How Did Afghanistan Become Such a Mess

Canberra, Australia

How Did Afghanistan Become Such a Mess?
The events of the 1800s seem almost completely steeped in history when one looks back at them from the vantage point of 2009 and the chaotic and eventful decade preceding it. In the case of Afghanistan, there is a sense of déjà vu when the past is viewed with the intent to learn the mistakes that were made. The British tried their best to bring the Afghan tribes to heel during the height of their power in India and, to put it mildly, failed miserably. Their solution was to have Sir Mortimer Durand draw an almost arbitrary line across the mountainous regions that separated the then British India and Afghanistan and declare the border a ‘tribal region’ that was given some sort of autonomy in return for their non-interference in the Indian side of the border. It was another matter that the Afghan tribes never fully accepted the division of their land. Throughout history, Afghanistan has been a country where central rule did not extend to all its sovereign areas and where local warlords held sway in all matters of governance in remote areas and paid token obeisance to the king in Kabul. This is still the case. To date, the notion of Afghanistan as a united sovereign nation remains an idealistic vision of the country, mainly in the mindset of western political leaders.
In 1947, when the Indian sub-continent was being granted independence and also being partitioned into India and Pakistan, the Durand line became the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, with the new Pakistani government continuing to grant autonomy to this border tribal region, creating the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that exists to this day.
A great deal has already been written about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, their defeat at the hands of the ‘mujahideen’, the subsequent take over of the nation by the Taliban, the entrenchment of al Qaeda in the country, the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the subsequent US-led attack of Afghanistan, the removal of the Taliban Government and the reinstatement of ‘democracy’ in the country.
This paper looks at why the US-led international intervention in Afghanistan has not been able to produce any tangible results after nearly eight years and why the nation has slowly slid back to anarchy, allowing the Taliban to make a visible come back into the country.
The US-led intervention was touted as a great success in terms of driving the Taliban out of power, a feat achieved in remarkably short time. However, Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban-led government and eradicate the leadership of al Qaeda, was only a partial success. It managed to remove the Taliban government, but was spectacularly unsuccessful in bringing down al Qaeda; either the leadership or even any sizeable numbers of the lower cadre operatives. In fact, as it became apparent over the next few years, even the Taliban had never been defeated; they had only moved out of the heart of the country and taken refuge in the tribal regions near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Why did this happen, when the most competent military forces in the world had been, and continues to be, involved in the campaign? To answer this question one must look at the strategy that the United States pursued throughout the Bush administration’s two terms in office.
The US Strategy
The US strategy for the campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan is a classic case study of impatience, arrogance and anger in foreign policy initiatives that by themselves are almost completely shored up by overwhelming conventional military force—a sure recipe for failure at all levels. The entire plan for the invasion of Afghanistan seems to have been built around wishful thinking in terms of the assistance that was supposed to come from Pakistan and a lack of cultural awareness of the ethos of the Afghan people regarding foreign military intervention in their nation. These are the two major factors to be analysed—the role of Pakistan and the arrogant ignorance of Afghanistan’s history that seemed to pervade almost the entire Washington establishment for a number of years compounded by a lack of a coherent strategy.
The Role of Pakistan
Pakistan was the first country to recognise the Taliban regime, a fact that is not surprising considering that the Taliban owes its rise to prominence almost completely on the largesse of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments. The al Qaeda attacks on the United States put the Pakistani government in a quandary and General Musharaff decided on playing a double game to ensure the viability of his nation vis-à-vis the US determination to move into Afghanistan. Pakistan sided with the US openly and in return was given recognition as a major ally and a front line state in the so-called ‘war against terror’, with the attendant benefits. General Musharraf became an expert in the double game of obtaining large monetary grants for his economically failing state in return for telling a blind US administration what it wanted to hear, while undertaking very minimal initiatives to control the Taliban.
