Since the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and the quagmire that has led to the longest war in U.S. history, some observers, including myself, have repeatedly suggested that the solution for the Afghan predicament lies in a combination of social, economic, political, and military approach. Washington’s modus operandi has so far been a purely military one.
After the costly withdrawal of most American and international troops from that country in 2013 and 2014, Gen. John Nicholson, the present American commander of the remaining U.S. and international forces, recently complained of a shortfall of troops and informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he needed additional boots on the ground if the “stalemate” is to be broken.
Using the word “stalemate” is, in my view, an understatement. General Nicholson probably felt the need to avoid words that expose the brutal truth and the usage of which in Washington’s genteel surroundings seem inappropriate.
The cold fact is that the Taliban, since the beginning of 2014, when the U.S. and NATO forces left the battlefield, leaving the fighting to Afghanistan’s national army, have slowly but relentlessly gained ground, forcing the Kabul government to relinquish control over 40% of the country’s districts.
The Taliban’s control of those districts is not just physical, brought about by force. In those cases, the Afghan government has, for all practical purposes, ceased to function. All governmental tasks have been taken over by the Taliban, while local officials of the central government lock themselves up inside their government compounds and use the military and police forces at their disposal for guarding themselves.
And the reason is that the population under Taliban control prefer to let the Taliban shadow-administrators adjudicate their legal cases and solve most of their other problems.
Viewing that country from afar that may appear strange, as we in the modern secular world don’t want religious fundamentalists to govern us. For the local people in Afghanistan, their choice is based on a simple reality: They loath the corrupt and imperial way government officials handle their problems. In contradistinction, Taliban representatives are known for their incorruptibility and speed in decision making.
We shouldn’t wonder that the war in Afghanistan has turned in a never-ending dilemma, a swamp that has ceaselessly swallowed American blood and treasure with almost no sustainable result.
In view of the squandered opportunity to do something right for the U.S. and for Afghanistan, the country where we saw an opportunity to injure Soviet Russia, and the people who withstood almost inhuman punishment for its own freedom and for the good of the rest of humanity, it has become an urgent necessity to ask ourselves whether we have in earnest ever tried to understand why a half-literate, lightly-armed, ragtag group of probably no more than 25,000 men could survive and continue a war against highly-trained and well-armed armies of the U.S. and its allies? If we have, we have failed to understand the true reasons behind this conflict. If we haven’t, it’s high time to do so, if for no other purpose than for the painful fact that the United States has so far lost over 2,400 uniformed personnel and expended about $ 1 trillion.
Due to the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the country, the U.S. and its NATO allies will probably dispatch additional troops to Afghanistan and will almost certainly return to their former fighting mode against the Taliban. In that quite likely scenario, the numbers of lost lives will begin growing again at a higher pace, and the monetary cost will once more escalate at a time when Washington can least afford it.
If we want to bring this tragic state of affairs to an end, tragic not only for the United States and other NATO countries, whose soldiers have fought and died in the rugged Afghan countryside, but tragic also for the Afghan people, whose losses of life and property no one has ever bothered to mention, we must understand not only the cause as to why this war has come about and why it, despite the enormous might arrayed against it, refuses to come to a close.
We now know that the war of resistance against Soviet Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s had completely destroyed the county’s economy and institutions. The confrontation with the Red Army cost the Afghan nation 1.2 million lives and displaced a third of its population who had fled the country.
By the time, Soviet Russia was forced to leave Afghanistan in February 1989, and the communist regime in Kabul fell in 1992, the country was broken beyond its ability to resurrect itself. At that moment of victory, not just for Afghanistan but also for the Free World, the United States and its allies dropped that country like a hot potato and forgot the long years of close cooperation against their common foe.
Abandoned by its wartime patrons in the Free World, the Afghan resistance leaders and local commanders started a civil war that in its destructive capacity and savagery was, if not unique, certainly among the worst of the worst in human history.
At about that time, the freed central Asian republics, had, after many decades under Soviet- Russian rule, gained their independence and offered the U.S. a virgin territory for economic penetration. Especially, their large oil and gas reserves attracted the American oil and natural gas industry.
