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Global War on Terror: Al-Qaeda or extension of geopolitics?

Executive Director of the Center for Research & Security Studies questions the stated rationale for the US presence in Afghanistan, seventeen years after 9/11.

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I was in Kabul, covering the tumultuous trial of eight Shelter Now International (SNI) workers at the Supreme Court, when we heard the news of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s assassination. However, there was a state of flux in which no denials or confirmations were issued, so I, along with my friend Michael Sullivan, a US journalist reporting for the National Public Radio, decided to return to Islamabad.

Two days later, Michael called me up and asked me to “ turn on the TV and see what has happened back home”; the scenes were horrific and looked like out of an adventure movie; aircraft had ploughed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, Washington and one was reported roaming around Pennsylvania before it hit ground. This became the pretext for what has come to be known as the Global War on Terror (GWoT), that began with the bombing of Kabul on October 7, 2001.

Nearly 17 years on, the U.S., the wrecker-in-chief, is still – on the face of it – groping for peace and stability in Afghanistan, despite having paid a heavy human and material cost;  some 2,400 U.S. military and 3,500 contractor deaths, over a trillion dollars of expenditure, and increase by President Donald Trump in troops and expansion in CIA covert operations, including airstrikes are all indicative of a frustrating engagement in a country that has often described as the graveyard for big powers.

Nearly 17 years on, the U.S., the wrecker-in-chief, is still – on the face of it – groping for peace and stability in Afghanistan, despite having paid a heavy human and material cost.

And the world is still looking for answers such as the what are the real motives behind Operation Enduring Freedom; why did the US invade Afghanistan and why has it thus far failed in eradicating terrorism from Afghan soil? Interestingly, the stated objective of Operation Enduring Freedom was to extricate Afghanistan from the clutches of both Al-Qaeda and their hosts Taliban.

Flashback – An Eventful 2001

2001 was a precipitous year for Afghanistan. It began with the Taliban announcing they would demolish centuries’ old Buddha statues in the mountainous Bamiyan province of Afghanistan for being “unIslamic.” This triggered a diplomatic crisis. Pakistan’s then interior minister Moeenuddin Haider flew to Kandahar to dissuade Mullah Omar from this destructive action, but in vain. The Buddha statues were eventually dynamited in March, unleashing a wave of global condemnation.

Then as most of the world was still in a rage over the Bamiyan Buddha tragedy, in mid-August, Taliban officials arrested eight Shelter Now International (SNI) workers — four Germans, two Americans, and two Australians – on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. We as journalists – frequent visitors to Kabul and Kandahar – were witnessing these dramatic but painful events unfold.

As the trial of SNI workers was underway, two Arab terrorists disguised as journalists got the better of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9; who having survived for more than two decades as a “master strategist and shrewd military commander”, finally fell into the trap laid by his opponents at his residence in Khwaja Bahauddin, Badakhshan province.

Soon after the interview began, a bomb exploded, injuring Massoud critically as well as his aide Masood Khalili. Massoud’s death was eventually confirmed on September 14. Only four days earlier, on September 5, the Taliban ambassador in Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, had called Zalmay Khalilzad, then the Special Assistant for Near East and South Asia at the U.S. National Security Council, on a satellite phone to propose that a face-saving mechanism be devised for handing over Osama bin Laden.

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The offer was spurned. Khalilzad told him Washington had proof against Osama bin Laden, wanted him extradited without delay and that there was no room for further negotiations. By December 10,  after dropping more than 21,000 air sorties and at least 10,000 bombs – including 1,152 cluster bombs that carry 202 bomblets – and missiles on targets inside Afghanistan, the US-led Northern Alliance forces vanquished the Taliban.

The message they all are conveying to the world is that Afghanistan and its border regions have turned into a hotbed of extremist and terrorist groups.

Khalilzad became the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, the country of his birth, Zaeef ended up a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay and the actual target Osama bin Laden became untraceable until May 2, 2011, when he was taken out from his hideout in Abbottabad. Ironically, today though, terrorist groups have mushroomed to at least 20.

General John Nicholson, the US-NATO commander in Afghanistan, gave these numbers at a Pentagon briefing on September 23, 2016, and were repeated by President Ashraf Ghani at the Marshall Center, Munich in March 2017. Masood Stanakzai, the head of the National Directorate of Security, put the number of terrorist groups at 30. For us, there is no difference between TTP, TTA, Al-Qaeda, Daesh/IS, or Jundullah or IMU or ETIM.

If there were no Afghan Taliban movement here, how would the foreign militants survive here, Stankazai asked. Regardless of the exact numbers, the message they all are conveying to the world is that Afghanistan and its border regions have turned into a hotbed of extremist and terrorist groups – an admission that the post 9/11 war on terror has had an impact on Afghanistan that runs contrary to the objectives of the GWoT.

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Making Matters Worse

Washington is still spending about $45 billion in Afghanistan this year, but the Kabul regime seems to be in permanent crisis, the latest was the Ghazni fighting for a week and the Daesh surrender to NDS in Jowzjan province. Poppy production reached a new high last year and the number of Taliban fighters is thought to have at least tripled since 2014 to 60,000.

Germany, U.K. and other NATO allies continue to commit themselves to supporting Afghanistan and supporting the Taliban-U.S. direct talks process. But this process is getting nowhere. And to make matters worse, the U.S. refuses to include Iran and Russia in search for peace in Afghanistan.

The latest snub – issued via the Kabul government – to the Moscow process through its refusal to attend peace talks to which the Taliban had consented, underscores American aversion to involving other regional powers for peace in Afghanistan and the region.

