Almost two decades after the United States invaded Afghanistan post-9/11, the end to Washington’s longest running war appears to be getting nearer. In the past fortnight, talks between US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and representatives of Afghanistan’s Taliban militants have led to the first outlines of a framework for a peace settlement that will see the Taliban become part of a new ruling order.
The expected withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in less than two years from now, and after Washington has already spent more than $1 trillion (Dh3.67 trillion) on the Afghan war, is nothing short of humiliation if not a defeat for the world’s sole super power. Though the signs of the coming trends are still early, it’s possible that the US in its eagerness to close the Afghan chapter may still get the endgame wrong.
American troops armed with some of the world’s most sophisticated gear have found themselves unable to take charge of a foreign land which is not the first time that such an outcome has happened. The story played out in Afghanistan in many ways emulates what has followed previous US engagements in Vietnam and Iraq — the two countries invaded by Washington where US forces were met with an eventual failure in securing their primary objectives.
Even in America’s backyard, Cuba, under its past Soviet backed socialist rule offers a case in point. The late Fidel Castro, a vocal anti-US strongman survived as a prominent critic of Washington for over 50 years, notwithstanding the might of the US in repeatedly seeking to dislodge him as leader of the island nation.
In the short term, clearly a US military pullout from Afghanistan is set to lift US President Donald Trump’s political credentials at home as he prepares to contest the next US presidential elections in 2020. The next race to the White House notwithstanding, America’s failure to dislodge the Taliban in Afghanistan, the pullout will be dubbed a victory by Trump and his followers. Where Afghanistan will head post US withdrawal remains another matter.
As the history of Vietnam and Iraq (following US military withdrawal) has adequately shown, stability of those countries remained an elusive matter for years to come. In the case of Afghanistan too, the US urgency to seek a troop withdrawal appears driven mainly by political trends and interests in Washington rather than conditions on the ground. The Taliban, who according to some reports, now control up to 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory clearly remain in the ascendancy.
The key trends from the US intervention in 2001 to the end result serves to present multiple lessons. For policymakers in Washington, it is essential to understand that the Afghan war was a nonstarter from day one. None of Afghanistan’s previous invaders, including the former Soviet Union which sent its military to the central Asian country in 1979, has ever tasted victory there. For the US too, the outcome has not been very different.
A deeply unpopular force?
The Afghans have time and again proven themselves to be a rugged nation, eager to retain their independence at all costs. The success of the Taliban in enlarging the areas under their control has come about mainly due to the continuing support of local Afghans especially across the countryside. While the world has repeatedly witnessed the impression being dished out of the Taliban remaining a deeply unpopular force, the reality on the ground has been different.
At the same time, the emphasis on primarily fighting the war in the past two decades has left Afghans from the mainstream population surrounded by widespread impoverishment. While the US has spent more than a trillion dollars to keep the Afghan war machinery going, relatively little has been done in revamping an economy destroyed by its outcome. Consequently, the departure of the US from Afghanistan is set to leave most Afghans relatively ambivalent over exactly how much they gained from Washington’s intervention.
Meanwhile, Washington’s choice of importing leaders to run Afghanistan deserves deep analysis. Some of these leaders may well be armed with the power of gab, but their elevation to the top slot always raises questions over the extent to which they are rooted in the Afghan society to be able to make a difference.
And finally, Trump, early in his tenure, chose to alienate Pakistan with ill-advised measures like cutting off Washington’s military assistance. Such disruption was justified on the grounds that Pakistan had not done enough to secure peace in Afghanistan. But recent progress in the peace process has reportedly followed Pakistan quietly putting pressure on some leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement to enter a final peace settlement.
For many Pakistanis, the recent US treatment of their country has only reinforced the impression of Washington’s non-reliability as an ally. This is particularly true given the history of relations between the two countries, hovering between a tight embrace surrounding shared interests to periods of estrangement. The coming endgame in Afghanistan offers much food for thought for all.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.