Why did the US fail in Afghanistan?

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Historically, Afghanistan is called as ‘graveyard of the empire’ because it is marked by periods of continuous foreign invasion and withdrawal. British Raj failed to get control in Afghanistan in the 19th century when it was said that for the British the sun never sets. In the 20th century, the Soviets tried to invade but has failed in the expedition. Expedition by the US hegemon in the 21st century has also been marked as a failure.

The US get into Afghanistan on the proposition of a “War on terror” after the 9/11 attack on the WTC building. The US is meandering in West Asia, since then, is opposed by the taxpayers. Due to pressure from civil society, the withdrawal process of the US troop was started by Obama, followed by Trump, and supported by Biden. Thus, August 31 has been set for a complete deadline for US exit despite the Taliban’s territorial gains.

Why did the U.S. invade Afghanistan?

The US witnessed a series of terrorist attacks on WTC building by the Wahhabi Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. WTC building is deemed as a sign of the US hegemony. It was perceived as a direct challenge to the US hegemony from the Islamic world by the establishment and experts like Samuel P Huntington in his ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis. Huntington questioned the thesis of Francis Fukuyama who called the end of the cold war is the end of history and victory of the liberal world order.

After the 9/11 attack, President George W. Bush declared war on terror in Afghanistan. According to Bush, the Taliban had refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders including Osama Bin Laden who were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, the NATO group led by the US quickly dislodge the Taliban regime and established a transitional government. Followed by this, Al-Qaeda leaders found a space in Pakistan to get shelter. Till May 2003, the US had completed its job. Unnecessarily, the US shifted its focus to invade Iraq in 2003 and trapped itself in the middle east.

Is the Afghan expedition a success for the US?

Some analysts claim the withdrawal of forces as a US success. The proposition behind such a thesis is a reiteration of words spoken by the US presidents. Eight years later of the expedition, Barack Obama insisted his government would not get mired in a long “nation-building project.” Eight years after Obama, Trump made a similar statement “We’re not nation-building again.” Followed by this Biden reiterated the same – “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build”.

But I won’t buy these arguments. First, If the US’s objective was merely to eliminate the man responsible for the 9/11 attack, then I would definitely say that it was a very costly affair. How can this be deemed as successful when a single man, namely Osama Bin Laden is able to suck nearly $2.26 trillion (As par Costs of War Project) which is nearly 10% of the US economy. Washington Post in its article “Built to Fail” claims that “Adjusted for inflation, that is more than the United States spent in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II.”

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Second, Out of the total of $2.26 trillion in Afghanistan, just $105 billion on rebuilding Afghanistan – for reconstruction, aid programs, and the capacity building of Afghan security forces. This asymmetricity in spending in Afghanistan shows their failure. The US has been withdrawing from Afghanistan even when the Taliban is gaining footprints.

Third, Has Afghanistan become free from violence and terrorism for which the US got into it? If not, then why the US is fleeing Afghanistan by shutting off the electricity and slipping away in the night without even notifying the base’s new Afghan commander? Fourth, If the objective of the US was only punishing terrorists, then why didn’t the US withdraw its forces in 2003 when terrorists were pushed to caves and mountains or in 2011 after the killing of Osama Bin Laden?

Fifth, the political violence and loss of human life can’t be celebrated as a victory of the US where at least 50,000 civilians and many aid workers, journalists, Afghan forces, and NATO forces gave up their lives in Afghanistan in 20 years. What would be the status of women in the Taliban’s Sharia rule for which the US has been printing their arguments? Biden plans to host a global summit for democracy is contradictory to his slash and burn approach in Afghanistan where the US left democracy to die in the hand of the violent Taliban.

Sixth, Barack Obama had realized that the war, opened by the US in Afghanistan was unwinnable. In order to come out from Afghanistan safely, Obama sent a special envoy to get a consensus between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government. However, it was not materialized. Later, Donald Trump made one more attempt by appointing a special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. It has ended with the US-Taliban deal 2020. This agreement was done on Taliban terms against the interests of the Afghan national government.

Why Afghan war was unwinnable for the US?

Hamid Karzai in an interview with Suhasini Haider (July 2021) says that ‘the U.S. has obviously failed in its mission to fight extremism in Afghanistan’. There are many reasons behind the failure of the US.

First, All empires including the US approached Afghanistan narrowly. Military conquest can give control over the region. Smart power (A combination of soft and hard power) can only sustain for long. Invaders like the Mughals or Britishers both exercised smart power to sustain long in India. On the one hand, the British exploits resources and dehumanize people but on another hand, it developed railway lines and provides space for safety valves through the organization. Similarly, Mughals exploited non-Muslims in one period and subscribed to military alliances in another period.

But in the case of Afghanistan, the US tried to rule militarily. In Afghanistan, the US should have invested in capacity building as British India did in Charter Act 1813 (Spend Rs 1 Lakh on education). In 20 years, a new generation of rational thinking in Afghanistan could have been created. They could have been the potential actor for the success of the US’s deal in Afghanistan, instead of relying on Pakistan for non-state actors.

