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The mistakes that led to losing Afghanistan*

Kandahar
©EPA-EFE/STRINGER  |   Taliban forces rally to celebrate the withdrawal of US forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 01 September 2021.

Much has been written and talked about the mistakes that led to the known outcome of the American war in Afghanistan in late August, when crowds of Westerners and Afghans rushed to the Kabul International Airport, fleeing their homes in fear of the Taliban, literally trampling each other while trying to get on a plane, clinging by the planes’ landing gears, throwing their children over the fences to soldiers, desperate to at least save them. Many wrote about those events while still unfolding, under the impact of events and emotions. The events will most certainly be written about again, and historians and analysts of the future, more detached than us, will come up with their own explanations. Time allows one to put things into a certain perspective. It’s easer to understand events, trends, decisions when you know how things unfolded, what the final result was, what went right and what went wrong. What is sometimes overlooked are the circumstances in which certain decisions and certain mistakes were made. Nobody wants to fail, but when in the middle of things, one may miss the bigger picture and fail to see that there are options that to an analyst writing about it 20 or 30 years later would seem obvious.

From my point of view, the United States made three big mistakes in Afghanistan - two before 9/11, and the third after invading the country. One every decade since the 1980s.

Pakistan, the US ally that promoted Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan

The first mistake was made in the context of American involvement in the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s. The United States decided to support the anti-Soviet resistance1 with weapons and money (the amounts provided by the Americans were doubled by the Saudis), but allowed the Pakistanis, more precisely their secret service, the dreaded ISI, to decide who gets the money. Islamabad first opted for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami group, which received most of the aid. Hekmatyar was also the most radical and probably the most unscrupulous of Mujahedin leaders.At the time, however, it was irrelevant to Washington how fanatical those who were fighting the Soviets were: the important thing was that they were fighting. The Americans’ priority, defined as such by the Reagan doctrine, was to push back the Soviets, to diminish their sphere of influence, supporting all over the world - but primarily in Afghanistan - the efforts of the rebels fighting regimes close to Moscow or even its own forces. Once the USSR was defeated and pulled out its troops from Afghanistan, America’s interest in that country also disappeared and funding was cut. That was the Americans’ second big mistake; had they put pressure on the Pakistanis to calm down their Afghan partners, had Massoud and other moderates been supported and Afghanistan benefited from reconstruction aid, things may have turned out differently.

After the withdrawal of the Soviets, the regime they had left behind, led by Muhammad Najibullah, lasted another three years, before collapsing, practically overnight - much like, three decades later, the Afghanistan led by Ashraf Ghani. Once Najibullah removed, the mujahideen wanted to form a governing coalition. Hekmatyar, who was being pushed from behind by Pakistanis, tried to seize power on his own, so in 1992 he started a civil war, during which his forces unscrupulously bombed Kabul's civilian neighborhoods. The brutality of the civil war, the chaos generated by it, which allowed the rise of countless local commanders who, together with their militias, were arbitrarily heading their fiefdoms, created the right conditions for the arrival of the Taliban. They were initially welcomed with open arms by a population that believed that godly, pious men, who in the mid-1990s had begun to organize themselves in the Kandahar area under the leadership of Mullah Omar, would bring the much-coveted security and order.

The Taliban came up with a more radical form of Islam than most Mujahideen. The name of the group designates students2 of religious schools, madrasas, many built or funded by the Saudis, who sent not only money but also preachers. Wahhabism would therefore decisively influence the way the Taliban understand Islam. Other major influences on the Taliban came from the Deobandi school, also fundamentalist, but from the Indian subcontinent, and the so-called Pashtunwali, the “code of life” that regulates the behavior of the Pashtun population3, wherefrom the Taliban emerged.The Taliban4 was the Pakistani’s next bet, after Hekmatyar. Islamabad sent money, weapons and officers to help coordinate the Taliban forces, but also people to fight alongside them. Bin Laden also contributed an al-Qaeda brigade of several hundred to two thousand people, acting as an elite unit in the Taliban armies. A fleet of pickup trucks, with machine guns mounted on them, ensured their mobility and speed. Most of Afghanistan fell and the Taliban would probably have conquered the entire country had it not been for Massoud, who stubbornly resisted in his fortress in the Panjshir Valley. Perhaps the death of the legendary mujahidin commander could have brought victory to the Taliban, but after 9/11, the Northern Alliance that Massoud had led was no longer alone against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Pakistanis.

