Afghanistan: A Wasteful Military Adventure

Afghanistan: A Wasteful Military Adventure
The moment Afghan President Ashraf Ghani boarded the plane for Tajikistan at Kabul International Airport marked the end of 20 years long US efforts to build a state in an ill-fated country. Trillions of dollars spent on constructing an Afghan state went down the drain. Afghan armed forces just vanished into thin air. The government structure completely collapsed. All this happened within hours of the ragtag militia, the Taliban entering the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday morning. This marked the end of 20 years of international efforts.

The process that began with the dismantling of Taliban structures 20 years ago met an ignominious end. Never before in modern history has a super power carried out such a wasteful military adventure. As if the US forces had spent 20 years in Afghanistan with no clear political objective in mind, killing Osama Bin Laden and dismantling Al-Qaida structures, as claimed by the US Secretary of State to be the real motive of invasion of Afghanistan, didn’t require hundreds of thousands of troops to be permanently deployed in Afghanistan.
And secondly, if we consider dealing with perpetrators of 9/11 as the real motive of Afghan deployment, then how would one explain the facts given in the latest UN report that Al-Qaida is still active in Afghanistan with at least 500 of its active members hiding in different parts of Afghanistan.

Anybody familiar with the working of US security apparatus—their analytical capacity to predict and procure information is immense-- could easily judge that at the time of announcing the US withdrawal the US administration would be in a position to anticipate that the fall of the Kabul regime was imminent. So there was an element of complacency in the US attitude towards what was coming in Afghanistan after it decided to pull out. This was reinforced by complete inaction on the part of China, Russia and Iran over the emerging possibility of Taliban military takeover.

If we compare the military might of the United States of America with the threat of Sunni militancy in general at the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Sunni militancy in terms of its military potential is nothing more than small fare for the mighty US military. One western author termed the situation of the US going after Sunni militancy as a “Bull in a china shop” with the only difference that Middle East or South Western Asia, the regions that host Sunni militancy, are no China shops themselves.
But describing US military as a bull was quite apt—hundreds of thousands of people killed, complete destruction of traditional social and political structures in Afghan society, a nuclear state (Pakistan) thoroughly destabilized, and two nuclear states, i.e India and Pakistan, coming to blows over the different interpretations of events in the region wreaked by Sunni militancy are some of the consequences of US bull entering the China shop in our regions.

There was some controversy over the fact whether the US entered in Afghanistan with the aim to rebuild the state structure or rebuilt the Afghan nation as there was some opposition from within the US administration to the proposition that the US army should or should not play any role in the nation-building in Afghanistan. But it is also a fact that in the wake of the Bonn process the US did carry out some efforts to build modern state structures for Afghan society. This included the processes to build modern armed forces for Afghanistan. The US spent billions of dollars into this effort in terms of providing equipment, weapons and training to the Afghan forces.

However, at some point while this process was going on, there were some voices raised in Washington against spending trillions of dollars in Afghanistan and pumping cash into Pakistan’s economy to stabilize another friendly state in the region. The central argument of these voices was that the US would never be able to reap the harvest of this effort.

Suppose the US succeeds in stabilizing the region, the argument goes, who would benefit from the stability of South Asia and SouthWest Asia? The opposition to US efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan argued that it would be China and not the US which would benefit from the stability of this region. It is no coincidence that China started to talk about the One Belt One Road initiative in 2013-2014—the years when the Pakistani military appeared close to breaking the back of tribal militants in erstwhile tribal areas of Pakistan, the hotbed of militancy in this region.

Not surprisingly the political and strategic thinking in the region also underwent a change as Pakistani military leadership also started to project Pakistan as a hub of regional connectivity, a stance more in line with Chinese position, with Chinese leadership clearly harbouring the plans to lay down a network of road communication between regional countries.

Does all this mean that the US diplomatic, political and military role in the region will be receding in the coming years? One thing is clear US interests would continue to be affected by the developments in the region. Growth of Sunni militancy in Afghanistan will affect all the regional US partners including Pakistan and India. Any more mass casualty attack in the region could bring Pakistan and India close to a full scale war. Will it be possible for US diplomacy to remain aloof from developments in the region in such a situation? Answer is a clear no.

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.