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Exit from Kabul: America’s bungle, India’s burden

Two decades later, the 9-11 Commission’s summation ‘of failures in imagination, policy, capabilities and management’ has acquired an eerie resonance. 

Published: 22nd August 2021 12:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd August 2021 10:59 AM   |  A+A-

Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul. (Photo | AP)

"We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management." This is what the 9-11 Commission, set up to enquire into the September 11 terror attacks on US soil, said in its summary of findings. 

As the world witnessed the ‘handing over’ of Afghanistan to the very forces the US-led alliance set out to defeat and the horrific images from Kabul illustrating the gross bungling of the exit, the sense of déjà vu was inescapable. Two decades later, the 9-11 Commission’s summation ‘of failures in imagination, policy, capabilities and management’ has acquired an eerie resonance. 

On June 7, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking on exit plans and the threat of a Taliban takeover, said, “I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.” And that is precisely what happened as the Taliban swept into Kabul over the weekend, provoking his critics to quip the secretary has a knack for seeing the future.

The failure of imagination is stark. The fundamental issue is not the decision to exit but the ‘policy’ that defined it and its ‘management’. The alibi posted by the Biden Administration is that the collapse of Afghan forces was unexpected. Logic suggests that this should have been expected. The February 29, 2020 Doha Agreement signed by the Trump Administration exclusively with the Taliban left no room for any doubt. 

Consider the language of the agreement. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” What is the motivation for the Afghan Army to fight those whom the deal virtually guaranteed to be the eventual rulers! 

Events foretell the path to future crises. The images of embassy staff in Kabul being evacuated by helicopter, a la Saigon April 30 1975, triggered the coinage ‘Saigon on Steroids’. The erosion of the sphere of US influence led to geopolitical consequences, created the room for agitations against Reza Shah Pahlavi, the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from exile, the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran and led to the 444 days hostage crisis beginning November 1979. 

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum and opportunistic geopolitics thrives in it. Later that year, on December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union emboldened by a US administration distracted by inflation and the hostage crisis, invaded Afghanistan — an event which set off a chain leading to American involvement with the mujahedeen fighters and the takeover of Afghanistan by Pakistan via its proxy the Taliban till the 9/11 terror attacks.  The quagmire created by America has left India triangulated. India has a history with the Taliban, there is already the hostility of China and now Pakistan is emboldened. It is no secret that the Taliban is funded, trained and managed by Pakistan. In 2014, former ISI chief Hamid Gul had proudly declared “When history is written, it will be said that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. The next sentence will be ‘the ISI defeated America with the help of America’.”

Indeed, it is rumoured that Haibatullah Akhundzada, chief of the Taliban since 2016, is in the custody — friendly or otherwise —of the Pakistani Army. The spin about Taliban 2.0 is just so much cattle manure. Vignettes of brutality are already visible outside the Kabul airport and in their door-to-door hunt for collaborators of the US-led alliance. In the, US Congressmen and Senators along with veterans are seeking a probe on the role of Pakistan. The question is what will and what can the United States do to check Pakistan, a nuclear power which breeds terrorists.

There is a paradigm shift in US interests since neoconservatives wrote the ‘Project for the New American Century’. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance put out by the Biden Administration in May 2021 is instructive. China appears in 15 places, Russia in 5 places but there is no mention of Pakistan! For sure, India finds an honourable mention “we will deepen our partnership” and this stems from the Quad arrangement. And what species of arrangement the Quad will be is yet an open question. 

The consequence of US unilateralism— the manner of its exit from Afghanistan — has once again triggered questions about its reliability. And this has implications as America builds alliances for the emerging faceoff with China. The anger visible in Europe as countries question the construct of Article 5 of the NATO treaty and the nervousness in Israel reflects a trust deficit. India (as also Japan and Australia) must, at the September meet, seek clarity on definition, role and approach — on issues vis-a-vis China, bilateral questions and the contours of security cooperation, obligations, and guarantees.  

The US has been at pains to project the idea of ‘power of example’ to persuade affiliation as against the ‘example of power’. In Afghanistan, it could project neither the power of example nor the example of power. The rule-based world order is at the crossroads of history.

Shankkar Aiyar
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India
shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com



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