Shaukat Qadir |
My brother, a historian, has drummed into me, that those who refer to Afghanistan as ‘unconquerable’ are, either unaware of history or delusional. Afghanistan has been conquered from all directions, as frequently as any other tract of harsh and inhospitable land in the region. But, those who have held this region, have had to adjust to becoming Afghan in spirit.
I suggest that any serious student of geopolitics, can only study with a map permanently in front of him/her. Recent geological surveys claim considerable presence of minerals in Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan is a landlocked country or, as Afghans prefer to call it: a “transit” country. Furthermore, the land is a desert – mountainous and sandy. Water is sparse and the terrain harsh and inhospitable; where winters are as cold as the summers are hot. No worthwhile agriculture, except poppy, no industry worth the name.
Why, then, should it be invaded? Even without access to the seas, it has a strategic location. It is the junction of and passage between Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and China. All those who invaded it prior to the knowledge of its mineral wealth, obviously came for the advantages, its location offered at the time. And those who stayed, like Ahmed Shah Durrani and others, stayed because their kingdoms were best ruled from this inhospitable land; and they became Afghans, adopting the culture, customs, and the way of life dictated by the terrain and the people who had adapted to it.
However, the invaders who don’t become Afghans and seek to stay despite, the Afghans have, and will always continue to fight against them. These warriors against invaders are usually referred to as “Freedom Fighters”, even if the invaders refer to them as terrorists.
Read more: Can a Pakistani save Trump?
A Brief Historical Perspective
It is essential here to review the recent history in brief, merely to put things in perspective and explain why I contend, what I contend.
In 1979 when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan occurred and Gen Zia ul Haq, then president, decided to oppose the invasion. In this, he enjoyed considerable international support. Noteworthy among Zia’s supporters was the US and the Saudis. Saudis opened their coffers most generously and also willingly funded Madrassas, which churned out hate-filled Islamic extremists/supremacists to fight the invaders. Repercussions from which, we still suffer from. The US was equally generous with weapons and munitions of war to arm the freedom fighters. This was a universally recognized Jihad – Crusade, if you will – against the cruel Aryan of Soviet origin; white-skinned infidel invader, who mistreated, killed, raped, and violated local customs was to be ousted at all costs.
In this war, Pakistan led and the US, CIA, and the Saudis all followed wherever Pakistan led. Pakistan/ISI decided who to fund and arm. ISI fundamentally controlled all intelligence on Afghanistan, and shared it selectively. However, the CIA attempted to maintain contact with Ahmed Shah Masood, for a period of time and continued to directly assist and hold one exclusive ‘source’ inside Afghanistan, which was not shared with the ISI – Jalaluddin Haqqani. Since ISI decided to lead and take all the decisions, for some obscure reason, it decided to invest far more heavily in supporting Gulbadin Hikmatyar. Considering his repeatedly dubious successes, the only explanation for the ISI’s continuous support for him is the personal inclination of Lt Gen Hamid Gul, then DG ISI, towards the Jamaat-e-Islami, the mentor of Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami; another mistake we collectively rue to date. He is the scourge in Afghanistan who willingly hosts terrorists, operating against Pakistan today.
When the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan, the ensuing chaos not only proved Hikmatyar’s inadequacy in commanding respect of the Afghan Pashtun, but also his personal inability. Finally, Pakistan was left with no option but to ditch Hikmatyar; making him the implacable enemy to Pakistan, which he is today.
The chaos in Afghanistan resulted in the birth of Mulla Omer’s Taliban in 1994. A handful of these, led by Omer, crossed over Baluchistan; this handful, who were being scoffed at by the ISI, began their conquest without battle, by taking over Kandahar. Noteworthy are two facts. Hamid Karzai, who hails from Kandahar, was the first so-called Pashtun warlord to join the Taliban. On the other hand, Haqqani continued to fight the Taliban till the fall of Kabul, in 1996. With their promise of swift and ready justice – which was delivered – the Afghans deserted their warlords and flocked to the Taliban, giving them victory after victory without battle, till they floundered at Jalalabad. Jalalabad and Kabul were the Taliban’s first real battles, apart from some skirmishes.
