Despite the negative consequences of the serious policy blunders committed by the US in Afghanistan over the past decade and a half, it refuses to draw the right lessons from its unhappy experience. Instead, it has persisted in pursuing its flawed Afghanistan policy with over-emphasis on a military rather than a political solution. In the process, most of the Pashtuns, who constitute almost half of the Afghan population, have been alienated thereby fuelling the Taliban insurgency in the aftermath of 9/11. Objectively speaking, the root cause of the continuing armed conflict lies in the internal conflict between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan aggravated by foreign occupation. Unfortunately, Pakistan so far has failed to put across to the international community its assessment of the Afghanistan situation in proper perspective.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, which had been organised by Al Qaeda, generated international sympathy for the US and created a favourable climate for the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban government even though it had no direct link with the terrorist attacks. The Taliban government, however, was accused of providing sanctuary to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. According to many Western scholars, the US invasion of Afghanistan, besides lacking the forthright prior sanction of the UN Security Council, amounted to an over-reaction to the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11. But that was in 2001 when the US, which was virtually ruled by the neo-cons at the time under President Bush, felt strong enough to ride roughshod over legal niceties and launch invasions against foreign countries in pursuit of its strategic agenda. If there was any doubt about the US intentions, it was removed by the totally illegal and unjustified US invasion of Iraq in 2003 in violation of its obligations under the UN Charter.

The two invasions have cost the US more than three trillion dollars and the lives of thousands of its own soldiers, besides the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, displacing millions others, and inflicting incalculable economic damage upon the two countries. The US invasion of 2003 and its subsequent mismanagement destabilised not only Iraq but the whole of the Middle East as reflected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and their adverse effects on the regional peace and stability. In the face of the mounting costs of the US military occupation of Iraq in blood and treasure, Washington was left with no choice but to stage an organised military withdrawal from the country leaving it virtually in shambles.

The state of affairs in Afghanistan is not much better. Afghanistan was under the obscurantist and retrogressive rule of the Taliban in 2001 when the US invaded it in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite the questionable legality of the invasion, most of the international community went along with it because of the overwhelming US economic and military might, the absence of a countervailing power, the bad image and isolation of the Taliban internationally owing to its obscurantist views and policies, and the presence of Al Qaeda leadership and personnel in Afghanistan. The ease with which the US was able to overthrow the Taliban government with the help of the Northern Alliance and some regional countries emboldened it to set for itself a very ambitious agenda for Afghanistan. The agenda aimed at defeating and destroying Al Qaeda, imposing a government of its choice on Afghanistan, and introducing Western liberal values in the extremely conservative Afghan society.

Washington has achieved considerable success in defeating and degrading Al Qaeda whose leadership in Afghanistan was decimated. However, it has failed to achieve the remaining two ambitious objectives primarily because the military action against the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance-dominated government that it installed in Kabul alienated most of the Pashtuns who constitute about half the Afghan population. Secondly, the US relied mostly on its military might to stabilize the Kabul government and ignored political avenues for stabilizing the Kabul government that it had helped install. The two factors fueled the Taliban insurgency which gathered strength as the US got bogged down more and more in Iraq. The US attempt to impose Western liberal values also worked to its disadvantage since the extremely conservative Afghan society, especially in the rural areas, was not ready for this radical change which can come about only gradually through a process of education. Finally, in the face of the resistance of the fiercely independent-minded Afghan people, the US had to admit defeat virtually and announce the withdrawal of most of its troops leaving behind a small force of about 13000 troops primarily for carrying out anti-terrorism operations and supporting the Afghan army, whenever needed, in the face of the Taliban insurgency. President Obama in an address on 6 December, 2016 admitted that the US could not wipe out the Taliban in Afghanistan, but could help stabilise the situation thereby supporting the Kabul government.

The US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and its subsequent military operations against the Taliban forced some of its leaders and members to take refuge among the Pashtuns in Pakistan’s loosely governed tribal areas, with whom they had family, tribal and historical links. Some of their supporters in FATA also joined them in fighting the US occupation army in Afghanistan. In compliance with the US pressure to deny support and sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf initiated military action against its own tribesmen who were merely doing what they had done in 1980’s against the Soviet occupation army in Afghanistan. This was seen by our tribesmen as a stab in the back by the Pakistan government in support of the foreign forces occupying Afghanistan. The result was the formation of TTP and terrorist attacks against targets in various parts of Pakistan. Thus, whereas the US was able to transfer a substantial burden of its anti-Taliban military campaign to Pakistan, the latter was badly destabilised, its security was compromised and its economy was undermined.

Meanwhile, the US continued its flawed policy of stabilising the Afghan government, installed by it, through military means rather than through a political approach. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban resistance has not only continued but also gained in intensity since the withdrawal of the most of the US troops leaving behind a small residual force. Instead of telling the American people the real cause of the failure of Washington’s Afghanistan policy since 9/11, the US leaders, generals and intelligentsia have found it convenient to lay the whole blame at the doorstep of Pakistan, accusing it of providing sanctuaries and support to the Taliban for their military operations in Afghanistan. There have been unending US demands on Pakistan “to do more” even though it has already destabilised itself in complying with the American demands. It seems the American leaders and generals do not have the moral courage to tell their own people that their flawed policies are mainly responsible for the instability and continued fighting in Afghanistan.

The real cause of the internal armed conflict in Afghanistan is the tussle for power and supremacy between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns. The ultimate solution lies in national reconciliation and a political settlement between them rather in making unfair demands on Pakistan. The US belatedly has been encouraging a dialogue between the current Afghan government and the Taliban for a political settlement in Afghanistan. But it needs to pursue this approach with greater clarity and vigour instead of merely continuing the mantra of telling Pakistan “to do more”.