By Kumar David –
When you reflect upon it what is amazing is not the size, scale or speed of the American military defeat in Afghanistan; it is that American and Western strategic planners, political analysts, the military, intellectuals, media buffs and public have learnt nothing from April 1975 to August 2021. (“We learn from history that we don’t learn from history”: Hegel). A near-copybook replay of Vietnam was in progress right under their noses for twenty years and they were all blissfully unaware. I don’t want to sound like an after the event know-all but this criticism was by others too but never heard. Two good short accounts of Afghan reality outside the charmed circle huddled around the foreign powers are the web pieces below. (click here and here). Was it that chap Mao who said something about ’China is an ocean and my blokes are fish swimming in the sea’? The Western presence of “We are the Gods” American troops, bless-their-souls NGOs, UN good-bodies and journalists, all seem like glittering yachts gliding on the surface of these seas.
Since many readers are too lazy to click on websites and read whole articles let me summarise in a paragraph. (I urge you though to take your mind off Covid a read something different). Led by the Americans, the foreigners were busy building, training and equipping the new Afghan Army, establishing a new constitutional order, inducting democracy, conducting elections, installing Presidents, arranging representative bodies and brokering deals between warlords and the government. They also, bless-their-souls, created the system of education for women, founded up-to-date hospitals and oversaw amity in cities and much of the country. The Taliban on the other hand seeped in everywhere in the countryside and the towns and sleeper cells in cities. They penetrated families (one brother was a Taliban the other in the army); what the hell they were portions of families! And they talked-talked-talked, yawed-yawed-yawed; yes, indeed they were fish in the land-locked Afghan sea. Ugh forgive the ugly idiom. Additionally, corruption undermined the credibility of US-Satrap government(s) and system but this was hidden by Pentagon brass and Washington establishment officers and diplomats only interested in their own career advancement.
It is no surprise which side prevailed. It is no surprise that the Americans and their Afghan government flopped. They were not defeated, they simply melted into the thin Afghan air like morning dew. Things had come to such a pass where whatever America did militarily, it could not have avoided eventual ejection. Droves of analysts who say ‘If only Trump hadn’t done that (say the 2020 US-Taliban deal) or Biden hadn’t done this (stuck with that decision) it would have been different, have no sense of historical perspective or proportion. The Economist magazine has returned to its blaring out for “WAR” as it did prior to the Bush-Blair Iraq invasion and Tony Blair is himself again flying his colours as a war-monger. The imbroglio would not and could not have end until Afghanistan was handed back to the Afghans and as it so happened the Taliban
The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is what will the new government be like? Will it chop-off the hands of hungry kids who steal a loaf of bread, will it mandate beards, will it do whatever militants in some faraway bazar imagine the Quran dictates or the Prophet pronounced? I am sure a lot of that will be and is happening and the social media carry videos of atrocities mainly against women. But there are also the official pronouncements made by the Taliban like: “Girls can continue schooling though they must conform to Islamic attire”; “There will be no revenge, we ask government employees and women to return to work”; “Taliban cadres are prohibited from entering homes”; “Women will be very active in society within the framework of Islam”; “We assure neighbouring countries that our land will not be used against them”. The touchstone is the women-issue; it is the weather-vane and the way it turns will tell us not only which side is winning (reformists or traditionalists) it will also signpost the nature of the next period. It is a little encouraging that the abuses seem to be confined to the lower level and remoter areas while the leadership rations out sweet talk.
My contingent of friends includes a goodly bunch of dystopian “Baa humbug!” Ebenezer Scrooges who declare that all this is window-dressing, just BS sweet-talk from the Taliban till it stabilise its rule. This is not a sufficiently nuanced conclusion. I am certain there is a tussle going on within the Taliban. My experience of political parties is that when there is argument and disputation, till the balance of internal power is settled what the outside sees is a picture replete with mixed signals. The acid test is the ‘Women Question’. There could be protection of freedoms and opportunities for women and girls, and of course it will be passed as just what the Prophet ordered. Conversely women’s rights could be trampled again as Taliban Version-I did before it was ousted, and justified again as ‘Within the Framework of Islam’ and just what the Prophet recommended. I am cynic enough to opine that the outcome will have less to do with Islam, the Quran or the Prophet and a great deal more to do with domestic and international political needs and pressures, and with personal power struggles within the Taliban. To play around with a celebrated passage: “Occupied with revolutionising themselves and creating something that did not exist before, men anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past, borrowing slogans, and costumes to present the new in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”. In Afghanistan, either way, it will be claimed that all is just what the Prophet decreed. Catholics and Protestants worshiped the same god and quoted the same biblical passages to justify opposite ends and slaughter each other.