With Pakistan’s support, Taliban soon prevailed and Kabul also fell to them. Pakistan and the Saudis immediately recognized Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. A forgotten fact is, however, that so did the US. Although only for a few hours, but Michael Sheehan, then spokesman for the State Department made the announcement, which was withdrawn later the same day. It was this event that finally convinced Haqqani, who had by now been deprived of CIA support, that the US and Pakistan were determined to ensconce Omer and, therefore, also to join hands with the Taliban. Meanwhile, Karzai, who expected a great role in the Taliban government, disappointed by the relatively insignificant role he was offered, decided to desert Omer. The desertion might have been forgivable, but not when Karzai decided to join forces with Masood, Taliban’s arch-enemy. Worse, on return to Quetta, Karzai began actively supporting the return of self-exiled King Zahir Shah. Consequently, since the Taliban could not eliminate Hamid Karzai, in 1999, they murdered his father in Quetta. Karzai accuses the ISI of ‘sanctioning’ this hit. While he might be correct, he chooses not to share the burden of responsibility of his defection with the camp of the Taliban’s enemies; which actually caused the death of Karzai’s father.
I have absolutely no love lost for the Taliban. They are cruel bigots, intent on distorting Islam and taking us back to the mythical bliss of ignorance. They will, if they can, create a genuine Hell on earth. However, it will be unfair if I fail to mention, that for well over their initial year or so in Afghanistan, they provided a crude representative system of governance that worked. They allowed tribes and, even villages, to form their own councils that decided matters of collective interest and meted out swift and sure justice. It was the arrival of Osama bin Laden, in 1996 that precipitated their espousal of the cruel Wahhabi doctrines, which led to their downfall. By the years 1999 and 2000, Afghans had become completely fed up of the Taliban style of governance and were seeking deliverance. Among Pakistan’s stupidities was failure to recognize this and attempt a mid-course correction. But, with Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed as the DG ISI, there was to be no change. I have it reliably, that when a hue and cry was raised about the destruction of Bamyan Statues, Musharaf wanted to go to Kabul to exhort them against it. Mahmood, a reborn Muslim extremist/supremacist, knew of Musharaf’s intentions, convinced him that it was too dangerous. Although, when he went in Musharaf’s stead, instead of exhorting them to stop, Mahmood encouraged the Taliban to continue. While I do not know this to be a fact, from my knowledge of Mahmood, I wouldn’t put it past him.
Read more: Pakistan walks diplomatic tight rope
The US Invasion
Any student of history must have, at some time or the other, pondered on the many ‘ifs’ in history. If this had not happened or that had, what would have been? Questions impossible to answer but, for any serious student, impossible not to raise; if only to attempt to understand.
The simplest of generals needs to have a clearly defined aim to the war he is fighting. And every soldier understands how invaluable intelligence is: Intelligence of the enemy, its capabilities, its strengths, weaknesses, and what local support is available. It is on these factors that generals design their operations and define their rules of engagement. The opening of the ‘Second Front’ in Europe during the Second World War was delayed for many reasons, including the buildup of necessary forces, but among the prime ones was accurate and detailed intelligence.
The invasion of Afghanistan had become inevitable due to the totally inept US President’s domestic compulsions. But the generals should have known their need for intelligence. Had they sought time to gather it or if time was denied, they could have asked the ISI for intelligence on the situation. And, if asked, had ISI provided them with accurate information, the course of history might have been completely different.
But that was not to be. Had US forces known how fed up Afghan peoples were of Taliban and how desperately they wanted to be liberated from despotic tyranny of the Taliban – in fact, had US forces treated the locals as allies being rescued, instead of as suspected enemies not to be trusted – the Afghans would have, not only handed over Taliban and Taliban sympathizers, but also they would have guided the soldiers to the caves of Tora Bora, where Al Qaeda were hidden. The initial territorial conquest was, as expected, swift and sure. It was now time to hold the territory and, as I stated in the beginning of this piece, quiet impossible to do without becoming, or at the very least, learning to adapt to the culture and way of life of local peoples.
Individually, the American is friendly, easy-going, and easy to get along with but, collectively, as representatives of the US, Americans are amazingly arrogant, patronizing, and treat the entire globe as being children of a lesser God. The result was inevitable. The Afghans discovered to their horror and dismay, that Americans were no better than Russians when it came to respect for locals; their women were shamed, men mistreated, looked down upon, and despised. The Afghan had merely changed despotic masters. Worse was to follow. Americans emplaced Karzai as the President. It might even have worked, if he had not been further shackled. He is, after all, from the Popalzai Durrani tribe, direct descendants of Ahmed Shah Durrani [Abdali], a Pashtun and a veteran warlord of the war against Soviets. But, the mistrust of Afghans was all-pervasive in the American mind. They forced upon Karzai an inordinate number of non-Pushtoon members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. Thus destroying any chance Karzai might have had.