From the Great Game to the New Great Game: why Pakistan is interested in Afghanistan

There are several reasons why Pakistan is interested in Afghanistan and relies on Islamist groups. First, Afghanistan provides Pakistan with the so-called strategic depth, a space where it can retreat and regroup if a potential war with India goes too badly. However, in order to be able to do this, Afghanistan must be controlled by forces friendly to Islamabad. A second reason is related to the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Over time, several Afghan governments have questioned the validity of the Durand Line; from their point of view, the entire Pashtun territory should be part of Afghanistan. However, a friendly government in Kabul has no territorial claims. Finally, the third reason, which appeared in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban were conquering Afghanistan, is related to the so-called “New Great Game”.

The Great Game was the long race between the Tsarist Empire and the British Empire throughout the nineteenth century for the control of Afghanistan, seen as the key to Central Asia, located between Russia, China, British India and Persia. Central Asia was important at that time, primarily because of its proximity to India, the pearl of the British Empire that Russia had started to be interested in. The new Great Game is about controlling Afghanistan as well, but this time the goal is no longer to protect or conquer India: the goal is the mineral resources of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, a region with vast reserves of oil and gas, which depends however on Russia's export pipeline system. After the countries in the region gained their independence following the collapse of the USSR, a problem arose: to find alternative export routes, and regional (Pakistan, Iran, Turkey) and global (China, Russia, United States) powers together with energy companies from around the world started competing to get control over these routes. One of the main options was to build a pipeline down to the Indian Ocean, via Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, in order to build the pipeline, a stable Afghanistan was needed, controlled by a single force, not by several groups in conflict with each other - and this is one of the reasons why Pakistan supported the Taliban.

As regards Pakistan's relations with Islamist groups, the explanations are also complex. First of all, we must not forget that the country was founded by Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, so Islam has played a key role since the very beginning of state building. Religious identity is important for the Pakistani state, as it transcends ethnic differences by acting, on the one hand, as a unifying factor and, on the other hand, being used to temper separatist tendencies (in Baluchistan, for example, or among Pashtuns).Secondly, beyond this Muslim identity, which did not prevent the first generations of Pakistani leaders from maintaining a secular regime, Pakistan also went through a process of Islamization during the time of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the general who ruled the country between 1977, when he staged a coup, and 1988, when he died in a plane crash. Zia-ul-Haq was influenced by the founder of Jamaat-i Islami, Abu-Ala Mawdudi, and believed that Islamic law, Sharia, should play a more important role in the country's governance and the country's legislative system. Under Zia-ul-Haq, ties with radical Islamist groups were strengthened, and the building of madrassas was encouraged, in which a new generation of extremists would be raised. Finally, extremist Islamist groups allow Pakistan to promote some of its goals without getting directly involved from a military point of view, and this is not just Afghanistan, but also Kashmir and India, where there are active terrorist groups trained and hosted by Islamabad.After 9/11, Islamabad was forced to be a little more discreet about its relationship with the Taliban, given its partnership with the United States and the pressure from Washington. Pakistan even joined the Global War on Terrorism, and its military launched a campaign in the Waziristan region, where it came into conflict with the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist groups. However, Pakistan's involvement in the Global War on Terrorism was only partial - while its soldiers were dying in operations against some extremists, Islamabad kept on encouraging other extremists.

After their defeat in the face of the American offensive, the Afghan Taliban found refuge in Pakistan, where they reorganized themselves and from where they launched numerous attacks across the border; even if the tribal border areas are semi-autonomous and Islamabad's control is limited, it is hard to believe that the Taliban could have resisted there unless high-ranking Islamabad officials had turned a blind eye. Relations were maintained and strengthened over time, so that when the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, Pakistan's civilian prime minister, Imran Khan, publicly expressed his satisfaction. The generals of the army and services were a little less vocal, but it is very likely that some of them were at least as excited as the prime minister.

Taliban’s victory, favored by the corruption and clientelism tolerated by Americans

The speed with which the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan was remarkable, especially in the latter part of the offensive. The insurgents launched their campaign along with the arrival of spring, which was nothing out of the ordinary - the fighting in Afghanistan intensifies every year in spring, when the melting of the snow allows the use of mountain passes. However, the offensive staged in the spring of 2021 was stronger than usual, and the Taliban managed to expand the territories they had been controlling in rural areas, which were already significant, having grown by the year.