There are two murky questions that come out of this scenario. One is whether the US was being deceived and actually unaware of the ground reality or whether the administration continued to harbour the hope that Pakistan would change and become a genuine ally. The second is whether the Pakistani army was unwilling or whether it was incapable of effectively tackling the Taliban problem. The answer to this seems to be a combination of both, in that the army had already been infiltrated by fundamentalist elements and therefore could not have taken stronger measures and its capabilities had been somewhat diluted over a period of time. This was demonstrated by the recent interview by Pakistani journalists of senior Taliban leaders on a television channel, which could not have taken place without the tacit approval of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and their knowledge of the whereabouts of these leaders.
The early years of the Afghanistan conflict were good for Pakistan—it managed to keep on the right side of the US, receiving almost US $10 billion in aid in about five years, while continuing to pursue their covert agenda of supporting the Taliban. The need to lessen the Indian influence in Afghanistan was a strong ulterior motive for the Pakistani support to the Taliban. However, the lawlessness of the tribal regions and the inability of the Pakistani army to rein in the Taliban from making inroads into Pakistan itself made the almost two decade long support of Taliban a double edged sword for the nation. Today a full-scale war is being fought in FATA, Swat and other areas of Pakistan, with large numbers of internally displaced persons moving into the cities and towns in the interior of the nation. The fighting that has so far been confined to the border areas is inexorably moving towards the core of the nation itself.
The genesis of religious militancy that is now consuming the nation can be traced back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance to create a force that would stand up to the Soviets. In their eagerness to defeat the Soviets, this alliance created a mixture of military capabilities and religious fundamentalism through a network of Islamic militant organisations. However, Pakistan did not bargain for these organisations taking root in their nation after the defeat of the Soviet Union and their withdrawal from Afghanistan. The unsurpassed success of the Pakistani army in facilitating this victory has become the state’s final undoing. The Frankenstein has come home to roost!
From the perspective of the Afghanistan conflict, the rapidly deteriorating politico-social situation in Pakistan is a source of extreme concern. In 2006, while continuing to mouth support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government agreed to a ‘peace deal’ with the militant groups operating in the tribal areas in return for the army not being targeted. This gave away the double game since the same militant groups were the ones that were aiding and abetting the Taliban in their insurgency in Afghanistan. The cross pollination between the Taliban and the militant groups fighting in Pakistan and Kashmir is now common knowledge although not officially accepted by Pakistan.
Currently, Pakistan does not have the wherewithal to be of any assistance to the ISAF in Afghanistan since all its energies are focussed on not being overwhelmed by forces within the nation that are determined to convert the nation into a theocratic Islamic state. If anything, the internal turmoil in Pakistan will only exacerbate the problems that the western forces are facing in their effort to stabilise Afghanistan. For a state crafted out of the same geographical area that had once nurtured a rich, varied and extremely tolerant Muslim culture for a thousand years, Pakistan’s current situation is a sad commentary of ill-founded policies and the collective denial by the common people of their history and culture.
Campaign without a Strategy?
Looking back at the strategy of the US-led coalition that went into Afghanistan initially, it looks as if the central belief was that once the Taliban was defeated, the al Qaeda leadership would automatically be captured and the country would transform into a thriving democracy by itself. There are a number of reasons for this other than a naïve belief on the part of the Bush administration that they stood for good against evil.
First, the time honoured maxim that military victory denoted the end of conflict and marked the beginning of the next phase which was nation building was completely lost on the higher echelon leaders in Washington. It is mandatory for overall success of any campaign to have a comprehensive program of reconstruction already put in place to be started at the earliest opportunity and definitely immediately following the culmination of all combat operations. In Afghanistan this assumed a particularly high necessity because the country had been ravaged for more than two decades by external invasions and internal civil wars. However, not only did the ISAF not have a comprehensive rebuilding strategy, but the forces on the ground gave the distinct impression of a transitory force to the local population, increasing their mistrust of the coalition intentions. Economic reconstruction and the elimination of safe havens of the Taliban should have been pursued as a two pincers to clean the area of all militant forces. Unfortunately this was not done in a holistic manner. Further, there was no strategy nor any definitive campaign plans to trace and hunt down the al Qaeda leadership and cadre. This gave the opportunity for them to go into hiding in the inaccessible regions of the Tora Bora mountain ranges and from there to move to the tribal areas to recoup their strength.
