The Financial Express

The elusion of peace in Afghanistan

-Reuters file photo -Reuters file photo

President Biden told a group of reporters on Thursday, July 8 that the fall of the Kabul government is not inevitable as is commonly feared and reconfirmed that "he would not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome". He drew satisfaction that American objectives in Afghanistan have been achieved. Biden, however, did not outline the objectives of the United States for which thousands of American soldiers fought for 20 years, more than 2,400 soldiers made supreme sacrifices and thousands embraced life-long injuries. Tens of thousands of Afghan security forces have also been killed along with about 47,000 civilians. Biden reiterated the commitment for continued economic assistance to the people of Afghanistan in coming months, may be years. He emphasised "It's up to the Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country."

The United States leaderships have the record of launching wars without exit strategy and very often with objectives undefined. Consequently, the wars continued for years and both political and military leaderships, at different stages, desperately sought to end the conflicts and brought the soldiers home. In the process, they made counterintuitive decisions - lost the battles and brought the army home wounded and humiliated. The Vietnam War is an apotheosis.

In the early 1960s, the United States incrementally got involved in the Vietnam war. It persuaded Australia, Philippines, Thailand and South Korea to join American troops to contain communism. As the war prolonged, the allied forces poignantly realised that the war was not winnable. The people at home demanded withdrawal of troops from the battleground. Their governments obliged leaving the United States alone to fight communism in Vietnam. President Lyndon Jonson could not stomach a defeat; so he dispatched more and more troops. As the casualties mounted, people came out on the streets demanding immediate end of the war. His successor Richard Nixon came to power with a solemn commitment to bring the war to an end. But he dragged on in the name of holding peace talks to evolve an honorable exit. In the meantime, 54,000 American troops died in the battlefields. A soldier wrote to his wife that he got shot in the leg when the peace negotiators in Paris were discussing about the shape of the negotiation table.

In mid-1985, I was in PhnomPenh, Cambodia when the Indo-Chinese countries (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) were celebrating the tenth anniversary of the victory against the United States. Many journalists travelled to the region to capture the events of the anniversary. One of the journalists was from the Guardian who had the opportunity to interview General Westmoreland in 1968 in Saigon. While the interview was underway, and Westmoreland was claiming that the Vietcong guerrillas were in retreat, a rocket flew over his head and landed a few meters away. The interview came to a halt. In April 1975, Saigon fell and Vietnam got reunited. Americans working with NGOs in Cambodia would tell me that successive Presidents lied to the people of the United States about the situation on the ground. Consequently, thousands died and many more suffered grave injuries. They maintained the Vietnam war was unjust, unwarranted and devastating.

I was a witness to American invasion to Iraq in March 2003. Only a few days prior to invasion, I along with my colleagues were evacuated to Larnaca, Cyprus where a work-station was set up for us. We were tasked to prepare Iraq re-entry plan, Iraq reconstruction plan, Iraq unification Plan encompassing the Kurdish regions in the North etc. The invasion was orchestrated on totally false premise. The inspectors from the International Atomic and Energy Agency and UN Monitoring Inspection and Verification Commission were on intense search for "weapons of mass destruction" all over Iraq but found no evidence of banned items. In the last week of December 2002, Dr. Sayed Hassan Massawi, the Director General in Iraq's Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefed us that the UN Inspectors had unfettered access to warehouses and sites all over the country and questioned Washington's rationale of war preparedness. The ill-equipped Iraqi army put up strong resistance to the invading force in southern Iraq but retreated in the face of America's superior fire powers. The American army reached Baghdad within a week, Saddam regime fell apart and mayhem erupted.

Paul Bremmer was appointed as head of the Provisional Government in Iraq. There was no post-war plan. Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, instructed his officials to prepare a plan for occupation but precluded the participation of the State Department officials. The American honeymoon in Iraq did not last long. There were signs of unrest in different parts in the country. The UN personnel, vehicles, offices came under attacks despite our restricted movements. The government officials were never in sight - the bureaucracy was transmogrified; the top officials were either discharged or downgraded, and mid-level officials were entrusted to lead the departments. Consequently, there was a vacuum - the administration was dysfunctional.

