The Age Of Strategic Rivalry Has Returned

Published in Hindustan Times on September 13, 2021

Twenty years ago, the events of 9/11 changed the world, hurtling it into a new era. Even today, historians label it the post-9/11 era. A ‘global war on terror’ was launched. That era has ended and presumably, so has America’s ‘global war on terror’.

Historians prefer a date to bookend, but that depends on who you ask. On 31st August, the US concluded its withdrawal from Afghanistan, taking comfort in having undertaken the largest airlift evacuation but it was the Taliban that was celebrating their victory.

In 2001, US boasted of an invincible military. In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had famously described America as “the indispensable nation”. Explaining why US used military power, she said, “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us”.

Back then, North Atlantic treaty Organisation (NATO) operations in the Balkans had stunned the world with the display of the military superiority, using laser guided precision weapons with seamless digital integration of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Russian economy had shrunk to the size of that of Portugal. China was just entering the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Today, it is a different world. The age of strategic rivalry has returned. Taliban, ably helped by Pakistan, US’s ‘frontline ally’ in its ‘global war on terror’, has badly dented the notion of US invincibility. Despite President Joe Biden’s efforts in recent months to reassure allies that “America is back”, there is a wariness about both US commitment and its competence. The images of people hanging on to the C-17 Globemaster as it taxied for take-off at Kabul will remain as enduring as the image of last American helicopter out of Saigon in April 1975, hours before the Viet Cong stormed the city.

In 2001, the US embarked on two operations. The first was against Taliban and Al Qaeda but it was never successfully completed. Gen Pervez Musharraf who had been threatened into cooperating, pleaded that he couldn’t unless he got the Pakistan army officials – serving and retired – who had been advising and working with the Taliban. US played ball and the Kunduz airlift began in November. It lasted nearly a week and between 2000 and 3000 people were airlifted, including not just the Pakistanis but also a number of other senior Taliban and other jihadi leaders.

The second botch up was in December when Osama bin Laden was cornered in Tora Bora. Brigadier James Mattis, deployed in Kandahar (later Defence Secretary Gen Mattis) asked for reinforcements to surround the area but CentCom commander Gen Tommy Franks declined as he was preoccupied with finalising the operational plans for the Iraq invasion for Rumsfeld. The task was subcontracted to a local Afghan commander Hazrat Ali, and bin Laden, with his group, manged to escape across the Durand Line.

The outcome became apparent in 2005, once the US was distracted with Iraq and the Taliban had regrouped to begin their insurgency with suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In parallel, the US launched a second operation in Afghanistan with the Bonn Conference. The objective was to rebuild Afghanistan as a democratic, functioning state that would not play host to, or allow its territory to be used by, terrorist groups. Except that the US never accepted the idea of ‘nation building’ and the UN mission in Kabul, headed by veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi was only permitted ‘a light footprint’.

The cardinal sin was that the US (and allied) military forces got increasingly drawn from a counter-terrorism operation into a counter-insurgency operation that meant winning ‘hearts and minds’, a challenge for a foreign force that lacked empathy for a conservative, tribal society and its traditions. Counter-insurgency should have been done by the local forces but the newly created Afghan administration headed by President Hamid Karzai had neither the resources nor the agency and, in the process, became ‘a puppet regime’ and US forces represented ‘foreign occupation’.

The die was cast once the process of legitimisation of Taliban began with the opening of their Doha office in 2013. US exit was a given; the only question was when. Once direct negotiations began in 2018, the timeline became apparent. The US withdrawal deal signed in Doha in February 2020 was sold to the world as a ‘peace deal’, with a ‘reformed’ Taliban, a Taliban 2.0.

If there were any illusions about a Taliban 2.0, these were dispelled with the announcement of the new interim government on September 7. To underline that this was now a Pakistani enterprise, the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Faiz Hameed visited Kabul on September 4 for confabulations with different actors.

The Doha group that had been the political face of the Taliban engaging with the international community has been relegated to the second rung. Many of the key fighting units on the ground have not found place in the new dispensation, presumably because they would be less amenable to foreign direction. The Quetta shura finds strong representation, especially those who were also around in the 1990s Taliban government.

The clear winners are the Haqqanis who have long been known for their proximity to the ISI. Not only does Sirajuddin Haqqani control the all-powerful Interior Ministry, his family and friends enjoy key positions in Intelligence, Refugees, Communications and the Borders ministries. Most important, Haqqanis will control the appointment of governors to seven eastern provinces (Loya Paktia) that border Pakistan.

A nascent resistance movement centred in Panjshir valley has petered out. Demonstrations in cities that were drawing international condemnation have now been banned. Yet, even those countries that had promoted the idea of a Taliban 2.0 seem to be hesitant about rushing forward with political and diplomatic recognition.

America has ended its ‘forever war’; Afghans are preparing for a long winter.

*****

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