Perhaps, burdened by this and, slowly, realizing that he no longer had any chance of success or, perhaps he was a bad choice anyway; another ‘if’ in history we will never know about. But, Karzai, at some point in time, decided to confine his governance to Kabul and allow his siblings, like himself, to make as much hay as they could, so long as the sun shone.
Read more: America’s Pakistan Fatigue: Dangerous!
The consequence was again inevitable.
As governance and justice deteriorated steadily, the Taliban popularity rose back from the ashes, in direct proportion. Their notion of justice was still swift, sure, and available to whoever sought it. It is time here to cross over the Durand Line for a short visit to Pakistan. Musharaf was full of style, confidence and his own brand of arrogance. He was also vindictive. My personal opinion of him is that he was, and still must be, as much of a moral coward as he is a physical one. Whether or not I am correct in my assessment, he took us across another bench mark, consequences of which we are also suffering to date.
The Pakistani tribal was, as expectantly as the Afghans, awaiting the US invasion with hope. By 2003, all hopes and expectations were dead and buried. Once again, for Afghans, it was time to fight and survive, if possible. As they had done since forever, the Pakistani tribesmen girded their loins to go battle alongside their Afghan brethren, the freedom fighters, against another heathen invader. The problem was that this crusade did not suit Pakistan’s current policy. Nek Muhammed, an obscure, insignificant member of the Wazir tribe and a veteran of the anti-Soviet struggle, was destined to make his mark in history. At a Jirga, in 2004 urging the Pakistani Pushtoon not to fight alongside the Afghan, Nek posed the question, “when the last Aryan infidel invaded Afghanistan, we were encouraged and supported to fight a Jihad. Why is it that now, when our brethren and their families are being treated as badly by another infidel invader, we are not just being told not to fight but are also being threatened if we do?”, or words to that effect.
Non-Pashtoon readers should be aware that, unlike elsewhere in our country, the Pushtoon are amazingly egalitarian. Not only was Nek well within his rights to ask the question, he was entitled to a reasonable answer. The answer was simple and true. This is not in Pakistan’s interest and, those who choose to act against our collective national interest must be prepared for the consequences. Some rebels from each tribe would still have gone, but they along with their tribes would have been mentally prepared for the consequences. Instead, it was decided that Nek was to be eliminated. Not confident of the ability of his soldiers or the ISI to carry out the hit on Nek successfully, Musharaf sought help from the Americans by way of a drone strike. Based on the information provided by Pakistan, Nek was killed by a drone strike.
Even though Pakistan claimed responsibility of the strike, the Pushtoon is nobody’s fool. He knew who had executed it. Can you imagine his sense of betrayal? A Pushtoon who wanted to help his brother fight against a cruel infidel despot – the American – was executed by his own government; which the government could not do so itself, so it had to ask the very enemy that the Pushtoon wanted to fight. Not only did this act result in creating the anti-Pakistan TTP, an organization that felt justified killing in a manner similar to which Nek was killed in, it also created an insurgency directed at the Pakistani government and peoples, which has yet not concluded. It also opened the floodgates to drone attacks within Pakistani territory that continue to date.
Meantime, back across the Durand Line. Karzai’s tenure finally ended. The Afghans went to the polls again. Observers commented on the unusually high turnout of Afghan women, particularly in rural areas. My comment was that this is not an election to select a new president but to reject those Karzai adherents that Afghans definitely do not want. In my view, Ashraf Ghani’s emergence in the final election was inevitable. And I expressed this view even before elections concluded.
Ghani’s arrival was like a breath of fresh air. His message to Pakistan was simple, “let bygones be bygones and let’s address the future together”, or words to that effect. Pakistan welcomed his gesture with great enthusiasm. The Afghan army chief became the first foreign dignitary to be chief guest at the PMA passing out parade. The army chief, accompanied by the DG ISI paid visits to Kabul. Ghani, too, visited GHQ. It was clearly visible that Karzai adherents still thronged Kabul and a number of these were included among those holding high offices in Ghani’s government. It also soon became obvious that Ghani’s goodwill towards Pakistan was not shared by many of his colleagues. I am of the view that a few among them, may have sabotaged some of Ghani’s efforts as well as those of Pakistan. Whether they did or did not, initial overtures from both sides did not bring the kind of success both hoped for, which rearose suspicions and misconceptions. In such an environment, with our baggage of history and reputation, Pakistan should have been extremely careful not to rekindle distrust. But, like every so often, we again shot at both our feet.
