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Op-ed – All the Presidents Horses and All the Presidents Men: America’s Failure in Afghanistan

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

By Tanvir Jaikishen


Image Courtesy: CNN


Article 49/2021

I was 14 years old when I watched the planes hit the twin towers. I was revising for a social studies exam when my father came home from work and turned on the television. We watched in horror as a family as the towers crumbled to dust in front of our eyes. We heard the screams of people on the street. We felt the horror in New York, sitting thousands of kilometers away in our home in Chennai. My mother and I then went to our photo albums and looked at photos of us atop the towers. We had visited New York in 1993 and climbed to the top of the twin towers with our friends. Our hearts bled that day for America. As victims of Pakistan backed terror, we were all too aware of the pain that this type of senseless violence brought on our collective psyche. My mother also frantically called her best friend, living in New Jersey at the time. Her husband worked in one of the towers. Fate had spared his life that day. Their son was late to school, missing his school bus, forcing him to drop him off at school before proceeding into the city for work.


At that age, I had no awareness of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the concept of global terror. My passion for geopolitics was nurtured in college. It was at this time that I was introduced to the Taliban’s barbaric rule between 1996 and 2001. I had read a Thousand Splendid Suns and the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and was horrified to read about the Taliban’s inhumane treatment of women and children. I took solace in the fact that a large American presence backed by NATO and other allied troops on the ground in Afghanistan was fighting the Taliban. The Afghans could finally look to a future that was free, inclusive, and democratic. Since the invasion by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the country had been plagued by civil war and subsequent cultural and actual genocide under Taliban rule. The Taliban, a Pashtun movement massacred Hazara Afghans with near total impunity. Backed by the Pakistan state and funded by private donors from the Gulf, the Taliban thrived by cultivating and selling opium making vast profits in the process. Prior to 9/11, a Taliban delegation even visited the United States to discuss a broad range of issues. The US administration at the time could not be bothered with trivialities like human rights and women’s rights.


The Horror of 15th August 2021

As India celebrated 75 years of independence from the yolk of colonial oppression, the Afghan government, notably its President and senior members of the Cabinet and Parliament fled Kabul under the cover of over 5,000 American troops stationed at the airport. Afghanistan was abandoned by its government en masse as Kabul capitulated to the Taliban without a shot being fired. The now iconic image of a CH-47 Chinook landing on the roof of the U.S Embassy in Kabul evokes strong memories of a similar helicopter evacuation of American embassy staffers from the roof of the Embassy in Saigon in 1975. The American military-intelligence apparatus failed to predict just how quickly the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would sweep through the country and occupy Saigon.


Most current intelligence estimated predicted the fall of Kabul in 3 to 6 months at the very least. Some estimates predicted a stalemate between government forces and the Anti-Taliban militia on the one side and the Taliban on the other. The Taliban, like the NVA 40 years prior, defied all expectations and swept the entire country in less than one month. The provincial capitals fell one after the other like dominos to the Taliban with virtually no resistance put up. A 88 billion US dollars in defense spending, and an overall 1 trillion US dollars in capacity building un-done in less than 30 days.


How did this come to pass?

On paper the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) was a force to reckon with. The United States had spent 88 billion dollars over the course of two decades, building a 300,000 strong army and police force equipped with modern weapons. The goal of this army was quite limited in scope. The US Military accepted that the ANA could not hold onto every single district and province in Afghanistan. Corruption within the ranks, mass desertions, low troop morale and tribal politics prevented the creation of a cohesive military that could capably defend Afghanistan. The goal was to simply hold onto as many districts and provinces along with provincial capitals as long as possible until a peace deal could be reached. The ANA even had a nascent air force that could conduct air strikes when needed. This was backed with the might of the United States Air Force (USAF) that routinely conducted strikes on Taliban positions to try and degrade Taliban offensive capacity.


The Taliban on the other hand had around 60,000 odd fighters. What these fighters lacked in modern war fighting equipment, they made up in zeal and determination. The Taliban leadership sitting in Quetta understood that like last time, a Northern Alliance type resistance cannot be allowed. When America invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it was not the full might of the US Army that drove out the Taliban, but a combination of Northern Alliance fighters backed by air strikes and US Special Forces.


The Taliban is not a monolithic organization either. It can be classified broadly into three different factions. The first is the Ishaqzai faction led by Gul Agha in the Helmand province. This faction is responsible for the cultivation and export of Opium around the world. The Ishaqzai faction is supported by Iran as the Helmand river flows into the Sistan region of Iran. The trafficking of opium through the country also provides Iran with a strong revenue stream, which is necessary to bypass US-led backed sanctions post the revocation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).