One morning we came to know that 90,000 Food Agents responsible for delivering food rations to 26 million people have been decommissioned. We reached our counterparts in the Ministry of Trade but were redirected to a member in the provisional government. The member was a widow of the American Ambassador in Pakistan who died in a plane crash along with President Zia ul Huq in Bahawalpur in 1989. She mentioned that selection of new Food Agents was underway but could not give any time frame. We mentioned that decommissioning Food Agents would disrupt supply of essential food items to millions and as a corollary a severe food crisis was inevitable. It took a few days for the American administration to reinstate the "Saddam loyalists food agents". Only a few days earlier, the Iraqi army which was already disarmed, was discharged, making the situation infallible for insurgency.

By July 2003, the insurgency gained sufficient strength and started hitting the targets. Iraqis inducted in the administration were gunned down one by one. In August, the United Nations building housing the Special envoy of the Secretary General and other offices including WFP was hit by a powerful explosion killing 22 officials including the Special Envoy. This marked the beginning of armed insurgency that lasted for several years. The rest is well known to our readers.

Since the invasion, there have been "inductions, de-inductions and inductions" of troops, but Iraq remains far from being stable. Iran's political influence over Iraq is now overwhelming. The battle in Mesopotamia took the lives of over 4,500 American soldiers, more than 30,000 suffered grave injuries and cost about $600 billion. About half a million Iraqis were killed and infrastructure worth billions in dollars were destroyed.

The humiliating defeat in Vietnam and chaotic exit from Iraq are still fresh in the memories of political leaders, military experts and strategists. They are deeply concerned that the Afghan security forces would not have the strength and intelligence backup to confront the Taliban. There are reports of Afghan troops deserting their positions leaving the weapons behind. General Austin Scott Miller, the top military commander in Afghanistan expressed concern that the country could slide into civil war. He warned the country could face "very hard times" and predicted that Taliban would take over in six months' time. Since the administration did not pay heed to his circumspection General Miller stepped down on July 12.

Biden admitted that Taliban is now strongest since 2001 but felt that the Afghan army is better trained and better equipped. He instructed Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chief Negotiator Zelmy Khalilzad to hypercharge diplomacy with Afghanistan to advance a political settlement with Taliban. Reportedly 80 per cent of 419 districts have already fallen to Taliban, two highways leading to Kabul has been occupied by Taliban.

Exiting Afghanistan has been a bi-partisan decision in the United States. Barak Obama, Donald Trump reduced troops level with the intention to make full withdrawal but at the end refrained from making complete withdrawal. Biden followed his predecessors and decided to withdraw the army with lock, stock and barrel by September 11, 2021. The decision is not totally unexpected - no country would like to remain engaged in an unending war. But critics argue that a comprehensive, sustainable and mutually agreed exit strategy could have been worked out well ahead ensuring orderly transfer of responsibility to Afghan political and military leaderships.

The Afghan leaders cannot absolve their responsibility. They miserably failed to build national consensus on good governance, rule of law and sharing of power among different ethnic groups. Instead, they remained engaged in fighting against each other, allowed corruption to thrive and alienated the people. They took foreign military and economic assistance for granted. They allowed two decades to atrophy.

Biden's decision to leave Afghanistan is consequential. This will affect not only Afghanistan; the entire region will undergo a wave of chaos, instability and proliferation of weapons. The neighbouring countries who in the past had hosted millions of Afghan refugees warn the takeover by the Taliban is a reality and a brutal retaliation against the collaborators with the American troops and Kabul administration is very likely. Taliban would most probably preclude woman's employment and girls' education. Afghanistan will march backward dismantling the progress achieved assiduously in the past 20 years.


Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.

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