I do not know who did it or why it was decided to keep Mulla Omer’s death a secret. I cannot but call it an act of unbelievable stupidity and an unmitigated disaster. One much worse than relying on Hikmatyar. That still could have been corrected; this however is done and the mistrust is again sown, or rekindled and worst of all, reinforced in the minds of those who were already trying to reinforce or rekindle it. In the meantime, Akhtar Mansoor’s execution was deliberately carried out, by Americans, in a manner that introduced doubts, among the readily susceptible minds, about either our housing him in Quetta and/or being party to his execution. Thus, finally concluding our limited influence over the Afghan Taliban.
Finally, US colluding with the Afghan National Army to host Pakistani rebels and terrorists on Afghan soil, even after being provided proof of their acts, can only reinforce my view that the US is no longer interested in peace in the region.
On Wars and Victory
Future wars are not going to be confined to battlefields. They will also be fought, if not entirely, in banks, stock exchanges, Television and social media by creating natural calamities and where professional soldiers are necessary, their weapons may be entirely remote controlled. We are headed into new arenas of war. Arenas strange, and hitherto, unknown to most of us. These wars might be less bloody but no less destructive, in fact might well be more so than ever. Concepts like Hybrid Wars, War Termination Strategy i.e. how to plan to end the war at a given stage, controlled war, limited war etc. have already emerged. But, whatever the nature of war, its method, or arena, whichever weapons and munitions employed, one thing is certain; it’s fought for victory. So, somebody, somewhere has to define victory for each war, as applicable to that contestant e.g. a weaker side might consider avoidance of ‘total defeat’ as victory. In which case, someone will need to define Total Defeat for that war and that competitor.
The question arises therefore, what would constitute victory for the US in Afghanistan, in one of the lengthiest wars in US history? Is it to leave the country in an independently governable state? Or is it to benefit from either its mineral wealth or its transit capability, which allows transit for commerce? Neither one seems likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
Winning hearts and minds has been permanently out of the equation for more than a decade now, so is it merely control over the territory? If so, someone has to define ‘control’ in this context. With well over 40% of the Afghanistan landmass under-acknowledged, Taliban influence or those of its supporters or splinter groups, I will find it difficult to acknowledge US or the Afghan government’s control over its territory. It is my opinion that the US has long been defeated in Afghanistan but won’t acknowledge that a ragtag force has been and still is running rings around the mightiest military machine of today’s world. To make the defeat of such a mighty force comprehensible at the hands of incompetent soldiers, the US needs a scapegoat and, Pakistan is ready-made for this purpose.
Personally, and as a student of warfare, I have considerable admiration for US troops’ performance and the generalship of their leaders, up to WW II. I was weaned on tales of American pioneers and I still enjoy reading stories of their adventurism, courage of men, women, and children. Not only their courage under enemy fire but their courage in facing the elements, the courage which built economic empires. They were great people, all. Regretfully, their descendants all, seem to have become pygmies.
American forces performed admirably during WW II, but since then, they seem to have run out of steam. Since 1945, US troops have not won a single war, not by my definition of victory i.e. to have achieved its aim. Desert Storm is touted as a great military victory. By all standard definitions it was. Total duration: exactly six weeks. Kuwait was cleared in record time, only 146 casualties to US forces and less than 200 to all its allies. Well done. But if we vector in the state of weapons and Iraqi munitions of war and most of all the morale of Iraqi troops who were unwilling to die for Saddam, it does not justify either the time taken or the expense of the war; estimated at over 30 billion US dollars for Desert Storm and 1.1 Trillion US Dollars for the 2003-10 Iraq War, in which Iraq was conquered.
But, when it comes to firepower, US troops always overkill. And expense is never a concern. Even if we give the US its victory in Desert Storm, what is the end result? After conquering Iraq in 2003 in the second war, immediately following the elections of the ‘selected’, the Iraqi government revoked its agreement to host an American garrison and gave the troops six months to pack their bags and leave.
We have discussed Afghanistan but, what of Syria or little Kuwait? Any victories? Even the inconsequential Nicaragua escaped defeat at US hands and machinations. In fact, Nicaragua even took the US to the International Court of Justice in 1986 and won. Since the US refused to participate in the ICJ proceedings, only a non-binding ‘opinion’ was issued and sufficed to thwart Reagan, then president of US.