The second and most predominant faction is the Pakistan backed Quetta faction. It is this faction of the Taliban that is represented in Doha. The faction’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has in the last few months shored up overt diplomatic support from China and Pakistan in preparation for an eventual take-over. Covertly the Quetta faction also enjoys broad Russian support. The Russian thinking on the matter is that it is better to support a resurgent Taliban which at best is focused on ruling Afghanistan and will serve as a bulwark against ISIS. The latter is considered a transnational threat and will likely use Afghanistan as a base to support pro-Chechnyan causes. Russia’s exclusion of India from the recent Afghanistan Troika is proof that Russia seeks to play a proactive role in a Taliban ruled Afghanistan and sees India’s presence as an impediment to its geo-strategic objectives.


Technically, the Ishaqzai faction, backed by Iran is supposed to be subservient to Pakistan backed Quetta faction, though this is not the reality on the ground. Unconfirmed reports indicate clashes between these two groups are on the rise. In such a scenario, it is impossible for Ghani Baradar to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a hub of opium manufacturing even if the actual intention is to do so.


The third faction, more a sub-faction of the Quetta faction is the Mullah Yaqoob Omar faction. Son, of the late Mullah Omar, the enigmatic former leader of the Taliban, Mullah Yaqoob has the pedigree to unite a large number of fighters to the cause. However, Mullah Yaqoob lacks real battlefield experience and has been used primarily by the Quetta faction as a figurehead. Placed in the Quetta Military Council of the Taliban, Mullah Yaqoob does not enjoy the trust of several high-ranking Taliban leaders, including other Pakistan backed terror groups like the Haqqani network.


The Afghanistan government had all the opportunity to unite the various anti-Taliban militias by promising greater political representation, participation and power-sharing at the district and provincial level. President Ghani instead chose to alienate key allies like the Atta’s, Rabbani’s, Bismillah Khan’s and Ismail Khan’s of the country in a bid to retain as much power as possible. Successive Afghan governments from Karzai to Ghani has focused on patronage politics and crony capitalism based on tribal loyalties and hierarchies. As a result, endemic corruption became a part and parcel of the political landscape, preventing the creation of a truly representational government in Kabul.


With every warlord and provincial leader left to fend for himself, many chose to ally with the Taliban, sensing the futility in fighting essentially a losing battle. Hence the conditions were ripe for a Taliban blitzkrieg as soon as the US announced its timelines of withdrawal.


How culpable is the United States of America?

Proponents of the “Leave Afghanistan” school of thought have strong and valid arguments. Over a trillion dollars has been spent over the course of twenty years with very little to show for it in return. Around 2,300 US soldiers have been killed with around 10 times that number wounded and maimed both physically and psychologically. The financial and emotional cost of veteran PTSD, impact on families, divorces and veteran suicides is hard to estimate. A further 3,500 odd US contractors have also been killed during the course of the war.  The cost of American lives, as well as the lives of several hundred NATO and allied troops, made the continued presence of troops in Afghanistan deeply unpopular among large swathes of the American electorate. Both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump sought to end the war but were forced to keep the status quo in order to prevent an already bad security situation from deteriorating further.


Obama’s troop surge while bringing about limited gains tactically, could not be translated into overall strategic success. Americans across both sides of the political aisle along with global Afghan watchers agree that the US was fighting twenty, one-year wars instead of one, twenty-year war. This ad-hoc, knee-jerk approach to America’s longest and most expensive war ensured that any long-term policy objectives set were impossible to attain.


Proponents of the “Stay” school of thought also make equally compelling arguments. The US had around 2,500 troops on the ground with another 7,000 odd support troops from allied countries. The mandate had shifted from active combat to training and support of the ANA, backed by US airstrikes. The cost of maintaining these troops was a fraction of the USD 100 billion spent annually during the Obama era troop surges. Proponents of “Stay” also argue that the US maintains around 60,000 odd troops in Europe as part of its commitment to NATO. This is seen by many as excessive given that the likelihood of a Russian offensive is low. Russia, already reeling from economic sanctions post the annexation of Crimea, cannot afford to alienate Europe by an all-out war for territory. The recent Biden administration sanctions waiver for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is seen as a diplomatic win for both Germany and Russia as the latter seeks new markets for oil exports. Should Putin choose to go to war with Europe, the sanctions alone will turn Russia into a Chinese vassal state economically. Likewise, the US maintains around 90,000 troops in the Asia-Pacific region with the bulk in South Korea and Japan. While the threat of a Taiwan invasion by China cannot be ruled out, the likelihood of this happening is low, despite the recent saber-rattling from Beijing. The US also maintains anywhere between 15,000 – 60,000 troops in the Middle East as a bulwark against Iran.


The cost of maintaining a fraction of these troop numbers in Afghanistan coupled with the fact that American war casualties are negligibly low make for a strong and compelling case to remain. Anti-war sentiment in the US while high is not a key electoral factor in choosing elected representatives both at the state and federal level. An American presence in Afghanistan was also essential in preventing the resurgence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the country. Airstrikes typically carried out from Bagram Air Force Base will now have to be carried out from carrier groups. Pakistan is unlikely to allow the US to set up a military base on its soil with the sole purpose of carrying airstrikes against its Taliban proxies or their terrorist affiliates.


