. The systematic corruption that plagues the Afghan politics and its armed and police forces, made governance beyond Kabul virtually non-existent.

The structural weakness became apparent when one district after other began falling to Taliban assault, and even the US intelligence estimate about Afghan National Forces ability to hold ground, proved too optimistic in the end.    

From War to War

It was widely debated after the US debacle in Afghanistan that US is going through war fatigue, which is also leading to its decline. There is some truth to the arguments. A 20-year war lasting through three presidents can be a cause of national fatigue. A prolonged war leads to gradual erosion of public support for it. Modern history is full of examples of that. So, it was not surprising that there was a consensus on US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Further, the US ceding space to China and Russia in the Middle East, was thought of as additional evidence of American decline. Perhaps, Russia thought so too, which led to annexation of Crimea in 2016 and full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. However, the invasion has once again resulted in great support for war within America. The news media coverage too has amplified the support for war among public, that was fatigued not too long ago. One can’t help but wonder where all the fatigue has dissipated.

The US jumping into another war, some say provoked by its needless needling of Russia, proves Eisenhower’s warnings about American Military-Industry Complex right yet again. Till date the US has spent over $40 billion in weapons and other logistical support to Ukraine.

The Afghanistan war may have costed the US exchequer about $145 billion, but most of the money, as per the SIGAR report, retuned back to the US in the form of payment to weapon makers and numerous contractors.

A war is always a win-win situation for US manufacturers as it enriches them and ensures that the US keeps jumping from one war to another. The only lesson that the US may have taken from its Afghanistan campaign is perhaps that it should avoid directly fighting a war. And that is what it is doing in Ukraine.   

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