I want to end this segment with one final word which should become relevant shortly. Any country that wishes to exert its ‘hard’ or military power overseas must command the seas to transport its hard power. This is why conquerors have, throughout history, always relied heavily on their maritime forces.
Read more: Pak-US relations: Echoing old mantra?
Since the US invaded Afghanistan and began its self-defeating policies, which continue to date, I always wondered where it was all going. I concluded soon that it was an ambivalent policy due to necessity. The US was ready to spend trillions of dollars, so it had to be so to some end, for some elusive purpose.
Rational thought led me to conclude, that if the US could bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and thus access, not just Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, but also that of Central Asia’s, it would. Since Iran was not a preferred option, they wanted a stable prosperous Pakistan, so as to access the sea and eventually profit from this war as well. However, if it did not see any possibility of Afghanistan becoming peaceful and stable, and the possibility of Pakistan colluding with China – the US’ archenemy in being – to access all this wealth materialized, the US would go to any lengths possible to stop China from benefitting. To do this would be easiest by destabilizing a Pakistan already full of all kinds of religious, ethnic, political, and socio-economic fissures.
With this rationale, I drew my conclusions and made my recommendations to all who heard me. I was always conscious of China’s imminent threat to the US of, initially emerging as a world power and, perhaps later, taking over the US’ lead role. However, recently, time and developments seem to have compressed and the Chinese challenge of the US is becoming increasingly urgent, decades might just be reduced to one. In this scenario, I felt the US had two options: First, to look inwards and reduce its international military presence to consolidate and strengthen, thus giving China a run for its money; or second, to accept US’ inability to compete and endeavor to ‘contain’ China so as to delay its ascent.
I understood that the US establishment; the Pentagon and CIA, favored the second option of China containment. It seemed, however, that Obama in his second tenure, wanted to write some policies and favored the first option. The Iran reconciliation policy, pulling away from the Saudis and the slight withdrawal from Israel seemed to confirm this conclusion. In the run up to his elections, Trump too, seemed inclined in favor of the Russian policy in Syria and spoke repeatedly of ‘looking inward’ as a part of his ‘America first’ policy. All that seems to have changed since Trump took office and both, the selection of his team and his policies clearly indicate that he has succumbed to the all-powerful American Establishment and also adopted the China containment course, with ever greater vengeance.
If that is true, not just China, but also its major supporters, principally, Russia and Pakistan must be destabilized; as well as the Middle East, especially Iran, in which both China and Russia have an interest. The ideal instrument of war, for this purpose, is Islamic extremism.
If my reasoning thus far is sound, those unfamiliar with world geography may like to revert to the map or globe. China has all its ports on its east coast. Its east coast opens into the South China Seas (SCS), where a territorial dispute between China and the US already exists. The SCS lead into both, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Despite being peppered with US naval bases, the Pacific is still wide enough for maneuver. Access to the Indian Ocean, however, is confined through the narrow Straits of Malacca; which is well under US control.
However, if Chinese vessels are already based on or in the Indian Ocean, whether military or commercial, there is no apprehension of interdiction. And, if American bases on and around the SCS have contained China, it can break those shackles by setting base in Gwadar, Jiwani, and Ormara. Furthermore, with a short land supply route from western China to these bases and fuel readily available next door from Iran – China can fly in the wind. That explains, not merely, the Chinese compulsions for controlling these bases but also the US compulsion of destabilizing the region by introducing a Hybrid War in Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan, to contain China economically and militarily.
Read more: US and Pakistan strive to improve relations
I hope you are still close to a map. Look again at Afghanistan. In the west it shares borders with Iran, in the north with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, both bordering Russia in their north, a small opening through Wakhan into China and to its east lies Pakistan. Were Afghanistan willing and able, could it not radiate Islamic militancy/supremacy in all these directions? And even if unwilling, with a sufficiently strong US presence, could it not be made ‘able to do so’, willy-nilly?
If China Containment is US’ primary interest and if all the countries neighboring Afghanistan are, directly or indirectly, capable of destabilizing China and all its principal supporters – would that not be the best way of containing China? While Russia, China, Iran, and to some extent Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have sufficient depth to contain the incursions, Pakistan does not. Indeed Afghanistan, and maybe even Pakistan, is condemned to suffer but the repetition of history is neither entirely the consequence of their own doings nor happenstance. If one or both do remain condemned, it will also be due to repetitions of the same mistake(s) by the world’s leading power center and military machine, the US and because this waning super power has so willed this, in its dying throes.
Shaukat Qadir is a retired brigadier. He is also the former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.