The two-decade war in Afghanistan will be analysed from multiple angles in the years to come and mostly will be classified as a huge strategic failure on the part of the US and its allies. The inability of a superpower to turn things around and erase Afghanistan’s reputed title— ‘Graveyard of Empires’—will probably be seen as a failure of leadership, strategy and international cooperation to bring peace to a stricken land. The US defeat in Vietnam, classified by Richard Nixon as a campaign where strategic objectives were met, and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan were both events of the Cold War. The adversaries then were clearly ranged against each other in terms of near-conventional conflict situations. The US failure in Afghanistan, however, is a virtual submission to the will of non-state actors who had limited resources to boot. A separate exploration of that domain will be made in due course once clarity on the current military situation is available.
In the last seven-eight years, a series of efforts were made to strengthen the anti-Taliban forces of the National Unity Government and provide assurance to the world that it could hold on and govern. An ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution’ was often quoted by experts as the ultimate counter. None of this seems to have worked, although some yet claim that it’s too early to write off anyone in the emerging fight. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and National Police, in all over 3,00,000 strong, have not been short on courage. They have taken an average of almost 8,000 fatalities per year battling out the Taliban’s various offensives in the last couple of years and this has been despite the air support provided by the US from within Afghanistan. The question most of us have been asking is whether the ANA has the capacity to battle on its own. The answer to this, even way back in 2013, was in the negative. Why were they not facilitated to achieve the capacity that was envisaged for them? It is because no one trusted their ability to fight with and secure the advanced military equipment that would have been made available to them. It was perceived that most of this equipment would fall into Taliban hands and facilitate it to take its fight to the allies. India was often urged to provide some heavy weapons, ammunition and helicopters. We have an enduring and positive relationship with the ANA and our political and diplomatic relationship with the Government of Afghanistan could not have been better. We trained Afghan officer cadets and soldiers in large numbers, provided weapons and even a few helicopters and used the soft power route to build the relationship with the people—eventually becoming a nation that the Afghans trusted the most. However, there was little that India could do in terms of provision of additional heavy weaponry in the face of an eventual relationship with the Taliban (catering to the contingency of it coming to power) or the safety and security of the US forces and its allies should these weapons fall to the Taliban.
It’s not just the absence of heavy weapons; the government forces can still make a fight of it provided they have sound advice, some air support and assured logistics backing. They do not seem to have any of these. The Taliban too is not following the traditional tactics of targeting the urban centres. They appear to be aiming to first get hold of a maximum number of rural districts and cut off supply lines to the urban areas. An eventual suffering of the people and their displacement as refugees or internally displaced people should be expected, probably in large numbers, creating a humanitarian crisis of its own. Turbulence and chaos will unnerve the government and assist the Taliban, which is seeking just that.
The US responded to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 with a revenge-seeking military operation—Enduring Freedom—and launched what came to be known as the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Neutralising Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of 9/11, was a moral victory for the US but little else seems to have been achieved. Even a limited analysis will indicate that the US is perhaps making the same mistake it did in Iraq—a premature conflict termination. In the case of Iraq, it kept its eyes off the radar too thus enabling the rise of the Islamic State (IS), which continues to be a seasoned player even today. Withdrawing after 20 years may not necessarily be considered premature conflict termination by many. However, it is the comparative effectiveness of the US presence in the last many years that should be questioned. After the surge in strength of deployment grudgingly accepted by Barack Obama, it has always been a reluctant presence. This was amply evident to the Taliban, which knew ultimately it was a question of stamina.
It’s a little late in the day for the US to make amends. The arrangement with the Taliban is an incomplete and unreliable one. The US perceives that the vacuum in Afghanistan could be filled by the Ashraf Ghani-led government in arrangement and agreement with the Taliban. But this is misconceived. Civil war conditions are already in the making and 120 districts are now under Taliban control. When the Taliban takes full control, despite the talks underway in Tehran between the Afghan factions, is a matter of time. There appears to be no agreement for an air base in Pakistan from where some US air support operations (including drones) could be launched to strengthen the resistance of the ANA. The ANA until it lasts out should get air support from the US fleet in the North West Indian Ocean.
The campaigns by the Soviets, and the US and its allies in Afghanistan started with big-time conventional operations and dwindled to the sub-conventional. The willingness to fight big long enough, addressing all areas simultaneously, holding territories captured and building the social and economic sectors with the help of the international community was the concept to follow. In all this, the one sensible decision that stands out was the Indian government’s unwillingness to take the bait for deployment of the Indian Armed Forces in Afghanistan. You can expect to hear a lot more on Afghanistan from me in the days ahead.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir