The two decades of combat have cost the US around $2.26 trillion (including $800 billion in direct war-fighting costs and $85 billion to train the Afghan Army), 2,500 US military personnel dead and 20,000 wounded; also 3,900 US civilian contractors.
By Brig Kuldip Singh
With the media replete with horror stories about the Taliban and warnings that the US’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan will lead to problems, US President Joe Biden responded on 16 Aug, “The events we see now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan”.
The two decades of combat have cost the US around $2.26 trillion (including $800 billion in direct war-fighting costs and $85 billion to train the Afghan Army), 2,500 US military personnel dead and 20,000 wounded; also 3,900 US civilian contractors. At least 1, 75,000 Afghans (government forces, Taliban fighters and civilians) have been killed or wounded. While what is transpiring now is a tragedy, the reality is that a withdrawal was long overdue – “The Afghanistan Papers” published by The Washington Post in 2019 had on record numerous US officials conceding that the Afghan war is unwinnable. Now, on 17 Aug, the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a new report, which supports President Biden’s view of not staying in Afghanistan for a “third decade of war”. The report adds that the US failed in every aspect of its strategy, and often for reasons that are endemic to the way its bureaucracy functions; the failures were so bad they raise “questions about the ability of U.S. government agencies to devise, implement, and evaluate reconstruction strategies” in any foreign country; “no single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan;” rebuilding Afghanistan “required a detailed understanding of the country’s social, economic, and political dynamics [yet US policymakers] were consistently operating in the dark.” The report concludes that the US government was never “equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment”. It also highlighted the appalling corruption of US-propped govts of Karzai and Ghani, with many officials focused solely on siphoning money. Separately, the Pentagon’s bi-annual “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” had been periodically pointing at the military impasse, and that even the two troop surges under former President Obama failed to quell the Taliban.
There are however two other major factors that led to the US deciding to withdraw – one is the US-Pakistan strategic divergence, and the other is that the Afghan war led to the US neglecting grand strategy imperatives which allowed its adversaries to rise (read “China”).
USA and Pakistan – Strategic Divergence on Afghanistan
Pakistan has traditionally used Pashtuns to further its interests in Afghanistan. These include attaining “strategic depth” by exercising control over Afghanistan and countering a united Pashtun demand for a separate ‘Pashtunistan’ astride the Durand Line. This policy, honed over the years, particularly the period of Soviet intervention (1979-1989), allowed Pakistan to orient all its military assets against India, and in conjunction with nuclear saber-rattling, pursue its agenda of waging irregular warfare against India. This helped Pakistan balance out its conventional military asymmetry versus India, as also limit its military spending.
The US’s post-9/11 strategic objective however was the elimination of Al Qaeda (AQ) and ensuring ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan or Pakistan weren’t utilized as safe havens by trans-national terrorist entities. This objective led to the US pressurizing Pakistan to abandon one of its main strategic tools, viz, Islamic militants, as also to deploy its army to the Durand Line, and eventually, to fight the militants in FATA and KPP. As fighting spread to Pakistan’s core, its Army got embroiled internally, its economy deteriorated, and with the US allowing India greater operating space in Afghanistan, Pakistan was progressively pushed into a severely subordinate posture vis-à-vis India including in Afghanistan.
Hence, given the divergent strategic imperatives of USA and Pakistan, it was really naïve to expect Pakistan to whole-heartedly support the US’ operations in Afghanistan by wiping out the Taliban’s safe-havens in its FATA-KPP.
The US could have, instead of only drones’ strikes, used military force to strike the Taliban’s safe-havens inside Pakistan – but that would have exponentially expanded the area of conflict. Pakistan, in addition to credible armed forces, also controlled large irregular forces – and could have further complicated the US’s operational situation merely by upscaling the quality of support to its militant proxies while maintaining deniability. In addition was the US’s logistics dependency – with Russia controlling access to the Central Asian Republics, and Iran being hostile, the sole choice for logistical support access to landlocked Afghanistan was Pakistan. The divergent objectives of the US and Pakistan finally resulted in a strategic stalemate in Afghanistan. As a wag put it – it took the USA four Presidents, thousands of lives, a trillion dollars and 20 years merely to replace Taliban 1.0 with Taliban 2.0.
