Afghanistan: Lessons from history

Wars can be compared to earthquakes. Some are violent and heavy in human losses, and some are relatively short and painless, but always under the surface, the tectonic plates shift and will not sit the same again.


The First World War lasted a relatively short four years and saw the end of three empires that had each survived for centuries. The Hapsburgs had ruled Vienna since 1282, the Russian Empire collapsed after just three years of fighting in 1917, and the Ottomans had ruled parts of modern Turkey since 1400.


A fourth emperor, that of Germany, also lost his throne. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan following its occupation from 1979 to 1989 certainly contributed to the end of the Soviet Union. 


The latest Afghan war began on 7 October 2001 with the American war plan named Operation Enduring Freedom. The name was presumptuous and expressed the confidence of the world’s only superpower. Enduring Freedom seemed successful enough for the US to declare the war won in Afghanistan in 2003, but no one appeared to have told the Taliban.


Rather than collapsing in the face of an overwhelmingly military superior force, namely that of the USA and its NATO allies, the Taliban were able to retake an increasing amount of territory inside Afghanistan from 2009 onwards.


Even US sources admitted that the Taliban had virtual control of a third of Afghanistan from 2016, and there was no US military victory in sight. From 2018 it was evident that the US government desperately wanted a way out of the conflict, and a peace treaty to allow a face-saving withdrawal with the Taliban was needed.


11 September 2021 was chosen by President Biden in April 2021 as the latest withdrawal date for all US forces, and from that time on, it was only a matter of time for the Taliban to regain control over the country.  


Read More: Pakistan anxious over possible security threats emnating from Afghanistan


Taliban in Kabul: The world faces a shocking reality


Despite knowing that reality, it still came a shock to many how easily and quickly the Taliban won the final battles. In barely a week in August, city after city fell to them with barely a shot being fired and the photograph of the Taliban posing in the Kabul Presidential Palace on 16 August 2021 is likely to be one of the iconic images of the 21st Century.


The political campaign of the Taliban meant there was no need to fight. Winning a war, however, is often easier than ensuring long-term victory, and in many ways, the most challenging part for the Taliban begins now. In order to get some idea of how that may transpire, it is vital to look at the picture from different perspectives. 


Firstly, the USA is not just a major and influential country as to how one might think of China, Russia, or Japan. The USA is a modern empire in all but name. It is the world’s largest economy (and has held this position for over 75 years) and has by far the world’s largest and most powerful military machine.


Its technology lead puts the USA ahead of its competitors, and it understands the correlation between military superiority and economic dominance only too well. It is not afraid to use either weapons to protect its interests or its economic might through the use of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency enable it to sanction any country who in any way is perceived as a military or economic threat.


It has been involved in direct and indirect wars almost without a break since 1945. Even wars such as Afghanistan, which it has lost, are an invaluable means of testing and developing new weaponry which helps it maintain its military edge. Recall how in 2001, no country had drone technology. Even though other countries have developed drones, few can match the range and weaponry of the US ones.


The US military is far from a spent force, and its failure in Afghanistan does not mean it will hesitate to use military force again in the future as and when it feels the need to do so. 


Secondly, Afghanistan is an impoverished country almost entirely dependent on aid and loans from international agencies such as the IMF. The USA indirectly controls virtually all its foreign exchange reserves, so any government in Kabul deemed hostile to the USA will not receive any of this money.


Read More: Peaceful, stable Afghanistan vitally important for Pakistan, region: PM

Due to the country constantly having been at some sort of war since 1979, it is hardly surprising that violence and corruption are now endemic in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is listed as one of the most difficult countries in the world to do business, and there is unlikely to be any sudden change in that scenario even with a stable and relatively incorrupt future government.


This is all despite 20 years of large-scale US and international money pouring into Afghanistan, so the country’s short to medium-term economic future looks shaky. Thirdly, a withdrawal of US forces and the stunningly quick capture of Afghanistan is yet again a reminder of the utility of asymmetric warfare and the critical element of politics in a war.


The Taliban had increasing support of the local population sick of being killed, humiliated, and stolen from by a corrupt puppet regime and its foreign backers. In conventional terms, the mismatch between the US (coupled with its NATO allies) and the Taliban forces were so wide that the US government refused even to discuss a surrender or dialogue with the Taliban forces in 2001/2.