What is perhaps jarring is the nature of the withdrawal itself. President Biden’s snap decision to withdraw all troops before the 11th of September 2021, against the advice of both his military and intelligence advisors is the single biggest factor that has precipitated the Taliban takeover of the country. The sheer ineptitude of the withdrawal can be summarized by the American troop withdrawal from Bagram AFB in the middle of the night, without prior notice given to the Afghani base commander counterpart. This “sneaking out in the dead of the night” was satirized by the Onion, an online satirical journal that published a mock article in 2011 detailing a withdrawal of all 90,000 American troops from the country with simply an apology note offered.


This decision to withdraw troops on a whim has terrifying implications for the US-backed global security order. President Biden does not come across as an elder statesman, taking the helm of the ship and steadying it from threats both within and without. Instead, he comes across as petulant and brash, eager to show his former boss, President Obama, that he is now the President of the United States and can do as he pleases. That there is no love lost between the two men after Obama forced Biden to step aside in favor of Hilary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic party’s presidential candidate is well known.  There is no greater justification for this argument, than in the way he has relegated his Vice President; the first African-Asian American woman VP to absolute inconsequence.


There is no doubt that decision makers in capitals around the world will come to the same conclusion independent of each other. American security guarantees under President Biden can no longer be measured in terms of geopolitical necessities but instead in terms of national “skin color” and “GDP income”.  This withdrawal will no doubt have larger implications on the future of the QUAD and the US as a viable security partner in the Asia-Pacific.


Implications for Afghanistan’s Neighborhood

The clear winners of a Taliban government in Afghanistan are Pakistan and China. Hamid Gul, the former ISI chief once famously said “We used the Americans to get rid of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, now we will use the Americans to get rid of the Americans there”. Pakistan now has its most coveted and sought after “strategic depth”. This has dangerous implications for India and the ceasefire agreement put in place between the two countries earlier this year. While the Taliban have no interest in Kashmir or India in particular, they can and will allow Afghan soil to be used for training and equipping anti-India jihadi groups funded by Pakistan. This will be problematic for India, as once these terror camps are re-located across the border, retaliatory action by India post mass casualty terror attacks will become difficult.


The clearest winner in the region is China. China has invested billions of dollars in the China Pakistan Economic corridor and seeks to extend the BRI into Afghanistan. The ultimate goal is to connect investments in Pakistan to Iran via Afghanistan. China has recently concluded a 25 year 400 billion US dollar investment agreement with Iran, thereby setting the stage for greater influence in the region. As the Biden administration grapples with sanctions relief mechanisms in order to provide real world economic benefit to Iran should the latter agree to re-join the JCPOA, China’s investments in Iran will guarantee that its future projects in Afghanistan are secured from Iran’s Taliban proxies. Ghani Baradar’s most recent visit to China to shore up diplomatic support for the Taliban government will also ensure that Chinese investments in Afghanistan will be protected by the Quetta faction.


As long as the Taliban remain a Pakistan sponsored group, there is no real sense in India opening up a dialogue with the new Afghan government. The Taliban are at best indifferent to India’s geopolitical objectives in the reason and at worst openly hostile. Any guarantees provided by the Taliban will likely be met with skepticism and dis-trust by the Indian national security apparatus given past experience and the Taliban’s violation of the Doha peace agreement. Now more than ever, India needs a coherent strategy for Afghanistan and the region with inputs from both civilian and military stakeholders.


Conclusions

As I write this op-ed, the Taliban are no doubt in the process of enforcing Sharia law across the country. Men will be forced to grow their beards. Music and dance will be banned. Women will be forced to cover up from head to toe and will be routinely beaten for walking in public without a male guardian. Girls as young as 12 will be denied access to schools and will be forced into marriage with Taliban fighters where they will be raped and tortured. This state-sponsored sex slavery of women alone should make America re-consider its belief in itself as a global champion of human rights. Stoning’s and amputations will be the new methods of justice and the country will enter a new medieval age. There is no hope for the average Afghan in the near or long term future short of a mass casualty terror attack emanating from Afghan soil that will force western troops back into the country.


The situation can best be summarized by a quote from the film Die Hard 2’s hero John McLane. After saving hostages from terrorists in the Nakatomi Plaza in the first movie, the hero finds himself fighting terrorists at an airport in the second film. Hiding from teams of terrorists looking for him, he remarks dryly to himself

“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice”


This is no doubt a thought on the minds of every American policy maker and citizen, especially those who have lived to see the American retreat in Saigon. The greatest military in the world finds itself humbled once again by a rag-tag guerilla insurgency supported by nations hostile to American interests and as a consequence, the world finds itself in a much darker place than it was since the winter of 2001.


(Tanvir Jaikishen is a consultant and entrepreneur. He holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science in International Health Policy. His passions include the study of International Relations, Geopolitics, Defense, and Greco- Roman history. He is also a Distinguished Member, C3S. The views expressed in this Op-ed are personal)

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