Published by ORF-America on September 11, 2021
(Part of its series at https://orfamerica.org/newresearch/the-united-states-in-afghanistan-an-indian-perspective)
As dawn broke on 31st August, Afghans awoke to a sense of growing uncertainty and anxiety about what comes next. The last US evacuation flight had taken off hours earlier and on board were Ambassador Ross Wilson and Maj Gen Chris Donahue, closing the chapter that began on 7th October 2001 when US launched Op Enduring Freedom with air strikes against the Taliban.
In 2001, nobody could imagine this is how it would end 20 years later. There is no getting away from the fact that the images of the messy exit will stay etched in our collective conscious for a long time, just as the iconic image of US marines being evacuated from Saigon by a helicopter from a rooftop in April 1975 have never been forgotten.
Even though the US intervention ended ignominiously on President Joe Biden’s watch, there were a series of cumulative mistakes by each of his three predecessors – Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W Bush, that contributed to this outcome.
Later in the day, Biden came out with a defiant speech, defending both the decision to exit and also the manner in which the exit was conducted. He claimed that the Doha Agreement signed on 29th February last year when Trump was in the White House, left him with the “choice between leaving or escalating”. What Biden ignored was that after having called it ‘a bad deal’, he had retained Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal, in the same role. His own inclination had always been to exit and as Obama’s Vice President, he had opposed the ‘surge’ but was over-ruled by Obama and the generals.
He maintained, “I am not going to extend this forever war and I was not extending a forever exit”. However, as many have pointed out, US did not fight a twenty year war, it merely fought a one year war, twenty times over. Biden insisted that there was no way of doing a more orderly exit because had he started it earlier while the civil war was still going on, there would still have been a rush for the airport and it would have led to a crisis of confidence in the government, making it a difficult and dangerous mission. He is perhaps right in that the evacuation only commenced after Kabul fell and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on 15th August. Yet, it overlooks the fact that as late as 23rd July when he spoke on the phone with Ghani, it is clear that neither leader foresaw the impending collapse though the trends were visible.
Bush, Obama and Trump’s legacy
Biden identified two key lessons, “setting missions with clear achievable goals and staying focused on fundamental national security interests”. These are valid lessons and he was pointing to the beginning of Op Enduring Freedom. Even while denying it, the US and the international community had embarked on a nation-building exercise in 2001 because Bush’s global war on terror demanded it. Preventing a return of Taliban demanded building a new constitutional democratic state, or so the Americans believed. However, even as the Taliban found sanctuary and safe-havens in Pakistan that enabled them to regroup and re-establish their financing mechanisms, US got distracted with the war in Iraq from 2003 onwards.
The Pakistan ISI resumed their old game with the US, running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, emerging as the front-line state partnering the US in Afghanistan while subverting US efforts by aiding and abetting the Taliban and the Haqqani network as they unleashed a spate of IED attacks and suicide bombings in Afghanistan, aimed at undermining the Afghan government and drawing the US forces into a counter-insurgency from what had initially been a counter-terrorism mission. Every US commander beginning with Gen Dan McNeill in 2008 has acknowledged sooner or later that it is impossible to defeat an insurgency that enjoys safe-havens.
In public testimony, US CJSC Admiral Mike Mullen called the Haqqani network “a veritable arm of the ISI”. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Islamabad, warned her hosts, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours”. Feeling boxed in by the generals, Obama finally gave into demands for a ‘surge’ in US troop presence on the assurance that things would turn around in 18 months. He raised US troop levels to over 100000 but also announced the drawdown that ended combat operations in end-2014. President Karzai warned that the US was fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong place and Carlotta Gall came out with a provocatively titled book, “The Wrong Enemy”, highlighting failures of US military strategy. Obama’s change of policy was evident in the opening of the Taliban’s office in Doha, marking the beginning of their legitimisation from an insurgent force to a political actor.
Trump called out Pakistan, tweeting that US had “foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools and giving safe haven to terrorists”. By mid-2018, he reversed policy and authorised direct negotiations with the Taliban further adding to their international acceptance. By February 2020, the US withdrawal deal in return for safe passage was signed and presented to the international community as a peace deal. The process of legitimisation was complete and the last favour the US did was to ‘persuade’ the Afghan government to release over 5000 Taliban prisoners, adding to its marginalisation.
Hemingway explains ‘bankruptcy’
This was the policy maze that Biden found himself trapped in. He could have tried to change the flawed narrative of ‘forever wars’ or taken action against the safe havens but he chose to cut the Gordian knot by redefining the objective, by declaring that the mission had been accomplished by killing Osama bin Laden and decimating Al Qaeda and assuring the American people that their security could be ensured by over-the-horizon kinetic options. The problem is, it doesn’t smell like victory.
Once Biden set an expiry date for US presence, Taliban began their military operations. The collapse of the Afghan state authority happened like Ernest Hemingway’s explanation of how you go bankrupt – it happens in two ways, first gradually and then suddenly.
The Afghan army had been built on the US model, based on sophisticated reconnaissance units, real time intelligence using drone and aerial surveillance and monitoring, and air support. During the last six years when they had the lead in combat, they had lost over 50000 security forces compared to less than a hundred US and NATO troops killed in action proving their fighting mettle. It is true that there was corruption and this impacted morale but institution building takes time. However, with the withdrawal, especially the contractors, all support systems disappeared. Ammunition replenishment to forward bases dried up as supply chains collapsed. Medical evacuation was no longer feasible. Aircraft, helicopters and drones were grounded. GPS tracking and targeting ended as proprietary software from weapon systems was removed. The soldiers had been trained to fight like an army, not as a guerrilla force, and now, they were crippled. Perhaps the most succinct explanation of the collapse was in the recent op-ed in the New York Times by a three star general of the Afghan army Samy Sabet, “We were betrayed by politics and presidents”.
What happens now? Unlike in other places, wars in Afghanistan become serious when the fighting stops. The Taliban emerged as an Islamist Pashtun force in the 1990s and that remains its DNA. It has again achieved power through military means and not through negotiations. Statements about creating an inclusive and representative government remain vague and ambiguous. How does Taliban manage its relationships with its principal benefactor, the ISI and other collaborators, the foreign militant groups like Al Qaeda, IS-K, IMU, ETIM, TTP etc? How long before the fighting begins again?
Biden has ended America’s ‘longest war’ but peace is yet to appear on the Afghan horizon.