“You can count on the Americans

to do the right thing ultimately,

after trying everything else.”

–Winston Churchill

 

The US Afghanistan policy since the overthrow of the Taliban government in the aftermath of 9/11 is a living proof of the US proclivity to make strategic mistakes in handling international security issues. Washington proved the accuracy of Churchill’s assessment in its flawed handling of the war in Vietnam with disastrous consequences for Vietnam, the region, and the US itself. It persists in its gross mishandling of Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979. With President Trump’s nationalist approach to foreign policy, the chances are that the US mishandling of Iran will get worse before, if ever, it gets better. The Palestine issue is another example of the US tendency to invite political and security disasters through its superficial analysis and incompetent handling of sensitive foreign policy issues. Any impartial observer of the Palestine issue and the Arab-Israel dispute would have no hesitation in concluding that the unquestioned support extended by the US to Israel in its aggressive and expansionist designs in Palestine is amongst the root causes of the monster of terrorism in the form of Al Qaeda and ISIS. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 in violation of the principles of the UN Charter and international law was another example of its short-sighted and military-dominated approach in handling foreign policy issues. Washington under President Bush failed to foresee the negative strategic consequences of its invasion, from which Iraq, the region and the US continue to suffer till today.

Washington’s Afghanistan policy since 9/11 has again been full of strategic blunders, the adverse consequences of which continue to haunt that country, the region, and indeed the United States itself. After the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the US decided to impose on the country a government of its choice reflecting its political and cultural preferences rather than one which would be reflective of the wishes of the Afghan people, their political tendencies, and their cultural traditions. As a former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, later put it, “the Bonn settlement that had followed (the overthrow of the Taliban government) had been a victors’ peace, from which the vanquished had been had been excluded; and the constitution resulting from that settlement could last only as long as the West was prepared to stay in Afghanistan to prop up the present disposition.” The US attempt to impose on Afghanistan a system of government which was divorced from ground realities laid the seeds of discord and the renewal of the civil war in the country, which had been going on since the fall of the Soviet-installed Najibullah government in 1992. This was a strategic blunder of monumental proportions on the part of the US which failed to draw the right lessons from the earlier failed attempts by foreign powers to control Afghanistan.

The easy victory of the US-led forces over the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001 created a false sense of complacency in Washington. The US ignored the lesson, which the British and the Soviets had learnt at tremendous cost, that it is much more difficult to control Afghanistan after defeating it militarily. No wonder that a former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had advised that the first rule of politics is “Don’t invade Afghanistan”. Considering the nature of the government installed by the Americans in Kabul, it was just a matter of time before the Taliban would stage a comeback. The diversion of the US resources for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 provided the Afghan Taliban the space for staging this comeback with a vengeance. The direct and indirect attempts of the US to impose its own liberal cultural values on the extremely conservative Afghanistan society, especially in the rural areas, provided fuel to the fire of the Taliban revolt against the Kabul government.

The third strategic mistake on the part of Washington was to seek the solution of the problem posed by the Taliban insurgency through military rather than political means. The US military establishment for a long time was not prepared to face the harsh political realities in Afghanistan and recognise the fact that the political disposition imposed by Washington did not enjoy the support of a sizable segment of the Afghan people, especially the Pashtuns who constituted almost half of the Afghan population. Consequently, the increase in the number of the ISAF troops up to 130,000 at their peak and the allocation of additional resources amounting to $100 billion annually failed to break the back of the Taliban revolt. The US generals and leaders found it convenient to shift the blame for the growing Taliban insurgency to Pakistan, which in fact had paid a heavy price in blood and treasure in combating the Taliban in Pakistan in compliance with the US wishes. Instead of recognising the reality that the root cause of the Taliban revolt lay in Afghanistan and that its solution demanded national reconciliation and a political settlement in that country, the US for a long time kept asking Islamabad to do more. In fact, the need of the hour was to focus on a political settlement in Afghanistan.

It was not until February, 2011 that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech to the Asia Society publicly expressed US support for a political settlement in Afghanistan through negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban. Since then some half-hearted attempts for the initiation of the talks between the two main protagonists in Afghanistan have failed to take off because of one reason or the other. Meanwhile, the Taliban succeeded in putting tremendous pressure on the US-led forces and the Kabul government leading to the decision by the Obama administration to withdraw most of the ISAF troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 leaving behind a residual force of about 13,000 troops including 8,400 from the US. This was an open admission of the failure of the US policy to seek a military solution and a recognition of the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration is now faced with the task of charting its future Afghanistan strategy. It has been reported that a proposal to send 3000 to 5000 additional US troops to Afghanistan is being considered by Washington to stabilise the Kabul government in the face of the growing pressure being exerted by the Afghan Taliban. But there are also some indications of a US rethink on Afghanistan. In a recent Congressional hearing in Washington, Dan Coats, the head of the US intelligence agencies, stressed that the political and security situation in Afghanistan would continue to deteriorate through 2018 despite a modest increase in the US military strength. Lt. General Vincent Stewart, the head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, in the same hearing urged that the US must do “something different” in Afghanistan or else the Taliban would make new advances on the battle-field. President Trump reportedly has also asked his military advisers “to relook at the entire strategy”. Let us hope that Washington would finally recognise that the only realistic way to restore durable peace in Afghanistan is to seriously pursue an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process in the country. This would require the recognition of the Afghan Taliban as a legitimate Afghan political party despite its obscurantism and the change of focus from combating them to bringing them to the negotiating table.