If it needs repeating, the Taliban forces of 2001 did not have a single fighter plane, no air defenses, and no weaponry that could threaten the US and western forces sent to fight it. Credible sources have stated that once the US began its military campaign in 2001, the Taliban offered a dignified surrender.


The US refused the offer as they were so confident of their ability to crush the Taliban completely. This was the first of many political and strategic errors the US made over the next 20 years. The price they have paid has been heavy in terms of money and prestige.


But just as the British empire shrugged off the wiping out of its army in 1842 on its retreat from Kabul, this defeat of the US forces in Afghanistan is unlikely to threaten the US in the same way as the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan helped contribute to its demise.  


The Taliban were also entirely underestimated by the western forces for many years. Until last month President Biden was saying the Taliban did not have the military skills of the Vietcong.


During the war to drive out the US-led coalition, the Taliban showed they could plan meticulously and execute patiently. Being so grossly underestimated meant the Taliban could carry some complex operations without detection.


Read More: Biden: US had no purpose now to stay in Afghanistan, China-Russia real threat

In April 2011, the Taliban dug a 320-meter tunnel under one of Afghanistan’s best-protected jails to free over 475 men in an operation that took months to plan and was executed almost flawlessly. The US was shocked that a seemingly rag-tag bunch of fighters could pull off such a sophisticated operation without detection.


In recent years, the Taliban showed their ability to take towns from US-supported forces and hold them, something other guerrilla armies have been unable or unwilling to do. Fighting a 20-year war against the worlds’ best-equipped and well-funded army has made the Taliban a far superior fighting force than they were in 2001.  


Claims of a moral high-ground


Fourthly, all western empires (French, British, and more recently American) have tried to justify their invasion, occupation, and exploitation of other countries by proclaiming their superior morality.


The British East India company was explicit in proclaiming that they were in India for a ‘civilizing mission,’ and the term ‘white man’s burden’ was a phrase used without embarrassment to justify that non-white races were invaded and ruled until they were ‘civilized.’


That measure of civilization was, of course, to be determined by the white man himself. The fact that the British, French, Belgian, Spanish, and Dutch empires were also committing what today would be classified as war crimes and expropriating the wealth of their colonies was seen as incidental and separate from the burden of ruling ungrateful people.


It is in this context that the belated American emphasis and interest in Afghan women must be viewed. Concern for women’s rights and education is course a necessary thing, but if the world’s only superpower is reduced to claiming that one of its primary justifications for occupying Afghanistan since 2001 is Afghan female rights, one can be sure they have lost not just to physical war but the moral one too.


Just as no European country has ever apologized or tried to pay financial and moral reparations for their imperial brutality and theft, the US is unlikely to ever do so in Afghanistan despite the fact that its invasion and occupation were illegal and unjustified.


Read More: Brain drain: A serious threat for Afghanistan?

Simply having a track record and ability does not provide any legal basis for invading a country and testing weaponry on a primarily civilian population. US forces’ widespread use of torture in Bagram airbase and other dark sites, the casual indifference to civilian drone deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the creation of Guantanamo Bay camp meant the US had no moral authority to lecture the Taliban or anyone else on human rights.


Pakistan’s stake in the pit


Concerning Pakistan, the critical question is what the Taliban victory means for the future. On its face, it means a potential end to the never-ending war and instability on one of its significant neighbors.


Just as Cambodia suffered terribly during the Vietnam war, Pakistan has paid a hefty price for its geography. From 1979 and the Soviet invasion, Pakistan not only received millions of Afghan refugees (many of whom have never left), it was faced with the prospect of the war spilling over into Pakistan itself on occasions.


The US in 2001 not only forced the Taliban to keep on fighting it by refusing to discuss their surrender, it all but guaranteed that Pakistan would have to oppose the US imposed puppet regime of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani by using India as a proxy.


Karzai did not even attempt to hide his pro- India tilt, from India paying for the new Afghan parliament building to training Afghan military officers. The US government also encouraged this pro-India stance, which made little secret that it wanted to build up India as an Asian counterweight to China.


Ghani continued the pro-India position and publicly echoed India’s view that Pakistan was somehow the world center of terrorism. Despite Pakistan’s repeated accusations that Chinese investment in Baluchistan was being targeted with terrorist attacks by Afghan intelligence agents at the behest of India.


