After a 20 year long war and nearly 2,300 body bags, the United States of America keeps its record of losing all wars intact. Joe Biden has reversed all Trump decisions be it Mexican wall or transgender in US Military but Trump’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan has been followed by omitting the most important Trump clause, which is US will withdraw only if Taliban meets the stipulated conditions. As of now Taliban has not only rejected the offer but also has declined to join the conference in Turkey. What an irony!
By ceasing war related activity in Afghanistan after two decades is the USA opening a window of yet another proxy war? Trump’s National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H R McMaster had this to say about US strategy on fighting other’s wars; “We have a perfect record in predicting future wars — right? … And that record is zero percent.”
How very true? Finally a direct admission of incompetence of US leadership in deciding to intervene outside the US mainland. Collective incompetence of the US administration can be gauged from the fact that four successive US presidents could not bring a closure to the Vietnam war. Afghanistan was no better.
Author of a book titled ‘Burn After Reading’ has this to say; It goes like this. A Central Intelligence a supervisor asks his underling, "What did we learn, Palmer?" Palmer replies, "I don't know, sir." The supervisor says, "I don't f***ing know either. I guess we learned not to do it again." He then adds, "I'm f***ed if I know what we did." "Yes, sir," Palmer replies. "It's hard to say."
Obama, the supposedly peacenik President of the United States, achieved the unique distinction of positioning more than 1,00,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, which reduced to less than 3,000 when Joe Biden moved into white house. Hence what withdrawal is Joe Biden talking about? The US Military has already withdrawn from Afghanistan nearly a year back.
US presidential debates between Trump and Biden were conspicuous due to absence of any mention of Afghanistan. If Joe Biden was so very concerned about the US Military presence in Afghanistan, he ought to have made it a prime issue but he did not.
Joe Biden is the most experienced POTUS yet in as far as his exposure to statecraft is considered. He has been a senator for 36 years and VPOTUS for eight years totaling 44 years of experience/exposure in the diplomatic domain. Contrast it with JFK, who was 43 years old when assassinated after three years as POTUS.
Pulling out US troops might be a popular political decision. But would it be a sane military decision given the prevailing geo-strategic scenario? Cornerstone of US policy on Afghanistan ever since Soviet invasion has been preventing escalation of terror activities of Taliban as well as ensuring that communism does not grow its roots in Afghanistan. Escalation of war by Obama gained nothing. Afghan security forces are still vulnerable without support of the US military and are likely to buckle under Taliban onslaught sooner than later.
The US had a window of opportunity to pull out of Afghanistan gracefully. That was after the killing of Bin Laden. The US Military could have rightly claimed accomplishment of national aim and exited Afghanistan as a victorious force, at least for once.
A mention of the cost of Afghan war to the US treasury is a must. Estimates range from over two Trillion to at least USD one Trillion, nearly 2,300 body bags (number of maimed for life not known) and yet another lost war. In October, 2001 when US Military descended in Afghanistan, eminent military strategists had termed it to be a US operation lasting a few months to few years. It stretched on for two decades.
Current state of Afghan government in terms of its control over Afghanistan makes for interesting and frightening reading. According to the Long War Journal (a project of the US-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) the current state of Afghanistan is;
- Afghanistan is subdivided in 325 districts.
- Taliban are in total control of nearly 80 districts (24%)
- Government forces control about 125 districts (40%)
- Remaining 120 districts (36%) are contested.
According to a report submitted by the Council of Foreign Relations, the Taliban are stronger now than at any point since 2001, when US forces invaded Afghanistan. Main players watching Afghan crisis are Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China. Turkey is the latest entrant into the club. Where or how do we see our role? Will it or rather should it continue to be that of an observer? No clear cut answers can be provided.
Indian view in the US sponsored talks between the Taliban and Afghan government during the Trump era was at best muted. Current US administration has recognized India’s role in bringing peace in Afghanistan because we are a regional stakeholder. But this might be of little or no relevance when viewed in the context of power play in Afghanistan.
Pak ISI promoted Haqqani group has very strong connections and bonding with Talibans. Hopefully India’s decision makers will not forget the IC-814 episode and role of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Both these organizations are extremely active and have relocated to safer pastures of Afghanistan.
The moot point is; “Should Indian ‘BOOTS’ mark their presence in Afghanistan under a UN Peace Keeping force set up, if and when it fructifies' '? Should India propose placing unarmed UN PeaceKeepers in Afghanistan? Or should India join a combined task force?
Indo-Afghan relations have remained stable but have not reached a point of trust wherein Indian Military has been invited to resurrect Afghanistan. We remain in a state of strategic ambivalence. Will a unilateral offer from India be an option? Perhaps ‘yes’. It is about time that we consider moving into Afghanistan, if invited by Afghan government. Taliban will remain an issue as long as Pakistan is around.
