The learned and not learned lessons from Afghanistan

The learned and not learned lessons from Afghanistan

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

While the most regular and most reported feature of life in Afghanistan remains the US ‘war on terror’ and the way this war continues to wreck havoc every now and then, killing thousands every year, there is also a growing recognition of the fact that the US has failed almost on every front of this war, be it military or economic or even social.

On the one hand, the Taliban are stronger than ever, and on the other, the Islamic State in Afghanistan has established its claws right under the nose of the US military, a development that flies directly into the face of—and even ridicules—the US claim that US military presence in Afghanistan was necessary to prevent the growth of extremism.

The story of Afghanistan war is therefore that of magnanimous failures throughout. This has been clearly proved by an official study of the situation by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in its July 2018 report to the US Congress.

The report concludes:

“The U.S. government overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of the stabilization strategy,” and “under immense pressure to quickly stabilize insecure districts, U.S. government agencies spent far too much money, far too quickly, and in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it. … The stabilization efforts ‘mostly failed.’”

One significant reason for this failure is the fact that the US has been unable to uproot the Taliban hold. To the surprise of many, as the report mentions, on more than one occasion, the locals refused to participate in “stabilization projects” unless they had permission from the Taliban’s Peshawar Shura.

To quote the report:

“…elders and government officials would not even participate in stability working groups or agree to accept projects for fear of retribution and, on at least one occasion, elders felt obliged to request permission from the Taliban’s Peshawar shura [council] before allowing stabilization projects to be implemented, clearly defeating the purpose.”

While the locals’ decision to approach the Taliban does not simply imply a growing Taliban popularity, it does mean that for locals the Taliban are the real and powerful actors on the ground.

Another important reason, one that the report in question does also mention, is that the locals understand that the foreign troops as well as the Afghan forces cannot permanently hold the region; while the Taliban, who have popular sanctuaries, are here to stay.

For instance, coalition troops spent years operating in Helmand Province, the southwestern Afghan area, but, the report concludes, “despite the positive effects of force saturation, all of Helmand eventually deteriorated and the province is now among the most clearly Taliban-controlled provinces in the country.”

While the report also mentions some stabilization success in areas where forces remained physically present, it also recognizes the impossibility of maintaining permanent presence in the troubled areas, meaning that the US would never be able to have the desired level of security to pursue its stabilization projects and that it cannot maintain a permanent presence either.

This brings us to the question of what the US can do to turn the tide in Afghanistan.

While it is clear that the lessons learned imply recognition of the impossibility of winning the war, the not learned lesson is the imperative of getting out of the country, which is no longer a chunk of territory for the implementation of the US twenty-first century grand strategy and the imperative of dominating Eurasia through Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, as the recent developments have shown, has become a quicksand of competing foreign interests. With Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, particularly Russia and China, almost leading the peace process by having the Taliban on board, life for the US is going to become a lot more difficult.

It is therefore about time the US learnt the crucial lesson and tried a different approach.

There are currently two different, in fact markedly opposite, approaches the US is currently considering. One involves a direct dialogue with the Taliban and other involves a replacement of regular US troops with a mercenary army of the notorious Balckwater agency.

While dialogue with the Taliban does not seem to have gained much traction as the latest Taliban attacks on the city of Ghazni show, reports in the western media suggest that the US president might consider privatizing the war in Afghanistan, a step that would certainly make the war a lot cheaper, but a lot deadlier at the same time.

While such a decision would certainly imply that the US did not learn—yet again—the lesson of withdrawing from Afghanistan and prepare a strategy of exit, this would also mean that other countries, particularly Russia, would speedily their own efforts of initiating a peace process in Afghanistan that would also involve the Taliban as a political forces and a direct stake holder.

The Taliban have already confirmed that they would participate in the up-coming round of talks in Russia, showing their willingness to accept Russia as a potential interlocutor.

Here, in this development, is another lesson that the US hasn’t learned. Only this one is not from Afghanistan; it is from Syria, where Russian intervention on the request of Syrian president led ultimately to turning the tide in favor of Assad, which in turn forced the US not only out of the equation but also made Russia the lead supervisor of peace processes.

An increasing Russian involvement in Afghanistan therefore might very well repeat the Syrian story for the US unless, of course, the US can come round to the necessity of coming out of Afghanistan.

Plans being currently considered and debated, including the plan to privatize the war, in Washington indicate that the US has nothing different and effective to offer to salvage itself out of Afghanistan.

On the contrary, if history is any guide and Blackwater’s history in Iraq is to be taken as an example, war in Afghanistan will take an ugly turn, making it a lot morebrutal and deadly.

That this will make life a lot more difficult for the Afghan regime is not hard to assess. And that this will give the Taliban and their regional supporters a leverage to develop a peace formula to the exclusion of the US is not hard to discern either.

The question, therefore, is: will the US learn this lesson, and when if at all? The sooner it does, the better.