On a day when heartbreaking scenes from Kabul airport with Afghan nationals risking their life and limb to get out of Afghanistan, played out on Television screens and social media across the world, for President Joe Biden to claim that that human rights “must be the center of our foreign policy,” was surreal, to say the least! Visuals of desperate attempts by Afghans to flee their country by clinging onto the US Air Force planes with many falling to brutal deaths, was evidence, if any was still required, that human rights are invariably a casualty when it comes to US foreign policy. Afghans are the latest people after the South Vietnamese and the Kurds to realize what Henry Kissinger once presciently said, “to be an enemy of America can be dangerous. But to be friend is fatal.”
Biden’s acceptance that the American mission in Afghanistan was “never supposed to have been nation-building,” or establishing a “centralized democracy” is confirmation that the genesis of invasion of Afghanistan lay in the ill-thought out policy of sheer revenge for 9/11 attacks without any assessments of the ramifications. His honest admission that US efforts in Afghanistan were only for “preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland,” would come as a surprise only to those ignorant of how Realpolitik works.
What must however have come as a surprise is the public display of naïve US diplomacy and ignominious military retreat from Afghanistan. It is ironical that US withdrawal has handed over Afghanistan to the same Taliban which had allegedly facilitated Al Qaeda in perpetuating the 9/11 attacks and whom the US had dislodged from Kabul in 2001! And in the words of Biden himself, the Taliban of 2021 was at “its strongest militarily since 2001.” Lives of 2300 US forces personnel lost while serving in Afghanistan bear testimony to the adage that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ The fact that US never designated Taliban as a terrorist organization despite pretensions to the contrary, speak volumes of their flawed dependence on promoting self-interests through its policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.
US invasion of Afghanistan was an ostensible attempt to punish the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks using a fig leaf of UNSC resolutions which, semantics apart, never legally authorized the invasions. US, with Ronald Regan once comparing the Afghan mujahedeens as “moral equivalent of the founding fathers of America” can be considered to have midwifed the birth of the Taliban. The Taliban was a more fanatic religious version of the mujahedeens who in turn were a creation of US to combat the Soviet army after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan, which was the frontline state in this US ordained Jihad in Afghanistan, learnt well from its mentor and in turn created Taliban once its saw its hold on the mujahedeens slag after the Soviet retreat across the Amu Darya in 1989. The vicious power struggle between myriad mujahedeen groups after the Soviet withdrawal did not help the mujahedeen cause and Taliban swept into the power vacuum. US which had retreated from Afghanistan by then and lost interest in the region, looked the other way, and with the Soviets in turmoil, Taliban imposed its brutal Sharia based regime in the country. 9/11 was the direct outcome of these strategic follies. Recent events indicate that US has not learnt well!
Biden’s claim of the only vital American interest in Afghanistan being the prevention of a terrorist attack on American homeland, and at the same time allowing Taliban to gain strategic territory is a study in paradox. To take a terrorist group’s word regarding not allowing “use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States” without any other means to hold them accountable for breach of agreement, could turn out to be an embarrassment for US. Taliban has rightly smelt victory and realizes that the Americans would be reluctant to come back any time soon to enforce the US and allies specific portions of the agreement.
Emboldened by the US’s retreat and egged on by silent acquiescence from China and Russia who see strategic opportunities to further embarrass US, could potentially see Taliban revert to more aggressive ways to impose itself in the region.
For nearly two decades US and its allies have been fighting a seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan, primarily against the Taliban as Al Qaeda had been decapitated by the US forces comparatively quickly in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the claims of hunting for Osama bin-Laden and “getting him,” Biden conveniently ignores the fact that bin-Laden was not killed in Afghanistan, but in Abbottabad within a stone’s throw distance of the Pakistan military academy in Rawalpindi. Other important leaders of Al Qaeda; Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh were all captured in Pakistan. The story of the escape of Pakistan army and intelligence officers assisting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the Tora Bora hills in the face of intense US army surge is too well known to be repeated. As a small, but not insignificant footnote of Pakistan’s duplicitous War on terror, Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistani physician who helped US identify bin-Laden is still languishing in a Pakistan prison serving a 33 years’ sentence, on obscure charges, whereas Imran Khan has no qualms in accepting bin-Laden as a “martyr.”
Starting from Gen John Nicholson, former US military commander in Afghanistan, exasperatingly admitting that it was “difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven,” to Gen David Petraeus’s frustration at not being able to neutralize terrorists because they were in Pakistan where “our Pakistani partners refused to eliminate them from their soil,” it has been evident that Afghanistan would not find peace until the world held Pakistan accountable for their acts of aggression.
Pakistan however is still US’s “major non-NATO ally.” That Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistani Foreign Minister is supposed to be the first foreign political leader visiting Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover combined with the fact that Pakistan along with China and Russia has a fully functional embassy in Afghanistan despite the mayhem all around, is symbolic of the games being played in Afghanistan.
Biden castigating Afghan forces for “not willing to fight for themselves,” is yet another manifestation of US policy makers being seriously off the mark. US forces vacating the Bagram airport in the dead of night without even informing the Afghan forces meant to secure the airport did not cover the planners in glory. If anything, as the Doha agreement showed, it was the American politicians who were in a hurry to vacate Afghanistan for political one-upsmanship of “bringing the boys back home.” It was perfidious on the part of Donald Trump to finalize an agreement about Afghanistan without the involvement of the country’s elected government. The morale of even the most efficient of armies is bound to collapse in the absence of clarity about their mission. No soldier would be willing to put his life on stake for an abandoned objective. The efficacy of the Afghan air force was drastically reduced as Biden withdrew 18,000 contractors looking after maintenance of the aircrafts. Taliban had been assassinating Afghan pilots to deplete the air force from trained manpower and scaring the remaining ones to flee for self and security of their families at the first viable opportunity.
Biden’s argument that he had to abide by the Doha agreement as it had already been signed by Trump holds no water as he was quick in reverting to engaging with Iran even after Trump had withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal. Even legally, US could have withdrawn from the Doha agreement once Taliban started to openly violate the terms by failing to engage in intra-Afghan negotiations and began occupying territories. Contrary to western diplomats’ homilies about there being no “military solution” to the Afghan crisis, not for once did the Taliban evince any interest in any political solution. Galling to see that in their haste to vacate the country, not once did the Americans display any foresight in envisaging the future which seems terrible for the people of Afghanistan.
In a world where optics plays an important role in determining friends and foes, the disorderly US capitulation in Afghanistan has played out horribly!
by Dr. Mayank Narayan Singh