Second, the US did not take the salutary lessons regarding alliance warfare that had surfaced during their operations in Kosovo. Alliance warfare is almost always a compromise of ideals and the primacy of national interests while operating within a common coalition to achieve an aspirational goal. Even though NATO is perhaps the best coalition in terms of commonality of operational concepts, interoperability and cohesiveness of command and control, the stress or the fog and friction of war tends to bring out the differences between members rather harshly. A number of factors contributed to the less than optimum showing that NATO forces did in Afghanistan and still continue to display. First, this was NATO’s first foray outside of their traditional geographic area of interest. This brought doubt regarding the legality of the campaign to some of the member nations, thereby forcing them minimise their contribution. Second, NATO forces went into Afghanistan with the mindset of being a peace keeping force as opposed to a force that had to fight and win battles. Third, each nation adhered to their own separate sets of rules of engagement making it fairly simple for the Taliban and allied insurgents to identify and target the areas where the most rigid rules of engagement would be in force, in terms of the nationality of the NATO forces.
The third factor is perhaps applicable to almost all western forces operating in the developing world—the question of casualty tolerance. The advanced nations of the world have over the past two decades or so become casualty averse. The accepted understanding that wars will bring in casualties seems to have been reduced to a situation wherein the general public at home has an expectation that the deployed forces will not come in harms way and even if they do, their superior gear and training make them infallible to enemy action. Sadly, this is not so. However, insurgents who are almost insensitive to casualties and more readily accept own losses turn this phobia into an asymmetry by itself. There is widespread belief in the insurgent world that the western forces will withdraw if a critical number of troops are killed in action. There is no more debilitating effect on morale of a fighting force than being considered ‘soft’ during operations. The Taliban has been able to leverage off the casualty aversion that seems to be very prevalent in NATO forces.
Winning Means having to Stay!
In Afghanistan today religious fervour has taken a back seat. The nation is riddled with tribal rivalries, bad and corrupt governance and endemic poverty. To make matters worse, the US-led forces do not seem to have any tangible counterinsurgency strategy. Of course the troops on the ground are hampered by the geography of the nation, the resilience of the Taliban and the very thin spread that they have over large areas that need policing. Added to this is the porous border with Pakistan and the blind eye that the Pakistani establishment turns to the presence of the insurgents in their country. Winning a campaign so mired in controversies and double dealings mean having to stay there for a long time to come. Whether the western nations have the mental stamina to do this is open to question.
There are two factors to be considered regarding the capacity of the US to stay the course in Afghanistan for the required duration—one, domestic pressures and the changed perception of a new administration and two, the Chinese equation. Domestic pressures to bring home the troops can become a point of contention, but the fact that President Obama was unambiguous throughout his campaign regarding the centrality of Afghanistan in the national security debate could give the current administration some more leeway and time to get things under control. The same may not be the case with the Chinese becoming increasingly vociferous regarding the increased US military presence around them. In addition, the strengthening strategic ties between the US and India have added to the Chinese discomfiture. Under these circumstances it is not improbable for the Chinese to start to block Afghanistan-related resolutions and discussions within the United Nations and in extremis to directly demand the withdrawal of western forces from the country. Yet another thorn in a rapidly sprouting bush with no flowers!
