This is not a good time for the US Army or its image. The US Congress is asking some tough questions with regard to the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, which left not only Afghans in the lurch, but also several thousand Americans who were left behind. The recent testimonies by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie who oversaw the withdrawal, indicate not the extent of the disaster they have left behind, but also a series of what can generously be called systemic deficiencies, downright obfuscation on the ‘collapse’ of the Afghan army, and a strange silence on the core of the problem, which is the role of Pakistan. All in all, it’s a searing account by the men in uniform, and it’s not going to be taken lightly.
The current problem in Afghanistan
The discussions during the session of the Armed Services Committee served to bring out that US officials are far from ignorant of the realities of the Afghan war and its present dangers. Senator Jim Inhofe observed that the Taliban are in a stronger position than ever before; that terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda are in senior government positions; that Americans have been left behind; that the terrorist threat has increased; and that most of all “we’re at the mercy of Pakistan government to get into the Afghan airspace”.
Worse, the US can’t really attack key targets, because there are still Americans in Afghanistan. That suicide bomber who targeted the Kabul airport knew his way around. The more Americans and vulnerable Afghans are left behind, the better the bargaining position for the Taliban. To make it worse, on 14 September 2021, the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency stated, ‘‘We are already beginning to see some of the indications of some potential movement of al Qaeda to Afghanistan.’’ In other words, this is not just bad. It’s disastrous.
The Army that ‘melted away’
The subsequent testimonies are unedifying. Everyone is blaming everyone else, including rather obliquely the military establishment itself. Defence Secretary Austin discoursed on the many exercises that had been done for “NEO” (non-combatant evacuation) and that he had three infantry battalions and later another 3,000 positioned and so on. While praising the efficiency of his troops in the exercise, the holes in his argument were obvious. One was the usually cited ‘surprise’ that the Afghan troops ‘melted away’. Worse was his statement that Afghan troops did not care enough to defend their country.
Apparently, he had not heard John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction who in March 2021 said that if 18,000 contractors who mostly ran supply chains and maintenance work for the Afghan army withdrew, the Afghan army would quite simply collapse. Sopko also pointed out that self-reliance was dipping precipitously. In another report in July, the oversight agency pointed specifically to overoptimism in evaluating the Afghan Security Forces, and their capabilities, with programmes deemed “successful” even if they had not achieved desired goals. That the report was prophetic was proved just a month later. So, the ‘surprise’ is overdone.
Then there are the charges of those melting away. There is no doubt at all that Ashraf Ghani shifted defence ministers like chess pieces, but on the ground, videos show that soldiers were ready to dig down and fight. Intelligence should have warned that following the Doha agreement, Taliban leaders were striking deals with local commanders. Another clue. Advisors embedded with the Afghan security forces had been withdrawn three years ago. Assessments, therefore, were imprecise, with no data from the ground.
Then there is a pointed question from a Senator who clearly knew his job. That question was simple. Has the Doha Agreement undermined ANA morale? The answer was an unequivocal ‘Yes’. The bottom line, therefore, is that the ANA collapse should not have been a surprise at all. It should have been a given.
That messy withdrawal
Then there is General Milley’s testimony, which clearly indicates his assessment in November 2020 that “an accelerated withdrawal without meeting specific and necessary conditions risks… a general collapse of the ANSF and the Afghan government resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war.” Several times, Senators ask whether he had any cause to change his opinion. He did not, and neither did any of the others differ, with General McKenzie raising the required number to 4,500.
In other words, President Joe Biden ignored the advice of his generals and went ahead anyway with pulling out the entire force, leaving behind US citizens despite stating his determination to do the exact opposite on 8 June. Biden and his team had the choice of refusing the Doha Agreement, which was after all against US laws that prohibit any treatising with a designated terrorist group. Not only did he not, but as Gen. Milley says, the US adhered to its agreements with the Taliban entirely, with the understanding that staying on would have led to casualties. In other words, they left some 4,000 or more Americans behind so as to keep to their side of the agreement.
The Taliban did no such thing. It not only kept on Al-Qaeda – as noted by the Defence Secretary in June – it also refused the other part of the ‘inter-related’ Doha agreement, to start intra-Afghan negotiations. While there was plenty of blaming the Donald Trump administration for this ludicrous agreement, the truth is that politics prevailed over the truth, as it does every time, everywhere. That’s reality, but the American image has taken a serious beating.
The most interesting part of the proceedings was that the Generals kept completely mum on Pakistan, with the subject raised only in questions by the Senators, who outlined the long history of Pakistani support to the Taliban. Their other concern was on the possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. That is a bogey assiduously spread by Pakistani scholars themselves for years, thus ensuring US ‘interest’ and funds. The truth is that there is no such danger, because the Pakistan Army is a highly professional one, and also due to several technical reasons including that nuclear warheads are never kept mated with missiles. That didn’t prevent an expert like John Bolton from reiterating this recently, saying that the danger of Pakistan’s weapons falling into terrorist hands was one ‘key reason’ not to withdraw from Afghanistan. Perhaps he meant that the terrorists are already in power.
Then comes two interesting points from the Generals. First, that “in order to get to Afghanistan (for a counter terrorism strike), you have to fly over Pakistan unless you come from the north and that’s a subject of continuing deliberation with Pakistan…. over the last 20 years (we have used) the air boulevard to go in… that’s become something that’s vital to us as well as certain landlines of communication. We’ll be working with the Pakistanis in the days and weeks ahead to look at what that relationship is going to look like….” Then from Gen. Milley: “There’s a whole series of issues there that have national security interest for the United States that are best handled in a different session”. In other words, the Generals clammed up when it came to Pakistan.
Also consider the readout of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his remarks earlier. President Biden may not have picked up the phone to talk to Prime Minister Imran Khan, but the two deputies are talking continuously. Another five-hour testimony by Blinken showed bipartisan anger and questions on US largesse to a duplicitous Pakistan for decades, with one exasperated Senator suggesting that money should go to India instead.
Here’s even worse. Declassification of documents in the National Security Archives shows that policy makers from Donald Rumsfelt onwards knew full well about Pakistan’s role as a vital base for Afghanistan. No one did anything about it, obviously since “US interests” were at stake. It seems those interests are still very much alive and well. One of them is certainly reliance on Pakistan for early warning of terrorist activity. But that alone does not explain 20 years of Washington allowing Pakistan to be both ‘firefighters and arsonists’. A lot of countries, especially China should look carefully at those interests that so tightly bind the US and Pakistan together. It might just produce a very unpleasant surprise. And no, not a ‘surprise’ such as the collapse of the Afghan army. That wasn’t a surprise; just convenience.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.