The images of thousands of desperate Afghans trying to frantically climb into a moving US air-force plane at the Kabul airport will remain forever etched in our memories. It is a haunting reminder of the disastrous forever war. A tragedy could be unfolding before our eyes, even as some analysts are optimistic about a reformed Taliban 2.0, minus it’s tyrannical revengeful reign of the past.
Prima facie, it appears to be misplaced faith in the violent mujahideen for whom bloody retribution is criminal jurisprudence. Are we going to be silent observers of an impending humanitarian disaster? Will we be helpless spectators to mass massacres (remember the inexorable brutality of the Taliban until they were overthrown by US-back Northern Alliance in Y 2001?)?
While the Taliban appears to be sending mixed signals so far, it will be foolhardy to believe their famous doublespeak. A journalist friend of mine from London called to say that he was ‘depressed’ at what was most likely to play out during the coming weeks and months. I am assuming, thanks to the rapid viral spread of social media, that the feeling of dismay and despondency is likely to be universal.
There appears to be one common sentiment; America’s great betrayal of a nation of 39 million hapless people.
Let’s rewind history to comprehend why the world’s most powerful country made a $2-trillion investment into one of the most deprived nations in the world. Over 2,400 American military staff/soldiers have died in the 20-year crucible.
The prime purpose was to get Osama bin Laden who had vaingloriously celebrated the jaw-dropping ugly killing of thousands in the World Trade Centre twin towers collapse in New York on September 11, 2001.
No one could blame President George W Bush for his ‘war on terror’ rodomontade following 9/11; the entire world supported him, including several conservative Islamic nations.
‘Either you are with us or against us’ was the shrill rhetoric that dominated the airwaves, as wounded American pride sought instantaneous revenge. Osama had threatened even more deadly terror attacks, appearing determined to exterminate America.
Decimating the fast-mushrooming Al-Qaeda network was an understandable priority for the USA. After all, Afghanistan had become a laboratory for global terrorism, with the Taliban in cahoots with other terror organisations, including the Haqqani Network.
But this is where blinkered American (also NATO) military intelligence and political myopia sets in: why were they still having such gargantuan faith in the most knavish country in the Afghanistan algorithm — Pakistan?
Everyone and his aunt knows that the Afghanistan Taliban got a bulk of its ammunition, arms, military secrets and safe sanctuaries in border towns away from the US surveillance or potential capture from the Pakistan army and its intelligence wing, the ISI.
The intimate romance between them had birthed a diabolical snake in their own backyard, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
All countries are driven by self-interests, so we cannot castigate Washington for the America First hyperbole. But there is a critical difference here: America dictates non-negotiable terms for its military assistance and financial packages to needy countries and is, therefore, usually a Big Brother in these wobbly one-sided alliances.
Pakistan has cleverly exploited US strategic vulnerabilities in the ‘Af-Pak’ region because it was always aware of America’s visceral duplicitousness.
Has the US government been able to do an honest military audit of how its enormous Pakistan funding programme (estimated at $30 billion) has actually been used? Or did it blithely look the other way, convinced that its old ally since the fall of the Soviet army in Afghanistan in 1989, was an effective bulwark to keep the fierce Taliban (numbering only 75,000 fighters) at bay, and allow the Afghan government an extended lifeline?
Or was Pakistan essentially looking at Afghanistan as an instrument for destabilising India?
The answer to that comes from the horse’s mouth, a former US President who reluctantly increased troops on the advice of the Pentagon during his time. In his book, A Promised Land, former US President Barack Obama acknowledges the India angle to the Afghanistan crisis.
‘Not only did the Pakistan military (and in particular its intelligence arm, the ISI) tolerate the presence of Taliban headquarters and leadership in Quetta, near the Afghanistan border, but it was also quietly assisting the Taliban as a means of keeping the Afghan government weak and hedging against Kabul’s potential alignment with Pakistan’s archrival, India. Unless Pakistan stopped sheltering the Taliban, our efforts at long-term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail.’
In short, American foreign policy is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and served in a puzzle. And this despite Osama bin Laden being ultimately killed in Abbottabad, near a Pakistan military base in Y 2011.
Donald Trump, for whom foreign policy was like playing GI Joe toy games, had legitimised the Taliban by negotiating withdrawal terms with them without even involving the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani. It reflected America’s incandescent diplomatic immaturity or contemptuous indifference towards the bruised country.
It was publicly humiliating those whom it had promised a democratic functional society for 20 years. Instead it was cowardly surrendering to its militant foe. Pax Americana is certainly a five-star mirage. Afghanistan is a graveyard of the world’s only superpower.
As for India, we need to start worrying about Pakistan’s ‘non-state actors’. There are difficult days ahead.