The tremors felt around the civilized world this August were unprecedented. The western analysts, policymakers, and strategists were astounded by the rapid advance of the Taliban, conquering district after district, province after province, reaching the heart of Afghanistan (Kabul) in less than two weeks. The astonishing advance was without any Panzer division and with no air cover. It will take some time before the defense analysts come up with some operational explanation of this historically brisk takeover.
The fall of Afghanistan was so remarkably swift that someone said that the angels in the heavens were finding it difficult to keep the pace. But was it that surprising as being depicted?
Did the US accept defeat in Afghanistan before withdrawal?
General Stan McChrystal was a charismatic U.S general with an unceremonious exit from military service. As commander of JSOC, he had commendable counterinsurgency accomplishments in Iraq and was given command in Afghanistan by the Obama administration with high hopes to reverse the tide of resurgent insurgency in the south of Afghanistan.
Writing for Foreign Affairs journal in 2017, McChrystal recalled his meeting with General Kiani at GHQ Rawalpindi in February 2009, when he shared his ambitious counter-insurgency strategy with Pakistan’s top military commander seeking his insight.
General Kiani, without mincing any words replied “that you have the right strategy for the mission assigned but it won’t work because you do not have enough time.” McChrystal recalled that the reply was a cold blow but had an element of truth in it.
By 2017, many military and counterinsurgency experts like McChrystal knew that the US and NATO had lost their course in Afghanistan but the Pentagon and state department lacked the discernment to admit the failure that had potential political repercussions. Only, an abrasive and anti-establishment President like Trump had the doughtiness to confront the failure with a difficult decision to bring the U.S military back home. He left the execution phase for Biden to handle.
What happened particularly at Kabul airport will haunt Biden and his administration for the rest of his tenure. Those who advised Biden on the mechanism, timeframe of troops withdrawal, refrained him from communicating with Pakistan’s prime minister and later publicly prognosticate on the capacity of Afghan forces to resist the advance of Taliban had caused him tangible political affliction. The chaos unleashed with ill-conceived U.S withdrawal on Biden’s orders endorsed McChrystal’s view about Biden’s understanding of counterinsurgency expressed in 2010.
A failure of counterinsurgency strategy
McChrystal back then termed Biden’s counterinsurgency strategy as shortsighted that would lead to “chaos-istan”, a prediction in 2010 that became a prophecy in 2021.
Afghanistan’s security instability has vitiated regional and global peace for the last five decades. Ironically, the Taliban’s take over may not interrupt this recurring regional and global security dilemma. Some security experts predict that the Taliban takeover is a perfect recipe for further regional destabilization that will suck in regional and global powers. The western diplomatic and mainstream media response to the Taliban’s blitzing takeover is not unexpected.
Criminating Pakistan for supporting the Taliban and expressing disdain for the meltdown of ANA comes out as cardinal excuses trumpeted by western analysts, mainstream western, and Indian media. Dismayingly, Pakistan’s left-leaning political segments and media have contributed to complimenting the incriminating narrative conveniently ignoring some aspects of facticity.
The current Afghan fiasco is dangerously complex and intriguingly multidimensional to analyze. Anatomizing all important aspects in a single piece will be infeasible. Therefore, those aspects generally ignored by mainstream media to articulate a particular narrative shall be scrutinized. Particularly, the compelling circumstances contributing to Pakistan’s decision-making during the conflict deserve fair anatomization in the backdrop of scapegoating by western and Indian media.
Looking back at the US decision of invading Afghanistan
The U.S invaded Afghanistan post-September 2001 to eliminate Al-Qaida for an attack on the twin towers and the Taliban regime for sheltering them. A claim that shall remain under contest with only one debatable conviction for attacks on twin towers in twenty years despite claims of arresting main suspects like Khalid Shiekh Muhammad still awaiting prosecution.
Pakistan under immense duress was coerced to alter its policy of supporting militancy in Afghanistan and IOK resultantly antagonizing armed militants and their broad base conservative support in tribal areas and KP.
The awfully unpopular policy shift paved the way for a catastrophic insurgency that devastated the country for the next 15 years. The policy shift came in the backdrop of attacks on the Indian parliament in Delhi in December 2001. U.S president Bush Jr convinced General Musharraf to embrace the policy shift for durable regional peace, a commitment that wasn’t honored by the U.S and its allies.
General McChrystal enumerated regional peace as one of the core objectives associated with the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, an objective that remained elusive. U.S and NATO forces established a foothold in Afghanistan with the assistance of Pakistan and subsequently raised Afghan military and intelligence forces. While Pakistan was domestically encountering the repercussions of an unpopular decision of alliance with the U.S and NATO, Indian agencies were entrenching in Afghan territory to unleashed one of the bloodiest insurgencies in Pakistan’s tribal belt, KP and Balochistan using rebellious Pakistani militants antagonized as a result of Pakistan’s costly policy shift.