The current situation is the result of three interconnected factors, all to do with the United States and the Bush administration. The conflict in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, since al Qaeda needed to be eradicated for global well being. Almost the entire world stood by in concurrence to this fact in 2001. However, having driven the Taliban out—not defeated them—but not having been able to create any appreciable effect on al Qaeda’s operating capabilities, the Bush administration turned their attention to a war of choice. Iraq became the central front for the US and Afghanistan, where the nation building efforts should now have become the primary concern of the US was completely relegated to the background. Repeated efforts by well-meaning and capable diplomats who were able to foresee the resurgence of Taliban and the slow but inevitable destabilisation of the country were given short shift by the Bush administration, now bent on a democratising spree in the Middle East. The fact that there is not one sovereign democratic nation, barring Israel, in the area that they were concentrating on making into democracies in the same mould as the United States somehow seems to have been missed by Washington. A democratic overreach of elephantine proportions!
The invasion and the subsequent imbroglio in Iraq, with the obvious shift in focus, meant that the pressure on the Taliban evaporated almost overnight. Similarly, what little pressure had been applied on Pakistan to cooperate with the NATO forces also lifted, leaving the ISI to play their double game with impunity. The situation has deteriorated to an extent wherein the ISAF forces do not venture outside the capital, Kabul and the President of the nation is cynically referred to as the mayor of Kabul, because that is the only area that his government’s writ runs. By making Iraq the central point in the so-called global war on terror, the Bush administration provided the Taliban and al Qaeda a much needed respite and time to recoup, alter their strategies and enter the conflict at their choice. Selection and maintenance of aim is one of the most fundamental of principles of war. By ignoring it, the Bush administration condemned the people of Afghanistan to a life of continuing religious oppression and debilitating poverty.
Even when there was some reluctant realisation in Washington that Afghanistan was on the verge of becoming a catastrophic failure, the President and his immediate advisors did not entertain the concept of changing the strategy and renewing focus on the Taliban resurgence. There was a belief that flexibility was a weakness! By sticking to a decrepit strategy, the Bush administration blew away any chance they had of rebuilding the initial momentum in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan today is as anarchic as it was during the reign of the Taliban, perhaps even more so. It must be mentioned here that the fault does not lie completely with the mismanaged invasion of the nation by western forces. The Afghans themselves have to share an equal part of the blame by their intransigence to accept that changes in the way people live and behave are part of the process of progress and that in today’s globalised world. Harking back to religious fundamentalism of the 11th and 12th century will only condemn them to lives led in an even harsher environment, which for the common people is at the periphery of abject poverty. The bottom line is that a sovereign nation has to take responsibility for the well-being of its citizens and cannot constantly look at the larger outside world to blame for all their ills, and more importantly, insist that the advanced world spend their time, money and the lives of their soldiers in helping them. Most of the time, self help is the best help available.
If there is one yard stick to measure the success of a Presidency, it is to compare the global standing of the nation at the end of the tenure with the status that it had in the beginning. The US was at its glorious best when the Bush administration came to office. This was further galvanised by the events of September 11, when almost all the nations of the world pledged solidarity with the US and were willing to contribute to bringing the perpetrators to justice. This enormous good will was squandered by an arrogant and insensitive administration and a President who could not understand the nuances of international relationships and had absolutely no diplomatic finesse.
The United States has always been blessed with leaders of immense stature and foresight emerging during their hour of crisis. The leadership that it had during and after the trauma of the attacks in September 2001 is perhaps the exception that reinforces the rule!
Afghanistan is still not a lost cause, although perilously close to it—37 nations have troops on the ground there, and all of them are gradually being worn down. The ‘problem’ has now spread to Pakistan, providing the insurgents with a larger geographic area to operate from and also a more robust infrastructural base. The irony is that Pakistan does not want to acknowledge that their nation is now a failing state and this denial-syndrome will be that nation’s undoing. Doubtless, the repercussions of Pakistan imploding will be felt across the world, but the global community is constrained in dealing with this fragmented nation because of its socio-political and economic failures. In combination with the unsettled situation in Afghanistan, the world now has a definitive flash point on their hands. The question is not of the impact of the implosion, nor of whether or not it will happen, it is only one of when!

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: