A scrimmage in a border town
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten Rupee Jezail
Afghans have done what Afghans do best – fight to the bitter end and celebrate it as a sport. The master story teller John Masters writes in The Lotus and the Wind that the “Afghan warrior rode against the world’s meanness like a fragile Galahad in the merciless backdrop of jagged hills, with characteristic insouciance, concerned only with his sport and not the outcome of the grisly contest.” The Americans are nonplussed as to why 307,000 strong Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANDSF) could not hold their own against a private militia, privately funded and self-trained without the modern war accoutrements like air force and artillery. The answer lies in the asymmetry of will explained in Andrew Mack’s 1975 article, Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars. When two unequal forces clash on a battlefield, the one with stronger will shall ultimately prevail over the one with better arms but poor resolve, writes Raashid Wali Janjua.
The United States and NATO spent two decades in Afghanistan training, arming and fighting along with ANDSF but could not create a cohesive and effective fighting machine that Taliban instinctively are. Like the famed US Colonel Francis Marion in the Revolutionary War, who decimated the superior British forces through irregular warfare in South Carolina, the Taliban are the doughty warriors who employed asymmetric warfare against an Afghan Army on which over US$ 83 billion were spent. The fact of the matter is that after such a huge spending what the erstwhile Afghan Government of Ashraf Ghani had was an army that melted in eleven days handing Kabul over to the Taliban.
The United States’ Afghan project should have ended after Osama bin Ladin’s death and defeat of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. However, instead of clinching a deal with Taliban in 2013, when the US was at its peak military power in Afghanistan, it decided to hang on to its Afghan nation building project. Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly and H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty are the useful primers that show that the Americans made costly strategic errors in blithe disregard for facts on ground. It is a tribute to the lure of the military power that one finds self-confessed war haters like McMaster beating the war drums in unison with the likes of David Petraeus, who have come out of the closet to criticize the US withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. President Biden has come in for a lot of criticism by the Military Industrial Complex for which war is a profitable business.
President Biden was remarkably candid while highlighting the fact that though the war in Afghanistan could have been ended ten years ago or twenty years from now but the result would have remained the same. He pointed out with piquant clarity for his detractors that the nation building in a primitive land with quaint customs was fated to fail. However, like the rest of the world, he was shocked at the speed of the capitulation and pusillanimity of Ashraf Ghani’s “Papier Mache” army. According to a Washington Post Report citing Special Inspector General Report on Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the military commanders and Pentagon leadership had been consistently presenting a false picture to the US Government. The lack of objective reporting was redolent of Vietnam scenario where a lot of lies were told till Saigon happened. This was done to serve the ends of Military Industrial Complex. Small wonder when the gravy train was stopped by Biden the chorus of criticism for hasty withdrawal was loudest from the beneficiaries of the same complex.
The United States had gone wrong on four occasions in Afghanistan. First, when the focus was shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003 without finishing the job in Afghanistan. Second, when in 2011-13 Pakistan suggested to the US that time was ripe to coopt Taliban at the Bonn Conference for a broad-based government in Afghanistan. With the US military and NATO in firm control that was the most propitious time for a rapprochement. The US ignored the suggestion with an air of hubris relying on the advice of the likes of Hamid Karzai, who ultimately had to be shown the door. The third occasion was the decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan without ensuring a peace agreement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. The US entered into peace parleys with the Taliban even at the cost of discomfiture of Ashraf Ghani, which for its own selfish reasons had portrayed the Taliban as bestial remnants of a savage past. What the United States did not realize was that Doha Agreement with the Taliban needed to be honored and its leverage on the latter would decline in case of reneging on any commitment.
Pakistan had done its best to bring this forever war to a closure by advising the US Government candidly to find a respectable exit as early as 2010. The whole episode is covered by Vali Nasr in his book “Dispensable Nation,” which mentions the then Pakistani COAS General Kayani advising the US leadership about exiting from Afghanistan after having achieved its counter terrorism objectives. Lately, it was Pakistan that brought Taliban on the negotiating table culminating in the Doha process. Pakistan is still well placed to play an important role in helping the international community engage with the Taliban besides helping the latter establish a broad-based inclusive government acceptable to all Afghan factions. Pakistan has paid the highest price due to Afghan war losing 80,000 precious lives and incurring a loss of US$ 150 billion dollars. What it got in military aid worth US$ 20 billion was mostly reimbursement of cost incurred for support operations in what US detractors refer to as sanctuaries of the Taliban.
When General Nick Carter, UK’s Chief of General Staff, during one of the border visits was shown the villages straddling the Pak-Afghan border, inhabited by a population habituated to possession of personal weapons since antiquity, he promptly acknowledged the difficulties of monitoring such a porous border. In the teeth of TTP militants’ opposition Pakistan has managed to fence 98 percent of the Pak-Afghan border to prevent cross border militant activity. Pakistan has fought militancy in its restive ex-tribal borderland contiguous to Afghanistan and has wrested control of the region through great sacrifices of its security forces. It, therefore, has no intention to let the recrudescence of militant violence on its territory.
For these reasons, Pakistan is the only country that is most affected by instability in Afghanistan. It, however, is also the most suitable country to be relied upon for playing a positive part in helping Afghanistan gain the stability and much needed international recognition. It is for the international community to understand the importance of that role to bring about stability and international legitimacy to an embattled land.
Note: This article appeared on Eureporter, dated 30 August 2021.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.