Twenty years after it first entered Afghanistan, the US is getting ready to pull out of that war-torn country. During the two decades, the US invested $2 trillion in Afghanistan for three reasons: to pay for its military presence, to pay for recreating and training the Afghan military and police, and to pay for creating democratic institutions. In the process, more than 2,000 US service personnel lost their lives. A staggering 775,000 American troops served in Afghanistan at least once. Of these, nearly 30,000 served there more than five times. These large-scale deployments took their toll on the families of those deployed, besides inflicting stress on those who fought in the war.
On the other hand, more than a hundred thousand Afghan security personnel lost their lives as did thousands of Afghan civilians who either got caught in the cross fire or were the subject of terrorist attacks.
Before we discuss what will happen once the American security forces depart by September 11, let’s step back in time to December 1979. On Christmas Eve, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan on the most preposterous of excuses, saying they had been invited in.
The US did not directly confront the Soviets. Both were nuclear powers. Instead, they got Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to act as proxies. Pakistan recruited Afghans as holy warriors (Mujahideen), trained them in guerilla warfare and let them loose on the Soviets. The initiative was funded handsomely by the Saudi royals. As the years passed, life became increasingly miserable for the occupying troops. A decade later, they retreated back to the USSR.
What happened after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989? Did peace return to Afghanistan? No. Instead, a civil war broke out between competing Mujahideen factions. There was little to celebrate.
In 1996 an obscure group called the Taliban seized power. They were aided and abetted by Pakistan, which sought to create “strategic depth” for itself in the event of an Indian invasion. One thing worth recognizing is that the Taliban were successful in restoring order to a deeply fractured, chaotic Afghan society but only by brutally imposing the Sharia Law.
As retaliation for the September 11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind. The Taliban, however, did not shy away from talks with the then unwilling superpower looking for vengeance. Unsurprisingly, the forces of the Taliban were defeated in just a couple of months. Contrary to initial impressions, they were not annihilated. They simply abandoned the cities and disappeared into the hills.
Fifteen years later, they began to reappear. The US was about to get its comeuppance. An American general told the Rolling Stones magazine that every time the US killed an innocent Afghan, it created 10 new enemies. He stated that the US could not win the counterinsurgency by killing people and recalled that the Russians lost the war even after killing 1 million Afghans.
An American soldier who had spent two years in the Afghan countryside noted that even “the most hardened Afghan commanders, who hate the Taliban remorselessly, have lectured me on how civilian casualties and entering homes at night cause innocent Afghans to turn to the Taliban.”
In his book, “Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan,” Scott Horton pulls no punches. Horton concluded the US had failed to understand Afghanistan, its history and culture, and its terrain. But, did the US understand the uncanny nature of Afghan leaders who pretended to support western style democracy in order to keep the money flowing into their coffers? The answer is too obvious. The Afghan government which the US had established was “completely unsustainable” according to Horton who predicted it to “fall apart when the occupation is finally called off.” He went on to say, “America’s Afghan war … was meant to be a trap in the first place. America is not only failing to defeat its enemies, but is destroying itself, just as Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda always intended.”
That harsh reality finally dawned on the US during the tenure of the previous administration. In order to extricate itself from the mess, the US brokered a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban so that it could extricate itself from the morass. This rush to peace evokes memories of the “peace with honor” euphemism that was used to justify the US exit from Vietnam in 1974.
In the peace deal, the Taliban promised to end terrorism inside and outside of Afghanistan, respect the civil and human rights of all their citizens including women, and help create a democratic polity. In other words, disown their founding principles.
Only the most naive observer would expect such a Utopian outcome to happen. More than one Taliban commander has told western journalists that peace will only take place if Sharia Law is imposed. Why would the side that has won the war compromise on its fundamentals? The Taliban can rightly claim to have defeated the world’s solitary superpower.
Fearing such an outcome, some want the US to stay in Afghanistan for a bit longer. If the Afghans could not build strong democratic institutions in 20 years under American tutelage, how would they do so if the tutelage is extended by a couple of years? Afghans cannot continue living parasitically off America. They have to stand on their own feet.
There is plenty of evidence that district after district has begun falling to the Taliban. Even the CIA has concluded that it is a matter of time before Kabul falls.
How will Afghanistan’s neighbors react to a Taliban takeover? Pakistan, which had much to do with their creation, does not want to see a revival of the Taliban in Pakistan. It has renounced its “strategic depth” policy. China, sensing a golden opportunity, will probably extend its Belt and Road Initiative to Kabul. India will certainly seek to mend fences with the Taliban, citing its historical ties with Afghanistan. So will Russia. The US has promised to provide humanitarian aid.
These external developments may cause the Taliban to realize the world has changed and to extend a hand of friendship to the other Afghans. Otherwise, their land will remain mired in the myriad cultural, social, economic and developmental problems that have been the bane of its existence for decades.
Ahmad Faruqui is a defense analyst and economist. He has taught at the universities of Karachi, California at Davis, and San Jose State. Faruqui is the author of “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan” (Ashgate, 2003). Contact him via Twitter @AhmadFaruqui