While a US withdrawal reverts the Indo-Pakistan dynamic to the pre-2001 status, it is not given that Pakistan will now enjoy “strategic space” in Afghanistan and be able to re-focus its military towards India. The anti-Pakistan ‘Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’ (TTP), may now, in a reversal, be able to enjoy wider safe-havens in Afghanistan. It is also not clear whether the Afghan Taliban will be anti-India.
USA’s Shifting Objectives
The US also kept shifting its goals on Afghanistan. By end-2002, the AQ was driven out of Afghanistan and the Taliban regime had disintegrated. The US then decided to decimate the Taliban as an entity. From 2005 onwards, it began nation-building in Afghanistan – while completely misreading the fragmented reality of Afghanistan as a nation, the tensions between Kabul, majority Pashtuns (~44% of the population), and minority Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks – and tried to impose a Western democratic model on Afghanistan.
Thus, many experts opine that given the weapon sets at its disposal, the US should have withdrawn from Afghanistan earlier, while retaining the option of striking terrorist entities as and when they emerged.
Rise of Peer Competitor
The fall of the Soviet Union, end of the Cold War, decline of Japan’s economy, economic boom in the US and rest of Asia, increase in consumerism, and fall in commodity prices, created a geopolitical opening for China’s economy to boom, as well as modernize its military. The US began focusing on downsizing a ‘rising’ China only after the latter downed its EP-3E Aries-II spy plane in April 2001. However, five months later, the 9/11 attacks led to the US confining its military power to Afghanistan and Iraq – which allowed China to continue to “rise peacefully”. The freeing of the US military from Afghanistan now allows it to focus fully on its peer competitor(s).
It is for this reason that many US geopolitical experts deem that terrorist acts, no matter how vicious, should never be allowed to dictate the grand strategy of a nation – as the avoidable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq impinged on US’s global pre-eminence as also its internal situation. China’s economy and military are now posing a substantial challenge to the US’s pre-eminence – even as the US looks for funds to rebuild its military and ageing infrastructure, re-establish its lead in R&D and innovation, revive industry, improve the lot of its middle-class, better assist its veterans, etc. This holds a lesson for India vis-à-vis China.
Acceptability of the Taliban in Afghanistan
That the Taliban were able to attract tens of thousands of young Afghans to its fold over the past two decades and continue as a resilient fighting force does suggest it enjoys popular support in large parts of Afghanistan. From 2017 onwards, the SIGAR had also informed of tens of thousands of “ghost” soldiers being removed from the rolls of the Afghan Army on account of desertions, etc. The fact that it took the Taliban just one week to regain control of Afghanistan with minimal casualties, is perhaps an indicator that the Afghans, utterly ravaged by fighting since 1970 and fed-up with corruption, perhaps wanted to give peace a chance by accepting the Taliban.
It’s true that many of the Taliban’s practices, and the religious, social and cultural mores they espoused and enforced appear vile and repugnant. Another problem is refuge to terrorist entities. Although time will tell, the Taliban appear to be avoiding the stupid mistakes they made in their earlier regime. They have promised not to give safe-havens to terrorist entities; protect minorities; stated that women’s rights would be respected, and women would be allowed to receive education, walk alone, work and wear headscarves; and haven’t resorted to wanton killings and destructive mayhem of the 1990s. They seem aware that the world of 2021 is far different – with rigorous controls over trans-national movement of people, money, weapons and contraband, they need aid and assistance, which will only come from international recognition.
It is perhaps time to give Afghans a chance to decide their destiny – with intelligence-led military strikes by the US/its allies remaining an open option if terrorist entities again start to take root there.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)