A study conducted by the BBC over August - November 2017 showed that the Taliban were controlling 14 districts (4% of their total number) and were openly present in another 263, which meant that the Afghan government was controlling only 30% of the territory.  When the study was conducted, less than three years had passed since the United States and NATO had ceased combat operations in Afghanistan and had withdrawn most of their forces from that country, leaving behind only military personnel to guard some facilities, to train the Afghan forces, and, if necessary, to provide them with field assistance.

The 2014 withdrawal had been, in fact, a recognition of the fact that the international forces were not able to win the war, even if they had managed to win (almost) all the battles and were clearly superior in terms of equipment and training. Even when an attempt was made to push a victory by increasing the number of military staff, which at one point exceeded 130,000 troops, the Taliban could not be defeated. The focus shifted to strengthening the Afghan state and security forces. The year 2021 showed that all those efforts had been in vain. After a three-month offensive in rural areas, the Taliban attacked the provincial capitals in early August, which fell without a fight, one after the other.

The collapse of the security forces was caused by a number of factors: the military were demoralized by the withdrawal of Westerners – the departure from Bagram, at night, is eloquent in that respect  - unlike the Taliban, who could strike wherever and whenever they wanted, the army had no initiative, military units were practically besieged at the points they were guarding, which made the provision of supplies difficult, the actual strength of the security forces was much smaller than the 300,000 military existing only on paper, various local commanders betrayed and sided with the Taliban, the military's confidence in the state they were supposed to defend was low, and so on. Many of these factors are the result of the third major mistake made by Americans in Afghanistan, this time starting 2001: associating with characters they should have avoided.The Taliban lost Afghanistan so quickly in late 2001 because many local commanders betrayed them, and accepted to be bought off, just like, 20 years later, those local commanders who just handed them the country back on a platter. Those commanders betrayed each time in order to maintain their privileges and strongholds. A state in which there are still local barons after the feudal model, with fiefs, armed forces, and above the law, cannot be strong. Local commanders and the land they control are just one problem; widespread corruption in society is another.  And here we are talking about a phenomenon tolerated by the Americans and their allies5.Corruption became endemic under Hamid Karzai6, Afghanistan's first president after the ousting of the Taliban. When the Taliban returned in 2021, while former Afghan government officials or even simple administration employees were desperately trying to flee the country to save their lives, Hamid Karzai, who remained an influential figure in Afghanistan, waited patiently for them in Kabul to negotiate. Abdullah Abdullah, a former vice president, former foreign minister, and former associate of Massoud, also spoke with the Taliban after they took power. At the same time, extremely powerful barons like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who fought in all the wars in Afghanistan, surrendered Mazar-i-Shariful without a fight, a few days after another former great mujahedin commander, Ismail Khan, had been captured in his fief in Herat7.

Also with regard to this third great American mistake, circumstances must be taken into account. The priority in 2001 was to hunt down terrorists and prevent other al-Qaeda attacks, and that required local support. Moreover, in the initial stage, the Americans and their allies sent a small number of troops to Afghanistan; again, the solution to control that territory laid with the local forces, already existing militias headed by commanders who, in some cases, had opposed the Taliban for years, and in others had turned weapons against them only when American bombers began flying over Afghanistan. When the new Afghan political class began to take shape and its corruption and patronage networks were laid, Americans already had already established another priority: Iraq.8

 

 

* This text is part of a larger piece on the War on Terrorism, Global Jihad and the Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, written for the collective volume “The War in the 21st Century”, pending publication by Litera Publishing House.

 

Notes:

[1] The resistance consisted of so-called mujahideen, a term that translates into “those engaged in jihad”. Mujahideen commanders were Islamists, some moderate, some radical, influenced by the ideas of young Afghans who had studied at Al-Azhar. Abdulrab Rasul Sayyaf, a legendary mujahedin commander, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, who became president of Afghanistan after the fall of Muhammad Najibullah's pro-Soviet regime, had completed doctoral studies at Al-Azhar, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar discovered the Islamist ideology at the Kabul University, in the '70s etc. Therefore, the Afghan mujahedeen, as well as the foreigners who joined them, believed that they were waging a holy war against the Soviets. It should be noted, in this context, that Muslim extremists in the following decades (members of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Taliban, etc.) also describe themselves as mujahedeen. They reject the name of ‘jihadist/jihadi’ that was given to them.