UNICAL, a Texas-based oil conglomerate, interested to building a pipeline for Central Asian gas and oil from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Pakistani deep-sea port of Gwadar, lobbied the Clinton administration to pacify Afghanistan.
Tired of dealing with backward and devastated Afghanistan, the Clinton administration let Pakistan and Saudi Arabia deal with that country’s pacification process. Pakistan created the Taliban, manned it with young Afghans from amongst the large Afghan refugee population inside Pakistan, and led it to conquer most of Afghanistan. Except for some fighting in the country’s north east, the civil war was brought under control.
UNICAL hired Afghan-born American Zalmay Khalilzad as advisor. Khalilzad had played a role between the U.S. and the Afghan resistance during Afghanistan’s war of resistance in the 1980s against Soviet Russia and had gained a reputation as an expert on Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai, who in the 1980s had worked for a minor Afghan resistance organization based in Pakistan, had changed colors and supported the Taliban, which dispatched him to the U.S. to represent it as its ambassador at the United Nations.
When Karzai arrived in the U.S., Khalilzad, who knew him from the war during the 1980s, offered him an advisory position at UNICAL. Learning of the salary UNICAL was willing to pay him, he once more jumped ship and joined Khalilzad as advisor to UNICAL.
At that time, Osama Ben Laden lived in Sudan and the U.S was pressing Sudan’s government to kick him out of its country. The hope was that he would return to Saudi Arabia where the Saudi government could deal with him.
Instead, Osama chartered a plane and flew to Afghanistan where he was received with open arms as the rich brother who had fought side by side with the Afghans during their war of resistance against Soviet Russia. When the Taliban took over most of the country, Osama established close relations with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and gained a free hand to establish training camps and plan his terrorist activities.
This soured relations between the U.S. and Taliban, and UNICAL’s activities ended. After 9/11 and America’s invasion of Afghanistan, an international conference was organized in Bonn, Germany to decide Afghanistan’s political future. Khalilzad and the Karzai brothers who controlled this meeting, handed over the country to the same warlords who had devastated Afghanistan and pilfered its meager resources that had been left over after two-and-a-half decades of war and civil strife.
That was the beginning of the end for rehabilitating an honest, law-abiding, and functioning Afghan government. The Afghan government under both Karzai and now Ghani reeks of greed and corruption. As a result, Afghanistan is still the failed state it was in October 2001, when the U.S. invaded it.
Poverty is widespread. Human rights are being trampled with impunity. Property ownership means nothing. If a strongman wants a piece of land, he gets it. And once he has it, there is no one in the government to prevent him from holding on to it.
In the Bonn process that charted Afghanistan’s future political system, Khalilzad and the Karzai brothers laid the groundwork for Afghanistan’s failure. Oxford University published a study in 2012, which says, “The Bonn agreement in 2001 did not usher in an effective constitutional moment because it enabled a personalized division of spoils rather than an institutionalized division of power.”
In fact, the process legitimized the warlords and drug kingpins, provided for them the ability to make enormous amounts of money, and to seize large sections of Kabul city for themselves. According to the above-mentioned report which Oxford University had published, the Bonn agreement engendered “a culture of impunity.”
Afghanistan is not just a military problem. The military problem is a side effect of the country’s social, economic, and political problem. Washington policymakers have in this case either failed to recognize the weak points in that country or have decided to overlook them for political expediency. As for their Afghan advisors, including Khalilzad, they most probably analyzed the problem in their own preferred fashion and relayed their analysis in their self-centered variety.
Reflecting on his time in Afghanistan as the head of the UN mission in 2006 and 2007, Tom Koenig writes in his book Machen wir Frieden oder haben wir Krieg (Are We Making Peace or Do We have a War), “If people would want to know what I think I have done right in the last two years and what I have done wrong, what has been improved, or if it was worthwhile, these are all questions to which, if I am entirely honest, I know no answers.”
Only if we understand the week points of a problem, can we develop the right approach to it. It’s, therefore, time that Washington discards the defective thesis and redrafts its approach to this country.
Insight is imperative. But correct insight is not only a product of knowledge and experience, it also is dependent on honesty, and reliability.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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