As the Taliban appear to be on the verge of storming into Kabul, consigning possibly into the dustbin of history the two-decade-old United States-constructed governance and security structure, there is an inevitable sense of history coming full circle.
It is unfortunate that the situation has come to this. It reflects a failure at many levels. Clearly, the US has failed to create an enduring institutional and security structure in Afghanistan, despite an overwhelming presence for two decades. There is also a failure of the Afghan leadership in not being able to consolidate, come together and create mass support for their leadership.
But most of all, it is a failure of the US’ Pakistan policy. Because of its dependence on Pakistan for the movement of supplies for its military into Afghanistan, the US was never able to generate sufficient pressure on Pakistan to stop providing a safe haven and support to the Taliban.
Taliban in Kabul previously
On 13 November 2001, the Taliban fled Kabul, in the face of a massive air onslaught and US ground action from the North, coordinated with the largely Tajik, but also Uzbek and Hazara fighters of the Northern Alliance, which had held out in ten per cent of terrain, preventing a Taliban takeover of the entire country. They were, then, the only effective Aghan partners of the US on the ground.
However, US’ dilemmas and hesitations were evident from the start. Even while moving physically towards Kabul with the Northern Alliance, their aim was to prevent them from taking over the government. It ostensibly went along with the British argument that a Pashtun leadership was needed for Kabul, given the overall ethnic composition of the country. It was also attempting to accommodate Pakistan’s demands, in return for receiving airspace access and later ground lines of communication for the movement of men and materials, that its security interests be protected by preventing a Northern Alliance takeover.
Power abhors a vacuum. Post-Massoud Northern Alliance, leaders like Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammed Fahim, and Abdullah Abdullah moved in to head the Presidency, and Defense and Foreign ministries. Since then, the US has been constant in its efforts to weaken the erstwhile Northern Alliance structure and leadership. Under President Hamid Karzai, who was brought in as a Pashtun leader in December 2001, following the Bonn Conference earlier in the month, most were systematically removed from their positions of influence in government. Without first disarming the Taliban or their support structures fully in the South, disarmament was carried out in the North. The regional leadership was also systematically sought to be prevented from developing local political or other strengths. The argument was that the central leadership in Kabul needed to be the only locus of power in a country that had historically seen only weak central control. In the past weeks, erstwhile regional leaders Ismail Khan (Herat), Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Nur (Mazar-e-Sharif) were expected to suddenly mobilise and support the Afghan National Army.
Eventually, buffeted by the demands of its own political system for creating democratic governance somewhat in its own image, and its dependence on Pakistan, the US created a government structure and an army that has now been proven to need not just continued support, but also a continued US military presence. In this regard, the US did worse than the Soviet Union. The Mohammad Najibullah government lasted three years after military withdrawal of its patron, and eventually folded only when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and the new Russia was not able to provide the requisite financial and other support.
India’s warning to the US
I recall that way back in 2001, Indian External Affairs Minister at that point, Jaswant Singh, had said that “the problem cannot be the solution”, referring to the US’ newfound dependence on Pakistan for a solution to the problem of terrorism emanating from the Afghan-Pakistan region, for which Pakistan itself was largely responsible.
As Ambassador to the US, speaking to various audiences, I regularly pointed out that the US had not been able to resolve its policy dilemma of its necessary friend (Pakistan) also being its worst enemy: training, equipping and motivating the very same Taliban that it was seeking to eliminate and was killing US troops. In a 2014 comment, Pakistan’s former Inter-Services Intelligence Chief, Hamid Gul said that history would record that the ISI first defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America, and then it defeated America there also with the help of America.
For India, too, it is history coming full circle at the moment. The Indian embassy in Kabul had been shut since 1996, as the Taliban had come in. On 21 November 2001, I coordinated the first flight from Delhi, aboard an Indian Air Force cargo plane, flying six hours (bypassing Pakistan, over the Arabian Sea and then through Iran), carrying a team of four to re-open the embassy, along with four doctors and 5 tons of medicines to provide assistance on the ground. The US military, which was controlling the airspace in the war zone, had given us permission after some initial reluctance, mindful of Pakistani sensitivities, to only land at Bagram (since Kabul airport runway had craters) after sunrise and take off before sunset. In that period, we drove an hour to Kabul (fording three rivers along the way where bridges had been blown up), met the new acting President, foreign and defence ministers, took possession of the Taliban-ransacked Ambassador’s residence, the neglected but locked and untouched embassy premises, visited the doctors at the Indira Gandhi hospital for Women and Children and started our assistance programme. The atmosphere in the city was partly that of uncertainty with the new arrivals in government, but also relief over removal of the harsh and repressive regime. Many in the street near the embassy approached us asking for videos of Indian music and films.
With that start, India built up an effective assistance programme, amounting to more than $2 billion and was seen as one of the most people-friendly countries. Pakistan, of course, sought to justify all its negative activity, arguing that it perceived security threats in India’s growing presence and influence. The US, and many other western countries, did not always forcefully push back against this on account of their dependence on Pakistan for logistics supplies for their own forces, or the al-Qaeda related intelligence they occasionally received when Pakistan felt it needed to relieve some pressure and criticism.
But it is history coming full circle, in the most tragic way, for the Afghan people. They have seen repeated drastic changes and conflicts since the coup in 1978. As Shekhar Gupta wrote in a recent National Interest column, the US has now thrice destroyed the Afghan State. It did so in 1992 with the active and willing support from Pakistan, in 2001 with its unwilling and self-preservation-dictated support, and in 2021 through abandonment, unable to control or effectively counteract Pakistan’s perfidy.
The author is a former Ambassador to the US and involved in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post 9/11 period. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)