U.S. policy & Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s chequered history

Print edition : September 10, 2021

August 17, 1977: U.S. President Jimmy Carter, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance at Camp David. Brzezinski, of Polish descent, wanted to embroil the Soviet military in Afghanistan to facilitate the liberation of Poland and other East European countries. He sent Special Forces to Afghanistan in July 1979. They fomented revolts, causing the communist government in Kabul to conclude that it was in peril and needed the Soviet Union’s military intervention. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Former U.S. Presidents (from left) George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. The Project for the New American Century in 1997 begot the ‘neoconservative’ movement, whose adherents are often referred to as ‘neocons’, which asserted the need for a ‘muscular’ foreign policy. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, they propagated the need for America to act as a ‘benevolent hegemon’ to establish and maintain Pax Americana. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Ronald Reagan. During his presidency (1981-1989), the ‘neocons’ propagated the need for America to act as a ‘benevolent hegemon’ to establish and maintain Pax Americana.

January 1980: Soviet military vehicles on the streets of Kabul, a month after Brezhnev sent in the forces to Afghanistan. Photo: The Hindu

Leonid Brezhnev. Without a proper discussion in the Polit Bureau, he sent in the forces to Afghanistan in December 1979. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Soviets under Gorbachev wisely withdrew from Afghanistan. By then the Polish Solidarity Movement had grown stronger, eventually freeing Poland from Moscow’s tutelage. Brzezinski got what he wanted. His goal of mobilising Muslim nations against the Soviet Union also was accomplished. Photo: AFP

Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda leader, at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan, in March 2004. George W. Bush was keen to project himself as a strong, super-leader and started bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre. Photo: AP

What has happened in Afghanistan can be traced to the United States’ ‘muscular’ foreign policy after the Cold War and the floundering global war on terrorism.

The swift collapse of the United States-backed Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan, along with the rise of the Taliban as the most powerful actor on the scene, has to be seen in a proper historical perspective as it raises a number of questions to a student of international relations:

  • Are we witnessing the end of the much-hyped ‘American Century’ and the ill-starred Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) proclaimed with much flourish by President George Bush Jr in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001?
  • How do we explain what has occurred in Afghanistan? How far back in time do we need to go?
  • Did President Joe Biden do the right thing? Was he really surprised by the chaos that followed his decision to withdraw the military by a certain date?
  • Has India navigated the perilous diplomatic waters dexterously? Could India have done better?
  • What next for Afghanistan and the region?

The American Century

The phrase the “American Century”was coined by Time publisher Henry Luce whose father was a missionary. In a 1941 article published in Life, Luce urged his country to abandon isolationism and accept a missionary’s role, acting as the Good Samaritan spreading democracy. Luce avoided the expression the American Empire’ for understandable reasons. It does not mean that he was averse to such an empire.

At the end of the Second World War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union got into a Cold War that ended, in a sense, even before the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In a famous article titled ‘The Unipolar Moment in Foreign Affairs’, published in October 1990, Charles Krauthammer, a political columnist, proclaimed U.S. dominance in the post-Cold War era. Successive administrations and the academia in the U.S., and hence most parts of the rest of the world, accepted his point of view. As we know, the academic pre-eminence of the West prevails because decolonisation of the mind is a comparatively slow process.

Weapons of mass deception

Following Krauthammer’s lead, William Kristol and Robert Kagan elaborated on the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in 1997. This project begot the ‘neoconservative’ movement, whose adherents are often referred to as ‘neocons’, which asserted the need for a ‘muscular’ foreign policy. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1981-1989), they propagated the need for America to act as a ‘benevolent hegemon’ to establish and maintain Pax Americana.

To my mind, the ‘neocons’ believed that they were clever enough to deceive the rest of the world, not for some time but forever. A prime example is of adducing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) held by Saddam Hussein to justify years of utterly inhuman economic sanctions that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq, and later, to invade and occupy Iraq in order to facilitate huge profits for U.S. companies. As a matter of fact, 1,625 experts, who ‘inspected’ 1,700 sites at a cost of over $1 billion, found no WMD. Indeed, the correct expansion of WMD would be Weapons of Mass Deception.

There was a time when the POTUS (President of the United States), as he is referred to by the security, thought that it was necessary and sufficient to ‘send the marines’ to resolve any problem anywhere in the world. Let us list the big wars that the U.S. has lost or had to accept a draw:

