“War is too important to be left to the generals.”
Georges Clemenceau (French Premier, 1906-1909, 1917-1920)
It is obvious by now that the American military engagement in Afghanistan, which began with the US invasion in the aftermath of 9/11, is gradually but surely moving towards its denouement in Afghanistan. The US policy makers are in a state of quandary because of the failure of their ill-conceived Afghan strategy which was based on flawed assumptions, unrealistic assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, overconfidence in America’s military power, and over-ambitious strategic goals in Afghanistan. The strategy did not take into account adequately the fiercely independent character of the Afghan people, the tenacity of the Afghan Taliban in their fight against the US-led occupation forces and the US-installed government in Kabul, and the lessons of the history of the Afghan people in fighting foreign invaders. The fighting by the Afghan Taliban against the US military occupation and the Kabul government now has the potential of turning the US military engagement in Afghanistan into another Vietnam.
It is time to review how Washington managed to get entangled in the Afghan quagmire so that Pakistan, which has its own history of serious mistakes in handling the Afghan situation especially in 1990’s, does not repeat the strategic blunders of the US. The US military occupation of Afghanistan, justified in the American mind by 9/11 and Al Qaeda’s presence in the country, started with the following ambitious aims laid down by President Bush in April 2002:
a) To defeat and dismantle Al Qaeda, which had launched the 9/11 attacks.
b) To impose a government of its choice on the Afghan people in place of the Taliban government which had provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda.
c) To rebuild Afghanistan with a stable government and as “a better place in which to live.”
America has achieved considerable success in degrading and defeating Al Qaeda. It was also able to replace, with relative ease, a government of its choice after the Bonn Agreement of 2001. However, it has failed miserably to stabilize this government which is an artificial and alien political construct in the conservative and tribal Afghan society. The ease with which Taliban were able to launch attacks on cities in different parts of Afghanistan during the past few weeks show their growing challenge to the fragile authority of the Kabul government which controls little beyond the major Afghan cities. Even here its authority and even survival are dependent to a large extent on the support of the foreign forces.
Policy makers in Islamabad and Washington must ponder over the causes of the American debacle in Afghanistan despite enormous waste in blood and treasure and its implications for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region. America’s over-reliance on the military to the neglect of the search for a political solution was perhaps the most important factor responsible for the setbacks suffered by Washington in Afghanistan. American policy makers and leaders, at the behest of their generals who failed to comprehend the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan especially its political dimension, based their policies on the assumption that they could bludgeon the Taliban into submission. Later events proved them wrong and underlined once again the risks involved in relying too heavily on the military and ignoring the political dimension of policy.
Washington vastly underestimated the tenacity and the resilience of the Taliban in fighting against the US-led forces, which initially led to a military stalemate but with each passing year have given the Taliban growing edge over the Kabul government. The result is that the Americans are nowhere near achieving a military victory in Afghanistan. It was the realisation of the futility of the US war in Afghanistan which forced President Obama to declare the end of the ISAF combat mission in the country in December, 2014. Later policy decisions by President Trump to strengthen the US military presence and invigorate its role in the fighting in Afghanistan have failed to stabilise the beleaguered government in Kabul.
The second policy blunder committed by Washington was its failure to distinguish between Al Qaeda, which was an international terrorist organization, and the Afghan Taliban, who despite their extremism and retrogressive policies were, and remain, very much a part of the Afghan political landscape. Treating them as terrorists and refusing to engage them in a dialogue in search of a political settlement in Afghanistan was a strategic blunder of the highest order on the part of the American leadership. It is only more recently that the Americans have changed their tune and taken steps to engage the Taliban in a dialogue in search of a political settlement. The recent talks between the Afghan Taliban and the US representatives in Qatar were a move in the right direction.
In the face of the predictable setbacks that the US has suffered in Afghanistan because of its policy blunders, American generals and policy makers have found it convenient to make Pakistan a scapegoat of their own failures. Instead of appreciating the enormous sacrifices that Pakistan has suffered through the loss of men and material in supporting America’s misguided war and flawed policies in Afghanistan, Washington has maintained relentless pressure on Pakistan to do more. The latest statements coming from Washington show that it intends to maintain this pressure on Islamabad. As the recent spat between Islamabad and Washington in connection with US Secretary of State Pompeo’s congratulatory call to Prime Minister Imran Khan portends, the former’s forthcoming visit to Islamabad may prove to be another exercise in pressurizing Pakistan to comply with the American misplaced demands relating to Afghanistan.
Instead, both Islamabad and Washington would be well advised to use the opportunity offered by Secretary of State Pompeo’s forthcoming visit to Pakistan to discuss the Afghanistan issue in depth with a view to identifying the convergences in their interests and coordinating their Afghanistan policies. To start with, both Islamabad and Washington have an obvious interest in the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan as well as in preventing any terrorist organisation like ISIS from gaining a foothold in the country. The armed conflict in Afghanistan has affected adversely the security interests of Pakistan and the region. Historically, it has also provided space to terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and more recently ISIS to operate in Afghanistan to the detriment of the security situation at regional and global levels. Therefore, both Washington and Islamabad need to coordinate with each other in encouraging the peace process in Afghanistan through national reconciliation and a freely negotiated political settlement among the warring parties in the country.
Since neither the Afghan Taliban/Pashtuns nor the Northern Alliance/non-Pashtuns alone can rule Afghanistan in conditions of durable peace and stability, a political settlement would involve some kind of a power-sharing formula between them. Both Pakistan and the US should use their influence to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. After the commencement of the intra-Afghan dialogue for a political settlement, at some opportune time a cease-fire should be declared in Afghanistan to facilitate the peace process. As part of its efforts to encourage the peace process, the US should make a categorical declaration expressing its intention to withdraw its forces fully from Afghanistan once the peace agreement is concluded between the various Afghan parties. The US should also realize the contradiction in its incessant demands on Pakistan for taking military action against the Afghan Taliban and, at the same time, using its influence to bring them to the negotiating table.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.