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Second, The US went to Afghanistan without learning lessons from the past either from the British or Russian invasion. The Soviets used brutal tactics to confront the mujahideen and showed little concern for average Afghans. Heavy firepower and indiscriminate firing killed many civilians which didn’t generate ‘goodwill’ for the Soviets. A similar pattern was repeated in the case of the US expedition. Like the Soviets, the US also failed in establishing the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Third, The US missed a good time in 2003 when the US had a chance to stabilize Afghanistan when the Taliban regime was toppled and al-Qaeda driven back into the caves and mountains. This was the time when militia leaders and regional warlords with little experience in national administration, holding key posts in Karzai’s government could have been trained for administration and governance. Once the people in Afghanistan would start getting services, probably Taliban would have weakened further.

Fourth, The means to solve issues by the US leadership have also not been matching with the time. Chinese government engages and solves issues with the existing establishment but the US tries to topple the government in power to get its work done which is neither efficient nor effective. Instead of exclusion in the first place, the US should have made a power-sharing agreement among different stakeholders on the condition of withering away from violence meant by the Taliban.

Taliban would have definitely agreed with this proposal because the Taliban has already been pushed into mountains and caves very quickly by NATO forces. Another reason could have been the weakening of the Taliban due to the capacity building of Afghan people and politicians. In such situations, power-sharing tactics bring extremists into the mainstream. India has done a similar thing in the context of the integration of Lal Denga into mainstream politics in Mizoram.

Fifth, The US administration took Pakistan for granted. Pakistan wisely played a double game – Supporting the war on terror as well as extended support to the Taliban through intelligence. The former head of ISI, Hamid Gul, rightly said – “When Afghanistan’s history came to be written, it would record that the ISI, with the help of America, defeated the Soviet Union. Historians would also state that the ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.” Pakistan reportedly gave shelter to top leaders of the Taliban. Funds for the Taliban have also been raised in Pakistan.

The US appeased Pakistan and didn’t learn a lesson from the Soviet invasion. The US was fighting the wrong enemy because the Taliban would have been powerless without the support from Pakistan. Instead of increasing bargaining power to Pakistan, the US could have pressurized Pakistan against terrorism. Durand line conflict between Pakistan and the Taliban could have been utilized for delegitimizing the roles of Pakistan.

Sixth, All empires (British, Soviet, and the US) lacked a sociological understanding of Afghanistan. They marched to Afghanistan for their vested geopolitical interests and didn’t try to understand the social construct and mountain warfare tactics of the Taliban. Ethnic tensions in Afghanistan have been underestimated by both Soviets and the US. Consequently, factionalism started within the  People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – the Parcham (Moderate) and Khalq (Hardliner).

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The social structure of Afghanistan seeks a decentralized system. Different ethnic groups seek autonomy and self-governance. Ashraf Ghani and the US both weakened other warlords in the process of making a stronger national force. It had alienated other ethnic groups and the northern alliance which was formed to contain the Taliban.

Prospects in Afghanistan

The US-Taliban deal 2020, promised to withdraw the US forces from Afghanistan in May 2021. It has mandated for intra-Afghan talk, prevents the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups. In return, the Taliban has promised to reduce violence and cut its ties with all terror groups. It was also promised to release prisoners from both sides. But it didn’t reach any breakthrough. Currently, the peace process is frozen and the Taliban has increased its footprints in Afghanistan. Even during the pandemic, the Taliban didn’t stop the violence in Afghanistan.

Afghan leadership has long been calling India to attend the peace process in Afghanistan. It was reported in May 2021 that India has reached out to the Taliban. New Delhi has not denied this claim. New Delhi is reaching out to the Taliban because – First, To protect India’s investment in Afghanistan. Second, To prevent the Taliban from being a pawn of Rawalpindi. Third, Learning from the past costs when India choose not to engage with the Taliban when it was in power.

Fourth, To make sure that terrorist groups don’t get support from the Taliban which could be a security threat for India in general and Kashmir in particular. Fifth, According to The Wall Street Journal, that Kabul could fall within six months. India wants to make its policy options intact to protect its interest in Afghanistan. Sixth, Hamid Karzai in an interview with Suhasini Haider has appreciated India for talking with the Taliban. It indicates that Kabul has no problem in talking with the Taliban and also deems them as a part representative of Afghanistan.

Considering the possible threat from the changing dynamics in Afghanistan, India has been going for the best option available. On the one hand, S Jaishankar at the UN has clarified New Delhi’s support for an “inclusive, Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process.” On the other hand, India has opened talks with the Taliban. India would work with the matrix which serves India’s core interests in Afghanistan.

Footnotes

  1. The Hindu | ‘We did not go into Afghanistan to nation-build – Biden
  2. Decoding Dream India | US-Taliban deal 2020: ‘unilateral retreat by Washington’
  3. Council for foreign relation | The U.S. War in Afghanistan
  4. The Economic Times | Counting the costs of America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan
  5. Hindustan Times | US closing in on total pull-out, says more than 90% completed 
  6. The Hindu | The U.S. has obviously failed in its mission in Afghanistan, says Hamid Karzai 
  7. The Wall Street Journal | Afghan Government Could Collapse Six Months After U.S. Withdrawal
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