  • The Korean War (1950-1953) that could have been ended in October 1950 if only President Harry S. Truman had heeded Jawaharlal Nehru’s advice to talk to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and agree to a ceasefire along the 38th parallel. Three years and millions of deaths later, of mostly Koreans, and of over 54,000 U.S. soldiers, the ceasefire was agreed on the same line, although slightly modified to North Korea’s advantage.
  • The Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, was a humiliating defeat, with the U.S. Ambassador getting into a helicopter taking off from the roof top of the chancery, holding on to the flag that had just been brought down.
  • The U.S. gained nothing from the 2003 Iraq War, but paid a heavy price in terms of treasure and lives, and gifted increased geopolitical clout to Iran, an illustration of the law of unintended consequences that history upholds often.
  • The War on Terror has only globalised terrorism. Bush’s impertinent declaration of victory in 2003 was followed by the Islamic State, which, in 2014, held 100,000 sq km of territory and controlled 11 million people. The U.S. declared victory once again when Donald Trump boasted in October 2019 that the world was safer as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, was assassinated. The Islamic State or its variations are, however, currently active in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is also to be noted that the U.S. engaged in the worst form of state terrorism in Guantanamo, where 780 people were held for years, most of them without charge or trial, and often subjected to the most heinous forms of torture. In this context, the horrors of Abu Ghraib in Iraq cannot and should not be forgotten. When the U.S. commits crimes, it is not punished since it is ‘above the law’.

We cannot be sure that the U.S. has completely cured itself of the urge to dominate the rest of the world. However, competition from China and the lessons learnt from Afghanistan might prompt such a cure. The War on Terror has cost $6.4 trillion, with the U.S. holding the uncoveted position of topping the list of the world’s debtor nations.

What has happened in Afghanistan?

To answer the question, we need to go back to Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-81). Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser (NSA) at the time, was of Polish descent. He wanted to embroil the Soviet military in Afghanistan to facilitate the liberation of Poland and other East European countries. With Carter’s approval, the NSA sent Special Forces to Afghanistan in July 1979. They fomented revolts, causing the communist government in Kabul to conclude that it was in peril and needed the Soviet Union’s military intervention. Leonid Brezhnev, without a proper discussion in the Polit Bureau, sent in the forces in December 1979. On December 24, 1979, Carter got a message from his NSA congratulating him for landing the Soviet Union in “their Vietnam”.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported and built up Osama bin Laden as a leader. In 1989, the Soviets under Mikhail Gorbachev wisely withdrew from Afghanistan. By then the Polish Solidarity Movement had grown stronger, eventually freeing Poland from Moscow’s tutelage. In short, Brzezinski got what he wanted. His goal of mobilising Muslim nations against the Soviet Union also was accomplished.

Eventually, the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan. After the communist government led by Mohammed Najibullah fell in 1992, Afghanistan descended into chaos until the Taliban took over in 1996 and declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

‘Talib’ means ‘student’ or ‘seeker’ in Arabic, and Taliban is the plural in Pashtun. Only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan recognised the Emirate. The Taliban imposed a rather harsh form of Sharia, drawing inspiration from the Deobandi school of Islamic revivalism based in the town of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district. Women were denied basic rights, but the West was unconcerned.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush issued an ultimatum to Kabul to surrender Osama bin Laden. Kabul signalled that it wanted evidence of Osama’s involvement in the attack on the World Trade Centre and was prepared to arrange for a trial, after which he would be handed over to the U.S. if found guilty. However, Bush was keen to project himself as a strong, super-leader and started bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. Seven days later, Kabul said that it was willing to talk about transferring Bin Laden to a third country provided the bombing stopped. Bush remained adamant. By December 2001, the Taliban lost control of Jalalabad, its leader Mullah Omar fled, and the United Nations stepped in to install Hamid Karzai as interim head of administration.

Bin Laden had disappeared and the military intervention was a failure to that extent.

In April 2002, Bush said, “By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall.”

America’s plans were not working out, but state propaganda succeeded in creating an impression of progress. However, there was real progress in women’s rights. Washington wanted to get out of the quagmire, but Barack Obama’s advisers dissuaded him from pulling out the troops, leaving Afghanistan to its fate. He even had to send 17,000 troops to join the 36,000 already there as the Taliban increased its attacks on the foreign troops.

U.S.-Taliban agreement

Trump was willing to enter into negotiations with the Taliban, which had an office in Doha, Qatar, hosted and funded by Qatar, which was always keen to play an international role, much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The text of the agreement signed in February 2019 between Washington and the Taliban repays reading. The title speaks for itself:

‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America’.

It is to be noted that:

  • The Ashrafi Ghani government was not a party to the agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan.
  • There was a clause requiring the release of 5,000 prisoners by the Ghani government and of 1,000 by the Taliban.
  • The release of prisoners and intra-Afghan negotiations was to commence on March 10, 2020.
  • Because of a delay in the release of prisoners, the intra-Afghan negotiations on power-sharing between the Taliban and the Ghani government commenced only on September 12, 2020. The rivalry between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive, was one of the reasons for the delay.
  • The intra-Afghan talks made hardly any progress, partly because the Taliban wanted the lion’s share of power. It concluded that the U.S. was in a hurry to leave and that once the U.S. military left, the Ghani government could easily be removed.
  • Trump’s advisers too dissuaded him from pulling out of Afghanistan.
  • President Biden, who, as Vice President, had opposed Obama’s decision to send extra troops to Afghanistan in 2009, was determined to get out of that country whatever be the cost.

