New Delhi: At the heart of the United States’ failed Afghanistan war was Washington’s inability to spot the “Pakistan danger” for seven to eight years after the war started in 2001, revealed former US acting ambassador to Afghanistan James Dobbins.
Reacting to Dobbins’ rather earnest acceptance, Candace Rondeaux, who was special adviser to US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said she was “stunned by such analysis … mainly because the fingerprints (of Pakistan’s support for Taliban) were there in every way”.
Many such damning pieces of information on what transpired between Pakistan and the US as the Afghanistan war was under way have now come to light after the release of The Afghanistan Papers by The Washington Post.
Various raw interviews contained in The Afghanistan Papers highlight some new revelations pertaining to Pakistan’s role in the Afghan war and flaws in US’ policymaking.
The Bonn insult
In a revealing anecdote, Dobbins recounts an incident at the Bonn negotiations — the multi-party Afghanistan peace negotiations — which led to the Bonn Agreement of December 2001. Dobbins was the lead US negotiator there.
These negotiations had representatives from all major Afghan factions, major world powers, but none from the Afghan Taliban.
In order to show its displeasure, Dobbins revealed, the Pakistani government sent a representative, who had until recently been its ambassador to the Taliban-run Afghan government.
“Everybody said, ‘Gee, couldn’t they send somebody other than this guy’ who was recently representing them to the Taliban,” said Dobbins.
Taliban was defeated but Pakistan wasn’t factored in
In one of the most telling revelations, Dobbins talked about the shift in the US administration’s thinking with respect to Taliban.
“I have to say that I think at least I shared a general assumption which was that the Taliban had been so quickly and rapidly overthrown that it was likely that it was — that it had been heavily discredited and unlikely to make a comeback,” Dobbins said during his interview.
“That turned out to be wrong largely because it discounted the likelihood the Pakistan would continue to see Taliban as a useful surrogate and would essentially resuscitate it,” he added.
Several officials say there was a growing sense between 2001 and 2004 that the Taliban was too decimated to recover. But such analysis had discounted how Pakistan was supporting the Taliban during those years, claim some of the interviewed officials.
“In East (Afghanistan), there was the assumption that Pakistan would take up that part of the fight. Instead, they shelled us,” remarked a US military officer who has served in Afghanistan.
“If we had anticipated that Pakistan would have helped the Taliban as much as it did to escalate the war in 2005-2006, and if we had been smart enough to essentially adopt the Obama ANSF program, right from the outset, we would have precluded the ability of Taliban to escalate,” remarked Marin Strmecki, former adviser to Donald Rumsfeld, who as President Bush’s Defence Secretary launched the Afghan war in 2001.
Several former officials argued that the failure of the US Afghan war was caused by its policy to treat Pakistan and Afghanistan as two different theatres. The implicit sense here was the officials running America’s Afghanistan policy were not addressing how Pakistan’s support for the Taliban was exacerbating the war in Afghanistan.
“The people managing Afghanistan were not managing Pakistan,” said Strmecki.
“The Defense Department was responsible for the war on Afghanistan but it wasn’t the lead in the relationship with Pakistan,” remarked Dobbins. “The State Department, of course, had responsibility for relationships with Pakistan and with Afghanistan.”
An unnamed White House official said, “To treat Afghanistan and Pakistan separately… It was like a donut hole in the middle of the whole policy for South Asia. The Obama administration just thought if you just hang in there Pakistan will see the light.”
In his interview, the White House official critiques such a policy, but most of those criticisms have been redacted before being released to The Washington Post.
Pakistan’s point of view
A couple of interviews also help highlight Pakistani thinking on why it supports the Taliban and how it perceived American presence in the region. In one such interview, Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, tried to articulate the Pakistani thinking.
He argued that the root of the Taliban problem goes back to President H.W. Bush and the end of the Soviet-Afghan war. During the war, Pakistan was a “critical partner”. But once the war ended, the US was “done with Pakistan too”. Moreover, opposition to Soviets was the only thing uniting several factions in Afghanistan, thus the end of war had to kickstart a civil war, argued Crocker.
“So, as Pakistanis describe it, they went from being the most allied of allies to the most sanctioned of adversaries literally overnight with that civil war next door,” said Crocker.
In such a scenario, Pakistan supported whichever Afghan faction it could — which happened to be Taliban, Crocker was told by his Pakistani interlocutors.