Or is it part of a conscious effort to keep others at bay, and by implication let Afghanistan simmer in conflict? Should one view the appointment of the 67-year-old, Afghan-born Republican foreign policy veteran, Zalmay Khalilzad as a special envoy on Afghanistan as a step in sync with this policy?

Why so? He is a known Pakistan-hater, publicly hurling allegations at Pakistan in his articles, interviews with the media, political autobiography, as well as on his Twitter account. In an interview with the Afghan TOLO News on December 07, 2015, Khalilzad termed Pakistan as the ‘capital’ of terrorism.

Skeptics insist, keep a check on Iran and compliment India in their common opposition to the expanding Chinese footprint in the region via the CPEC.

On January 04, 2018, in the National Herald he stated that the key reason for the persistence of the Taliban in Afghanistan was Pakistan’s proxy war policy and he encouraged the United States to apply additional pressure to achieve its aims with the country.

Even recently, commenting on Pakistan’s newly appointed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s victory speech, Khalilzad did not shy away from re-asserting the accusation that Pakistan’s actual policy was to support the Taliban and the extremist groups in Afghanistan. The former diplomat’s Twitter account, too, is not without his spiteful statements aimed at defaming Pakistan.

Just last month, in a tweet, the former envoy supported the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, for warning against IMF bailout of Pakistan, falsely claiming that the country’s alleged support for terrorists had led to the death of Americans and others. With this acrimonious record vis a vis Pakistan, Khalilzad is neither a fair interlocutor nor does his belligerent view on the region augur well for Afghanistan.

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On the contrary, his re-emergence on the scene may ignite the conflict even further and may fuel speculation that the real intention in the U.S. is not an end to the conflict but to seek justification for a longer stay in Afghanistan to, as the skeptics insist, keep a check on Iran and compliment India in their common opposition to the expanding Chinese footprint in the region via the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Way Forward: Fraught with Skepticism

The present U.S. administration and scores of Republican Congressmen as well as intelligentsia associated with them, usually laugh this off as a conspiracy theory but then offer little coherent and plausible inclusive strategy on the issue. They essentially disregard the regional convergence among Russia, China-Iran, and Pakistan – on the issue of Da’esh being an external proxy that presents a bigger threat to the integrity and stability of Afghanistan and the region than do the Taliban.

The US and its allies also practically reject any Russian or Chinese initiative on Afghanistan. Unlike Beijing and Moscow, Washington still primarily holds Pakistan responsible for the strife in Afghanistan. Narcotics, it seems, is oiling the war economy in a big way.

The current U.S. narrative on Afghanistan runs counter to what John Sopko, the US Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and  General John Rutherford Allen, who commanded 150,000 U.S. and NATO forces (from July 2011 to February 2013) in the war-battered country, think of the situation. Here is what John Sopko and Allen told their audience at the Brookings Institution in May 2018.

“We keep referring to Pakistan as being the key problem. But the problem also was that the Afghan government at times was viewed very negatively by their local people and what you really need is to insert a government that the people support, a government that is not predatory, a government that is not a bunch of lawless warlords. That is a key thing and that was one of the things I did not talk about.

When we poured so much money into these unstable environments we contributed to the problem of creating more warlords, more powerful people- who basically take the law into their own hands. So, in essence, the government we introduced, particularly some of the Afghan local police forces, which were nothing other than warlord militias with some uniforms on, were just as bad as the terrorists before them.

General John, now the president of the Brookings Institution, who had commanded the U.S.-NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (July 2011-Feb 2013) also offered a sober assessment of the intricacies of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

“For a long time, I believed that peace in Afghanistan passed through Islamabad and Rawalpindi. In many respects, I now think that the long-term stability of Pakistan passes not just through Islamabad and Rawalpindi but also through Kabul. So, getting the Pakistanis, the Afghans, and the international community to have a similar view that a stable Afghanistan, one that has the capacity both for governmental stability, security to the population, and very importantly, a viable reinvigorated economy, is not just important to Afghanistan it is also important to the long-term stability of Pakistan.”

Read more: The War in Afghanistan: Curtains without Climax

General Allen also pointed to another triangular threat that Afghanistan faces i.e. the inextricable link between criminality, corruption, and the insurgency. “In my mind, there was a triangular threat to Afghanistan’s future but also, in a military context, you had the ideological insurgency, which we would euphemistically call the Taliban, you had the drug enterprise which fueled an awful lot of insurgent and criminal behavior and then you had the criminal patronage network. I don’t believe we were properly organized frankly to deal with that.”

Allen cautioned, “We will fool ourselves into believing we have defeated the Taliban in a particular area only to find out that now we got the criminal patronage networks to work in. They are deeply embedded in society and they are well fueled by their drug enterprise.”

What will prevail? Sanity or Geopolitics

Coming from two top American officials, these statements are quite instructive, particularly for all those who tend to dump the entire blame at Pakistan’s doorstep.  And, if the U.S. administration brushes this assessment and advice by two senior Afghanistan veterans, it will only further spice up the conspiracy theories.

Views by Sopko and General Allen, of course, should not deflect from Pakistan’s policy failures and administrative missteps which have only added to acrimony and mistrust between the two countries. Islamabad and Rawalpindi need to act in unison vis-à-vis Afghanistan, also because the latter defines the Indian and the US narrative on Pakistan.

APAPPS (Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity) has created a good momentum and both countries can now build on it to defy the external factors that have been ominously shadowing their bilateral relations.

Imtiaz Gul is the founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), an Islamabad-based think tank. He is the Editor, Strategic Affairs of Daily Times and the author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate and Pakistan: Before and After Osama.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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