Numerous terrorist attacks including the deplorable APS massacre of schoolchildren had footprints of Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies using Afghan territory. Pakistan’s concerns with evidence including dossiers were shared with the UN, U.S, and western allies but were never allayed. Baloch insurgents and TTP leading figures like Balach Marri, Brahumdagh Bugti, Mullah Fazlullah, Faqir Mohammad, Khalid Khurasani, etc found shelters inside Afghan territory while western, Indian, and even Pakistan’s mainstream media focused on Haqqani network and Quetta shura restricting choices for Pakistan’s security establishment.
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The same media downplayed an incriminating revelation in 2011, by Chuck Hagel U.S senator and Defence secretary under President Obama, who exposed India of financing trouble in Pakistan over the years using Afghan territory. Ironically, the media also downplayed the self-incriminating admission by Ajit Doval boasting about his defensive-offensive doctrine and double squeeze strategy aimed at destabilizing Pakistan by supporting rebellious Pakistani militants using Afghanistan’s territory.
Pakistan as a victim of the fiasco in Afghanistan
While Pakistan was bleeding with recurring terrorist attacks planned and executed from Afghan territory, our western allies kept blaming Pakistan for dubious and scant attacks in Mumbai, Pathankot, and Pulwama. Pakistan was thus a classic case of victim-blaming from the perspective of terrorism.
Pakistan was not the only victim of destabilization activities emanating from Afghanistan. In the last few years, deliberate attacks on Chinese interests inside Pakistan pointed towards the vehement collaboration of hostile agencies aimed at sabotaging the Chinese Belt and Road initiative.
Pakistan was not the only country in the region that embraced unwarranted policy shifts imposed by the actions of adversaries. Russia, Iran, and even Hamid Karzai raised questions on the circumstances that led to the rise of the Islamic state inside Afghanistan in 2017. Iran and Russia accused the U.S of providing space to Islamic states inside Afghanistan to unleash destabilizing activities in the region. Later, Major General Wali Muhammad Ahmadzai commander of the Afghan national Army blamed Iran for supplying arms to the Taliban in November 2017.
In March 2018, U.S force commander in Afghanistan General John Nicolson accused Russia of supporting the Taliban with arms supply. Apparently, it was a policy shift by Russia and Iran after the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The inclusion of Amrullah Saleh, Hamdullah Mohib, and other ultra-nationalists in the higher hierarchy of Ghani’s administration only added bitterness in the relationship with Pakistan with unrelenting accusations. Ghani himself capitulated on every opportunity to malign Pakistan’s state and security institutions. Lastly growing rapport of spoilers in Ghani’s administration with elements of PTM alarmed and estranged power corridors in Islamabad.
Understanding Pakistan’s course of action
Despite all hostilities, Pakistan was the only party in the conflict that took tangible measures in the fight against terrorism including erecting fences all along the Afghan border to halt movements of militants across the border, eliminated bloody insurgency in tribal areas and KP effectively targeted terror financing, interdicted philanthropic activities of banned groups and initiated measures to prosecute figures like Hafiz Saeed without any reciprocity from the other side.
In such a hostile environment Pakistan’s policy inclination towards the Taliban wasn’t unexpected. Pakistan’s security strategy in Afghanistan seems less to be an outcome of deliberate choice but more as a result of imposed compulsion. Pakistan policymakers over the years had declared having no favorites in Afghanistan. The only consistent demand was a stabilized Afghanistan with an inclusive government that doesn’t dole out space to hostile elements to sabotage Pakistan and Chinese interests, a demand never honored.
Many experts rightly question the prudence of policy choices made by Pakistan in the Afghan conflict predicting the collaboration of the Afghan Taliban with TTP and other extremists groups that may lead to further instability in the region particularly in Pakistan. Ironically in the security domain, the available choices are not always in black and white. Choices at times are arduous with varied repercussions.
States attempt to adopt preferred choices with predictably mild implications. Pakistan’s security choices in Afghanistan will only sound convincing if analyzed under the circumstances prevailing at the time. Unrelenting terrorism emanating from Afghanistan restricted security choices for Pakistan’s civil-military leadership.
Lastly, Pakistan’s civil-military leadership has made policy decisions on Afghanistan, not in isolation. The approach of China, Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan central Asian neighbors towards post-Taliban Afghanistan, indicate collective decision making in close collaboration. Collective regional cooperation, collaboration, and decision-making can contribute to lasting peace in Afghanistan and in the region, a peace that the people of Afghanistan earnestly deserve after five decades of conflict.
The author is an M.Phil graduate in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from National Defense University Islamabad with 25 years experience of serving in defense services. He focuses primarily on International conflicts, security issues, and media narratives. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.