The United States’ decision to quit Afghanistan, inevitable as it has been, and assuming that it will be done by the new deadline of September 11 this year, will open a new chapter in the cold war in its new avatar. But more than that, in the historic “Great Game”. This Game begun centuries back is not about to end – only get more bitter and competitive.
It is a repeat of history. It reminds us that since Alexander the Great, many conquerors have invaded and left Afghanistan. So did the British while ruling from India. The US and the West as a whole wanted to remove the then Soviet Union with similar objectives. When the Soviets withdrew, the victorious West abandoned Afghanistan to fractious groups of fighters. And they were back to avenge the 9/11 because its chief perpetrator, Osama bin Laden was there.
What happens here in the near future will shape the region’s history, but not without impacting much of the world.
We say the rest of the world because energy needs and armament exports shall continue to attract everyone to this region. The “Great Game” was aimed at the Czarist Russia and the former Soviet Union. Today, Russia retains this position, but as junior partner of a resurgent China. The two are, indeed, the unstated “other places” where the United States feels compelled to focus to justify its decision to quit the much-touted “global war against terrorism”.
Unable to shake off what his predecessors — George Bush who started and then escalated it to Iraq, Obama who could not undo, but what Trump has shackled him with, Biden is now committed to quit America’s longest war. In declaring that the US will withdraw its troops by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11, he has bought himself 132 days, no more. Its scheduling with the anniversary symbolizes America’s failure to sustain the war – forget winning it.
Now, think of a people whom the world’s most powerful nation abandons. It cannot, of course, be argued that the Americans stay indefinitely in Afghanistan. The Afghans have a history of keeping their heads high, and will not admit it. They have no choice either. They may have a glorious history of having defeated foreign invaders and survived occupations. But once the US withdraws, an elected government they support will collapse in a matter of months. Power struggle could begin with bloodshed and street fights. The triumphal Taliban are already talking of retribution, setting up courts and introducing their stringent brand of Sharia. A nation with a chequered past and an uncertain presence now faces a grim future.
The sufferers, once again, are the Afghan people. The younger ones into science and technology at India-aided centres. The girls, about 40 percent of the academic force, may find their schools and colleges close, because the incoming Taliban think they are un-Islamic. Few would recall that the Russians helped educate a generation of Afghan women enabling them to nurture with relatively better position in their families. Now, their daughters and granddaughters will lose the freedom they enjoyed in the last two decades.
Its déjà vu for older Afghans, the high and mighty invading to defend democracy and fight terrorism, and then walking away, weary but not chastened or sorry, for repeating what they did in 1990. The West had won and rejoiced at the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. It is now America’s turn to end its longest war and conduct a victory-less withdrawal that would make Vietnam seem graceful.
This was inevitable, given America’s war fatigue after losing 2,500 men and sinking three trillion dollars. But the military situation was favourable till 2017-2019. The Taliban had a tough time and heavy casualties, enough for the US to force a stalemate and a compromise that would compel the Taliban to talk to the government in Kabul. But Trump hastened to sign the deal at Doha in February 2020, ostensibly to enhance his chances of electoral victory in the presidential polls.
The American abandonment began when the pact was signed keeping the Ghani Government out of the talks and on Taliban assurances that everyone knew the Americans could not enforce, save their own facilities from being attacked. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was sought or secured for the Afghan populace.
The US agreeing to withdraw by May 1, 2021 emboldened the Taliban to seize vast territory, attacking even schools and hospitals, to enhance their bargaining position. This reversed the gains the US Marines-supported government troops had made on the ground. Trump and his envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, shall be judged by history.
And now comes the new deadline of September 11. Whether the Taliban will view this delayed withdrawal as a breach of the agreement and resume large-scale attacks against Afghan and American forces is not clear. What is clear, however, is the success of their military strategy of pushing the Afghan forces, reduced to a mere 20,000 to 30,000 (as against the ambitious 250,000 originally planned). Their funding at USD four billion annually could end if the US Congress votes against it. Resistance by the government forces will ebb with security forces abandoning their positions and switching sides. This has been the past record.
Why would the Taliban agree to share power the way the Americans ask and the world community hopes, when they can take it by force? They already control large swaths of territory from a government with which they are being asked to cooperate? The Taliban regard the government in Kabul as a puppet of the Americans and barely hide their contempt for it. They have never committed to a power-sharing arrangement with the government, much less elections. The Kabul government is expecting a bloody endgame, and is likely to get it. The Taliban believe they have already militarily won the war with Afghan forces, and they may prove right.
The situation on the ground is bound to worsen. Emboldened by the American withdrawal, and constituting a further threat to the Ghani government, are the regional satraps. These power brokers have always survived by changing sides, violently. They may now cut deals with the winning side, the Taliban, who are Pashtuns but dominate even in non-Pashtun areas.
President Ashraf Ghani is Casabianca, the proverbial boy on the burning deck. It could be a matter of months before his government collapses or cuts a deal of its own with the Taliban – a deal that will be hailed as a great peace move, probably making him worthy of a Peace Nobel. Sorry, but cynicism set in when going by the past records.
As of now, Ghani’s future could be bleak. He can only hope that he does not meet the fate similar to some of his predecessors. Najibullah’s body was hung by the lamppost after even the United Nations failed to help. Given his academic background, he might end up as an American university don, unlike last South Vietnamese president, Kao Kye, who sold pizzas.
The expression touted, of the US’ being “responsible exit” inherently accepts that there definitely is America’s responsibility, having started it all two decades back as “global war against terrorism”, and implies that any semblance of having won that global war or even having eliminated terrorism has remained elusive after two decades. When the Soviets withdrew, the victorious West abandoned Afghanistan to fractious groups of fighters.
It is advantage Pakistan that nurtured the Taliban for long, and China, its mentor. India cannot like it. It has no friends among the Taliban and few among the other groups. But staying out is not an option for India. It has invested three billion dollars and in well-earned Afghan goodwill for two decades. Earlier, the US would ask Pakistan to “do more” on curbing terrorism.
Now, India is being asked, to “invest more” in a hostile Afghanistan. Identified with the US in the region now, it must feel as abandoned as Ghani and his men, till it cultivates new equations. It is difficult, like it was when the Soviets withdrew. That explains why developments in the “Heart of Asia” have global implications.
There is no end in sight to the conflict in Afghanistan.
The writer co-authored: Taliban & the Afghan Turmoil (publisher, Himalaya Books, 1997), Afghan Turmoil: changing Equations (publisher, Himalaya books, 1998) and Afghan Buzkhashi: Great Games and Gamesmen (in two volumes, publisher Wordsmiths, April 2000)