The US knew exactly what bringing India into the Afghan equation meant but did so anyway. Hubris is something suffered even by superpowers, and the charge of hypocrisy against Pakistan is hard to take seriously from countries who have betrayed allies almost as a matter of course for decades.  


No one actually knows how the next month will play out, let alone the next decade for Afghanistan. It seems very unlikely that the US and India have any role in the country for the future as they were so closely linked to the old discredited regime.


Read More: Challenges Taliban cannot escape in governing Afghanistan

All the western nations who actively participated in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan have been left stunned by their military leader walking away from the 20-year war, except for the UK, which seems to see no potential in a war it does not want to participate in, other NATO allies may reflect on the wisdom of invasions and occupations. 


Despite being seen as a winner by some, Pakistan is, in reality, in a highly precarious diplomatic position. Its financial position means that it cannot offer any financial help to Afghanistan except be its traditional conduit point for trade.


Pakistan cannot also afford to gloat at the US defeat as it is heavily dependent on IMF and Asian Bank inflows – which in reality, the US government has a vast influence over. In addition, the possible (and growing) calls in the West for some form of sanctions on Pakistan could prove crippling to an already dire economic situation.


Given Pakistan’s significant and growing expensive debt burden, the only chance Pakistan has coming back to a sustainable economic footing is through a considerable growth in exports or some form of debt moratorium or renegotiation. Neither will be possible with US sanctions, and Iran shows what the US can do to a country’s economy without firing a shot. 


Light at the end of a never-ending tunnel?


On a positive note, if handled carefully and well, the US hurt over its defeat in Vietnam was overcome to the extent that there are now cordial relations between the two countries. One of Pakistan’s strengths diplomatically has been that it has managed to stay friends with countries with poor bilateral relations.


Pakistan was the bridge between the US and China in 1971 and even now is one of the few countries with good relations with Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar – even when relations between these nations themselves were frayed.


It is possible that Pakistan can help the US develop a relationship with a future Afghan government led by the Taliban, which is based on some form of respect and not through the prism of an armored drone operated somewhere in the US. 


Russian relations with Pakistan have improved markedly in the last few years as Russia looks to Pakistan to help moderate the Taliban in any future unrest in Central Asia and China is also concerned that the Taliban do not involve themselves on Chinese Muslim issues.


Read More: Music falls silent as Taliban coerce their rule in Afghanistan

It seems likely that any Chinese investment in Afghanistan will be through the Belt and Road Initiative, which will potentially benefit Pakistan by opening up a stable trade and energy route to Central Asia. 


The most anxious near neighbor is India, and the panicked airlift of its diplomats shows how fearful they are. It may, however, force India to talk to both the Taliban and Pakistan with some degree of humility.


If India is anxious about some fighters from Afghanistan now transferring their attention to Kashmir, they need Pakistan and the Taliban to be helpful. If fear of the Afghanistan situation spiraling out of control forces the Indian government to give Pakistan serious consideration and unfreeze the diplomatic impasse, it will be one of the few beneficial consequences of a terrible war.


There have been long-standing plans of both energy and trade routes from Central Asia to India, and the only possible route is through Afghanistan and Pakistan. A wise Indian leader may want to take stock of his lack of regional friends, and as Afghanistan has shown, the US is perhaps not the most reliable ally. 


Finally, one should never forget that the Afghan people are the tragic victims of endless wars since 1979. They have suffered two invasions and occupations by military superpowers, civil war, and a few years of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, which has led to more than a million dead, millions of refugees both inside and outside the country, destroyed infrastructure and the emigration of its brightest and best.


If Afghanistan’s old and new leadership can agree to work together for a better future without further violence and bloodshed, then no country in the world could grudge the new Afghanistan a chance. The people of that nation have earned the right to deserve prosperity, sovereignty, and above all, peace.


Dr. Farooq Bajwa has taught history in Pakistan and the UK. He is the author of books like “From Kutch to Tashkent” and “Pakistan and the West.” He also trained and practiced as a solicitor in London and advised clients across the UK, Pakistan, and the Middle East. He has a Ph.D., in International Relations, from London School of Economics. 

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