Taliban
The Taliban say they don’t want to monopolize power, but they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanistan until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed. In this file image Taliban fighters can be seen in Farah province, Afghanistan Image Credit: AFP

The United States attacked Afghanistan on October 7, 2001; ejected the Taliban from power and installed a government that sustains only with the American assistance.

Twenty years on, the US departed from Afghanistan this month from Afghanistan. The commanding General Scott Miller relinquished command and surfaced only when he landed in Washington.

The country has a chequered history. The last withdrawing Soviet column, led by the commanding General Boris Gromov crossed the Amu Darya bridge, in public view, into what was then Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic on Feb. 15, 1989. The Soviets had similarly intervened in Afghanistan on December 24, 1979.

Four decades of war

In the military honour system, the commander is the last to leave the post or as they say in the navy, “the captain goes with the ship.” The contrast defines the two interventions into a country that has only seen war for over four decades.

In 1839, the British also had a walkover into Kabul with 21,000 troops. Falling into Afghan tactics and chivalry only one British soldier returned to Jalalabad in 1842. No wonder the British historians tagged Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of the empires.’

Early 16th century after taking over Kabul almost without a shot and settling in, when Emperor Babur wrote to his mother in Fergana Valley describing the Afghan culture of conflict and norms, the far-sighted women advised him not to stay among such people. Babur moved to India in 1526 and set up the dynasty of the Great Mughals that ruled over India for nearly 300 years.

One of history’s greatest generals, Alexander the Great, negotiated his peaceful passage through Afghanistan in 327 BC and only had his first real military engagement in the plains of modern-day Pakistan. Yet the military genius must have had good reason to warn “ … beware of the revenge of an Afghan.”

Lessons forgotten

In invading Afghanistan, the Americans forgot some fundamental lessons of history and the rule that unless you are supported by the population, no military can hold its ground.

The US chose to ignore the local culture and value system called “Pashtun Wali” — the traditional lifestyle of the Pashtuns, especially the element of Nyāaw aw Badál (justice and revenge) and continued to believe that military force alone will compel the Afghan resistance (Taliban) to give in. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The ‘forever war’ has cost the $2 trillion and has proved to be its most expensive failure.

During the last 20 years, the United States has poured more than $70 billion in weapons, equipment and training into the Afghan forces (ANSF) alone in the mistaken hope that this force will withstand the rag tag collection of irregulars. They underestimated the yearning of the Afghans to rid their country of what they believed were foreign forces.

Paying their way into occupation again proved insufficient to cow down the Afghans. One of the highest desertion rates in the world from the ANSF also did not alert them to the faulty perceptions under which they continued to pour billions into Afghanistan.

If anyone is now expressing shock at the way the ANSF is surrendering space to the Taliban, either they have been fed with their own lies or they still do not have any understanding of the ‘graveyard of the empires.’

With the ANSF on the run, Kabul’s president Ashraf Ghani is attempting to mobilise warlords whose militias are expected to push back the Taliban ascendancy in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan’s previous experience is dreadful. These ethnic militias eventually turn on each other resulting in a state of anarchy.

The American project

Every dispassionate student of international politics knew from the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan that defeating Taliban was of little interest to America and not the least was the freedom and democracy for the Afghan people.

The key motive remains a forward base in the underbelly of “existential threats” to America — China and Russia. Occupation of one country — Afghanistan provides America a cover.

Now, having decided to quit the US can take some consolation that the wreckage they are leaving behind will haunt their geopolitical rivals, Moscow and Beijing and other states in the region.

The American military engagement in Afghanistan goes back some 40 years when it began clandestine military support for the then resistance — Mujahideen, against the Soviet intervention. In process what they created is a new era of extremism.

The off shoots of all these groups like Mujahideen and Taliban can all be traced to the root of Cold War machinations in Afghanistan. The consequences of these interventions might continue to haunt the world for a while.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as Pakistan’s ambassador to several countries.