India has already made significant contributions towards development of Afghanistan infrastructure. Nearly 400 small/big projects are currently under various stages of development for which the Govt of India has invested more than USD 3 Billion. However our supposed leverage of economic assistance in the form of numerous development projects might not be an attractive proposition for Talibans. Opium sales of Talibans are growing by the day given the demand in the international market, US in particular, hence Indian ‘dole’ may not be of relevance to fundamentalist Taliban.
Muted Celebration in Pakistan
Pak administration was instrumental in persuading Talibans to have a dialogue with the Trump administration. Taliban is still headquartered at Quetta. Pakistan will be smiling from ear to ear if Talibans take control of Afghanistan because Pak considers Afghanistan in terms of ‘strategic depth’ wrt its ongoing hostility with India.
Pak has openly despised India’s excellent relations with Karzai and Ghani governments. However US withdrawal may result in chaos in the backyard of Pakistan, both on social as well as military front. Talibans have now started to demonstrate independence from Pak support.
A carnage by fundamentalist Taliban cannot be ruled out, which might result in mass exodus of Afghans into Pakistan, a situation Pakistan cannot handle both on account of social unrest that would be caused as well as flailing Pak economy surviving on IMF dole unable to absorb the extra load.
Pakistan is currently faced with a situation due to emergence of Tehreek Labaik Pakistan headed by Saad Rizvi, who has been able to force Imran Khan not only to release him but also accede to TLP’s insane demands of expulsion of French ambassador. It is another matter that for the time being TLPis banned organization.
TLP’s linkage with Taliban, though not yet in public domain, is a near certainty keeping in view their common agenda. ISI would have already initiated more intense dialogue with Talibans about the post US withdrawal situation. The US even today finds itself in turbulent waters while dealing with Islamabad Generals.
China might be the biggest loser if Talibans take control in Afghanistan. Firstly on account of Talibans challenging China on the issue of treatment of Uyghurs in China and secondly on account of China’s ambitious project of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) might be threatened. Pakistan is neither capable of challenging the Taliban militarily nor would it like to become party to the destruction of Frankenstein monster created by itself.
However there is a silver lining as well; as a confirmed Pak ally China might extend the ‘financial’ olive branch to Taliban and seek a bigger role in controlling Afghan affairs. China has long term interests in Afghanistan exclusively towards obtaining mining contracts/rights in Afghanistan.
Russians must be celebrating the US withdrawal proposal with the best Vodka. Defeat at the hands of US backed Mujahideen remains a thorn in the flesh of Russia-US relations. A radical change that has altered the military equation in this region is growing Russia-Pak bonhomie. Recent visit of Russian Defence Minister is a clear indication of developing relations, enabling back door entry of Russia in Afghanistan. It is a full circle for Russia and a possible role in future.
Geography defines Iran’s interest in Afghan affairs. Iran has land borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iranian links to Hazras of Afghanistan is a significant factor. Although in the past Iran was hostile to Talibans but due to changing equations in recent times Iran has opened contact channels with Taliban by inviting them to Teheran for a ‘cultural’ meeting.
Fundamentalist approach of the Taliban will force Afghan people to embrace the dark ages. As was quite evident from the Taliban's outburst after a conference in March’21. The four principles China, Pakistan, Russia and USA were categorical in their assertion that they did not support establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Recent emergence of yet another Terror organization in Pakistan known as Tehreeke Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and it's ‘to be confirmed’ links with Taliban is likely to fuel fundamentalism not only in Pakistan but also Afghanistan. In fact TLP has created considerable disturbance within Pakistan and has been banned.
For any organization to be able to run a parallel government, funding is an absolute necessity. Mullah Yaqoob son of late Taliban leader Mullah Omar confessed that during the past 12 months (April 20-March 21) Taliban generated/received funds to the tune of around USD 1.6 Billion. In brief Taliban Funding from various sources is as follows (source- Economic policy analyst at Centre for Afghan Studies);
- Drugs. About USD 400 Million
- Mining. About USD 450 Million
- Extortion. and Taxes. About USD 150 Million
- Exports. About USD 250 Million
- Real Estate. About USD 80 Million
- Charity. About USD 250 Million.
Turkey is the new entrant in ‘helping’ to resolve issues between Afghan government and Taliban. An earlier scheduled peace talk from 24th April to 4th May has been postponed. This conference was aimed at arriving at the ‘foundational principles of future Afghan political order’. With the impending US exit Taliban may, rather, not be interested in holding any dialogue with the current Afghan government. Unconfirmed report has mentioned that the talks have been cancelled (not postponed) due to non participation of Talibans.
A word about weapons being acquired and used by Talibans. The US administration would be in a better position to offer details of weapons being used by Talibans. Massive supply of weapons through Pakistan to the Mujahedins fighting Russians still fills Taliban armoury. With slush funds and direct support from Pakistan ISI, Talibans are possibly better equipped than the present Afghan military.
Magnitude of Logistics: Cost of US Withdrawal
US Military presence peaked to nearly 1,00,000 in Afghanistan. Huge infrastructure was created to support the troops administratively. Demolishing/dismantling the infrastructure will be a monumental task, more intense and enormous effort.