[2] “Talib” was taken over in Pashtu from Arabic, but with a different plural – “taliban” in Pashtu as to “tullab” in Arabic. Therefore, Taliban means “(madrassa) students”.

[3] The Pashtuns or Pathans live mainly in Afghanistan, where they account for over 40% of the population, being the ethnic group with the largest share, and Pakistan, where they are also known as Pathans and represent the second largest ethnic group; however, the number of Pakistani Pashtuns is almost 3 times higher than that of Afghan Pashtuns. The Pashtun territory was divided in two by the so-called Durand Line, named after the British diplomat who established, at the end of the 19th century, the border between the British Empire and the Emirate of Afghanistan.

[4] The best source on the history of the Taliban movement in its early days, before 9/11, remains in my opinion “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia”, written by the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. I bought my copy from Shah, probably the most famous bookstore in Kabul, not far from the Mustafa Hotel, which at one point, after the fall of the Taliban, had acquired a semi-legendary status, being sought after by journalists and all kinds of adventurers. In Rashid's book I first read about the concept of the “new Great Game”.

[5] The opium production in Afghanistan has also been tolerated in these 20 years, the country remaining the main global supplier of heroin throughout the entire period. Revenues from drug trafficking go to various local barons, corrupt government officials and the Taliban, for whom it is an important part of the revenue. Poppy has always been grown locally by small farmers for whom it’s been the main source of livelihood.

[6] In the fall of 2004, when I arrived in Afghanistan, Karzai, who was interim president, won the presidential election (he would win a new term 5 years later). A Pashtun politician from an important Western-approved tribe, Karzai seemed exactly the man Afghanistan needed at the time. The Taliban insurgency was then low, funds had been promised for reconstruction, a free press had appeared, and more and more foreigners were coming to Kabul to help or do business. Compared to Iraq, where the war was intensifying by the day, Afghanistan really seemed to be on the right track, and I think there were enough people who believed back than that reconstruction would succeed and that there was a chance that Afghanistan would become a liberal democracy.

[7] The Taliban released Ismail Khan and claimed that he and his men had sided with them. After his release, Khan left the country, taking refuge in Iran. Like Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor, who fled to Uzbekistan, Ismail Khan claimed that he and his men had been betrayed.

[8] The invasion of Iraq could be considered another mistake in the category of those that sealed the fate of Afghanistan, the fourth. For 7 years, the United States would focus on Iraq, the place where they mobilized forces far superior to those in Afghanistan, where the largest sums of money were spent, and the losses suffered in Iraq and the semi-failure of that war suppressed the Americans' appetite for large-scale interventions. Perhaps if the Iraq war had not taken place and at least some of the resources used for it had gone to Afghanistan, the outcome would have been completely different.


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  • The first mistake was made in the context of American involvement in the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s. The United States decided to support the anti-Soviet resistance with weapons and money (the amounts provided by the Americans were doubled by the Saudis), but allowed the Pakistanis, more precisely their secret service, the dreaded ISI, to decide who gets the money. Islamabad first opted for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami group, which received most of the aid. Hekmatyar was also the most radical and probably the most unscrupulous of Mujahedin leaders.
  • Once the USSR was defeated and pulled out its troops from Afghanistan, America’s interest in that country also disappeared and funding was cut. That was the Americans’ second big mistake; had they put pressure on the Pakistanis to calm down their Afghan partners, had Massoud and other moderates been supported and Afghanistan benefited from reconstruction aid, things may have turned out differently.
  • The collapse of the security forces was caused by a number of factors: the military were demoralized by the withdrawal of Westerners – the departure from Bagram, at night, is eloquent in that respect - unlike the Taliban, who could strike wherever and whenever they wanted, the army had no initiative, military units were practically besieged at the points they were guarding, which made the provision of supplies difficult, the actual strength of the security forces was much smaller than the 300,000 military existing only on paper, various local commanders betrayed and sided with the Taliban, the military's confidence in the state they were supposed to defend was low, and so on. Many of these factors are the result of the third major mistake made by Americans in Afghanistan, this time starting 2001: associating with characters they should have avoided.
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