And this brings me to the concern that there will be a period of internal strife between factions. There is huge diversity of religious and ethnic groups. The terrain is mountainous and hostile to invaders as the British, Russians and Americans learnt. The Taliban is Sharia Law enforcing Sunni Pashtun. The country is 40% Pashtun, 25% Tajik and 10% each Hazera and Uzbek. It is 100% Muslim, overwhelmingly Sunni of what is called the Hanafi School. Sixty percent of all Pashtuns live across the border in Pakistan. The Shia proportion has never been properly estimated; may be 10%. For the sake of stability, the Taliban will be compelled to a form multi-ethnic transitional government. If they throw in a woman or two for colour it would be an interesting pointer to how the tide is trending. The outcome is not necessarily miasmic, it could be positive and progressive.
The Taliban is in possession of more Blackhawk helicopters than 166 other nations! The US gifted $20 billion most dangerous military hardware. Taliban has 11 military bases, an army of well-trained soldiers equipped with latest weapons and well-planned military bases but most importantly, something it never dreamt of—an air force.
In the three months from April to June 2021, the US handed over to the Afghan Security forces six A-29 light attack aircraft, 174 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (Humvees), about 10,000 2.75 inch high-explosive rockets, 61,000 40-mm high explosive rounds, 9,00,000 rounds of .50 calibre ammo, and 20,15,600 rounds of 7.62 mm bullets. The Afghan Air Force operates three types of helicopters which include the 45 UH-60 Blackhawks, 50 MD-530s, and 56 Mi-17s, A-29 Super Tucano fighters, C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, C-208 utility aircraft, and AC-208 fixed-wing aircraft. In total 211 air platforms of which 167 were operable as of June 30.
The 11 bases are New Antonik, Kandahar airfield, Camp Morehead, New Kabul Complex, Blockhouse, Camp Stevenson, Camp Dwyer, Camp Lincoln, Camp Arena, Bagram airfield and the Resolute Support headquarters.
Time.com “Firstpost” and npr.org (All available on web)
It will be a week before foreign forces are all ejected and the more difficult matter of forming a transitional government is finalised. The Taliban seem to be showing flexibility but I do not trust Pakistan’s military and security services or Modi’s Indian security; not even as far as my nose. Neither cares a whit for Afghanistan or its good, to them it’s about using the Afghan imbroglio for unleashing the hounds of war on each other. (“The Taliban was a project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency ISI”. Says Sarah Chayes who spent years in Afghanistan and with US intelligence, in the Boston Globe, 16 August). These objectives will not change – I can sense joy in the Indian media at every whiff of bad news from Kabul, and Pakistan unless it changes will find that it has bitten off far more than it can chew. The big bad foreign miscreants will not be the Americans anymore nor the new boys in the tournament the Chinese. They will still be the treacherous Pakistani ISI and Islamist intrusions, and ugly Indian security interferences. This is an old and familiar story and it will persist.
The immediate problem the new government is facing is money. “We don’t have money to pay salaries of government employees,” a Taliban commander groaned. The opium trade is puny compared to the financial needs of a government; a fiscal crisis is developing rapidly and foreign currency reserves are unreachable. Western donors who have funded 75% of Afghan institutions in recent years are putting a hard squeeze since they want the Taliban to fail. China, Russia, Iran, some Gulf Regimes and maybe Japan I hope will step into the breach. America will be wise to recognise the Transitional Government, cut a deal and provide as aid even a fraction of the amount it was pouring down gun barrels every year. The criterion the US laid down was “no terrorism” and Taliban has agreed. Why not seal the deal with diplomacy and dollars? The UN Security Council called for “an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of national reconciliation and a new government which is united, inclusive and representative — including equal and meaningful participation of women.” An excellent formula. It is up to the Taliban to make things work; it has a once in a century opportunity. I predict that if the Taliban stabilises, institutionally it will be a one-party, multi-ethnic, multi-class state comparable more with China than Iran. But before that the internal struggle within Taliban will have to be settled and this is hugely complicated by the arrival of Pakistan trained ISIS(K) battalions in Afghanistan and the infiltration of Taliban by ISIS cadres and ideologists.
Unlike Vietnam where lines were clear cut, ideologies well defined and international partnerships limpid the future in Afghanistan is thoroughly murky. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. I prefer not to imitate the fool who rushed in where angels feared to tread, so my choice is not to pretend I can peer far into a shadowy future. That means I need to keep this short.