It would be a logistical nightmare for the US Transport fleet to transport it either to US or neighbourhood. Pakistan will be eagerly looking at acquiring huge numbers of military support equipment. The US taxpayer has already spent at least USD one trillion in the unfinished fight to rid Afghanistan of Talibans. Transportation costs during withdrawal might be hundreds of billions of USD.
US Contribution to Afghan Peace
When the US military flew into Afghanistan in October, 2001, Talibans as an organized militia were much weaker than when US plans to move out of Afghanistan on 11th September, 2020. While the symbolism of the formal date of departure might be of historical significance, its relevance in strategic domain is inconsequential.
9/11 will haunt future US decision makers not only as the day of most violent terror strike anywhere in the world but also serve as a reminder of yet another insane strategic decision of pulling out of Afghanistan leaving it in hands of a much stronger Taliban. Joe Biden’s emotional decision to pull out of Afghanistan might be worse than US intervention in Vietnam. Timing to move out is just not right. Few top US Generals have already expressed their disagreement albeit discreetly.
By pulling out from Afghanistan US will by default become the main contributor towards the inevitable from happening; Afghanistan will be reeling under Taliban control sooner than later. Hopefully in the next four months the current US administration will ponder over the hurried emotional decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. US intervention in Afghanistan was to take revenge for the 9/11 terror strike. The US could have done it without physically descending in Afghan territory. In fact Osama Bin Laden’s elimination had very little to do with the US military in Afghanistan. It was a stand alone operation.
As stated earlier, the current US decision to withdraw unconditionally will be a boost to Talibans autocratic and fundamentalist outlook. Talibans have retracted from their earlier stand, why then should the US accept unconditional withdrawal?
Joe Biden’s unilateral withdrawal decision has been adversely commented on by former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. He opined that the US should have maintained its presence with a smaller contingent.
Military personnel are akin to a hammer. To them every problem/situation is like a nail. I am no exception. Hence the prognosis made will be heavily tilted towards military options/consequences. Following is likely;
- Escalation of civil war is nearly certain.
- Taliban’s will, almost certainly interfere with US/North Atlantic Treaty Organisation withdrawal. Shooting down transport aircraft will be high on their agenda. The US would know how many sidewinders Talibans might have because it was the US, which provided an unspecified number of arms through Pakistan to Mujahedins to fight Russians.
- Pakistan will emerge as the ultimate winner having seen two superpowers bite the dust in Afghanistan.
- Both factions of Taliban, the Pak faction as well as Afghan faction will emerge more powerful. Pak Talibans will definitely up the ante against Indian interests. Afghan Taliban will almost certainly target Indians working in Afghanistan.
- Pakistan’s increasing bonhomie with China and recent US actions of ignoring Pakistan will be detrimental to Indian interests in the long term.
- The Biden administration might review deployment of US military in Iraq, Kuwait and even Saudi Arab.
- NATO forces have suffered heavy casualties, Canada in particular. The US may or may not agree but NATO nations view US intervention in Afghanistan as a failure. It will cast a shadow on future US/NATO force deployment elsewhere.
- Quick troop withdrawal invariably leaves a vacuum and leads to violence. Afghanistan is likely to be no different.
- US and NATO troops out of the Afghan landscape, Talibans will do as they like knowing fully well that Afghan military is no match for their guerrilla tactics.
- US intervention in Afghanistan will not end on 9/11/2020 in spite of the US Military moving out (if at all) from Afghanistan. Long range drone strikes will remain an option.
- And finally the Biden administration’s ill timed and unwarranted decision to pull out American Boots from Afghanistan will almost certainly result in erasing the only accomplishment the US military achieved in Afghanistan. Women were allowed to roam the streets and go to school. A look at Taliban control Afghanistan will tell the story.
Sad but true; Joe Biden personally thinks nothing of the anarchy that might, rather would follow after 9/11 of 2020. It is evident from his answer to a journalist quoted below;
“On Face the Nation in February, Margaret Brennan asked President Biden: “don’t you bear some responsibility for the outcome if the Taliban ends up back in control and women end up losing the rights?” Biden’s response was that he bore “zero” responsibility. Regardless of his view on that matter, we should not ignore the plight or likely fate of millions of Afghan women if we pull out abruptly.”
The most experienced POTUS in the history of the USA will be credited with the most naïve strategic decision. The US will still continue to gather intelligence on Afghanistan using surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
About the Author
Gp Capt. Tej Prakash Srivastava has served in Iraq and is a graduate of both DSSC and AWC. He was Directing Staff at DSSC and Chief Instructor at College of Air Warfare. He Served at Air HQ, commanded a MiG-21 Sqn and headed the IAF establishment of Strike Corps during 'Operation Parakram'. He has authored a book titled 'Profligate Governance – Implications for National Security'. He has written extensively on international and strategic affairs and Defence Procurement Procedures. The IAF officer graduated from the NDA in June 1970 and trained at AFA with 107th Pilots Course. He can be reached at Email: [email protected]