Obviously, the February 2019 Agreement did not provide for a successful outcome for intra-Afghan talks before the complete withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan. It would be wrong to treat this as an oversight as Washington wanted to withdraw come what may.

On July 8, 2021, Biden announced plans to withdraw completely by August 31, giving a clear signal that he was not waiting for any power-sharing agreement.

Did President Biden miscalculate?

As the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, 2021, and the Ghani government’s authority melted away without even a shot being fired, Biden faced sharp criticism from the veterans, the Republicans and even from a section of his own party. European leaders were shocked by the chaos in Kabul, with visuals showing Afghans hanging on to a speeding aircraft, two of whom died after falling off.

In his address on August 16, 2021, Biden stood firm and defended himself. He argued that the U.S. did not go to Afghanistan to do ‘nation building’, a clear contradiction of what Bush said earlier about a ‘Marshall Plan’.

The key question is whether Biden was warned of the likelihood of the chaos that has occurred after his announcement on July 8 about complete U.S. troop withdrawal by August 31. It is customary for the President to be briefed on the possible outcomes if a decision under consideration is implemented.

In early March, Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, wrote to President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah urging them to speed up the power-sharing agreement. Blinken was rather blunt. The letter said: “I must also make clear to you Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st, as we consider other options.”

Blinken was “concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains”. That the letter was written by the Secretary of State to a head of state was also an obvious signal.

Biden was facetious when he blamed the Afghan military for not resisting the Taliban. Until the withdrawal of forces began, Washington provided air support, intelligence for operations and the funds for the Afghan military’s salary. U.S. contractors used to service the planes. All this stopped, and the soldiers in Zaranj, the first provincial capital to fall, were given some pocket money by the Taliban after surrender.

We conclude that Biden had been warned, but chose to pull out.

India's navigational skills

India’s navigational skills in the perilous waters of diplomacy leaves much to be desired. Washington started talking to the Taliban in 2018. India should have begun talks with the Taliban immediately.

Even after the reported contacts arranged by Qatar, India denied any contacts. India seems to have been slow in recognising that Biden was determined to pull out, and the Ghani government was unrealistic in its assessment that there was no need to conclude power-sharing talks with the Taliban. Did India lack due diligence and thus miss the writing on the wall?

India should not have been in such a hurry to bring back the Ambassador and staff from Kabul. The U.S. Ambassador left, but there is a U.S. Charge d’Affaires (CDA) in Kabul talking to the Taliban.

Al Jazeera reported that the Taliban armed men had escorted the Indian Embassy personnel to the airport. There were armed men outside the embassy, and initially the embassy was worried about its safety. Later, it sought assistance from the Taliban and they did the escorting.

According to the Indian media, the embassy could not find space at the airport to work from because that facility was available only to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). It is reasonably certain that Washington would have taken the decision to exclude India.

There is another pertinent question. Did India consider asking Russia to spare space for a small team of officials? The Russian embassy in Kabul remains open. A crisis calls for out-of-the-box thinking.

India should begin talks with the Taliban and send back the Ambassador as early as possible. Additionally, India should publicly offer humanitarian assistance to the displaced Afghans. There is no need to bring Afghan citizens who are Hindus or Sikhs to India.

What next?

The Taliban is trying to form a government with the participation of others. Some contacts have been made with Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, and others. It is hoped that these efforts will succeed.

There have been anti-Taliban demonstrations in Afghanistan. We can only hope that the formation of an inclusive government will bring peace and tranquillity in the country.

There is some unnecessary and irresponsible talk in the Indian media of India considering extending military support to the Northern Alliance.

The Taliban has made it clear that there is no question of democracy, and that Sharia will prevail. However, the Taliban has said that it would be a softer version of what it implemented in 1996-2001.

Pakistan, China and Russia might be the first to recognise the new government in Kabul.

The U.S. has 15,000 of its citizens and some ‘eligible’ Afghans to be airlifted. Washington has frozen $9.5 billion of Afghan funds in U.S. banks. The International Monetary Fund has said that Afghanistan’s SDR (special drawing rights) facility of $460 million cannot be used. Washington is probably applying pressure to ensure that the Taliban will not interrupt the evacuation.

Looking at the big geopolitical picture, a probable scenario is worth mentioning. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China and Russia got closer, an alliance that was fortified when the West imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Biden has chosen not to lift Trump’s sanctions against Iran. If the nuclear deal with Iran is not renewed, Iran will strengthen its relations with China, which has agreed to invest $400 billion in Iran over a 25-year period, and with Russia. A China-Russia-Iran axis will emerge.

Given China’s influence on Pakistan, it might also join the axis. If Afghanistan under the Taliban, which is beholden to Pakistan, too joins it, a powerful alliance that will not be good for India or America will emerge.

India should be more worried about such a development than the U.S. which is far away. New Delhi should stop ‘monitoring the developments’ and figure out how to shape them.

It is high time India took a hard look at its foreign policy and apply the needed corrections.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is Distinguished Fellow at Symbiosis University, Pune. His book The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t is to be published shortly.

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