Much has been claimed about the generosity of the United States in rebuilding Afghanistan. It is undeniable that the United States invested $2 trillion and thousands of its soldiers made supreme sacrifice in setting up new infrastructure and defending democracy in Afghanistan. Schools. colleges and universities were built, roads and bridges were upgraded. Hospitals were renovated and equipped with well-trained medical staff and appliances. Financial institutions including commercial banks came into existence for the first time in 50 years. Private air-lines came into service ferrying passengers to different provincial capitals. Kabul airport was reconstructed enabling international flights to operate from Karzai International airport. Private investment in the real estate transformed the urban areas into modern cities with improved water supply and sewerage system. Electricity became affordable to general population. Highways connected major cities and luxury coaches were in service to transport population to different destinations in the country. Afghanistan joined the International Capital Markets. International Monetary Fund and the World Bank provided loans and grants to sustain economic development and to facilitate uplifting the vast rural population suffering from abject poverty. Thousands of Afghans educated and settled in the United States, Canada and Europe returned home and participated in nation building.
These were no perfunctory achievements. All these happened in just twenty years. The United States, the international community and the people of Afghanistan can boast for these accomplishments. When people started to reap the benefits of peace and development, unfortunately the process came to an abrupt halt. What went wrong and how the insurgency regained access to rural population? The recent carnage at the Kabul airport have brought these questions to the forefront of discussions and people need to know the underlying reasons. Who should bear the ultimate responsibility of this debacle?
In January 2002, President George Bush secured the acquiescence of the Congress to invade Afghanistan. Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden who was residing in Afghanistan, was accused of orchestrating the attack on the Twin Tower in New York on September 11, 2001. Though no intangible evidence on Osama's complicity was made public, the Bush administration mobilsed large number countries on its side and launched military offensives against Afghanistan. Month-long intense air strikes on suspected Taliban hideouts melted their resistance and forced them to retreat in inaccessible terrains. By March 2002, Afghanistan fell to the invading army. The United Nations assembled anti-Taliban leaders in Germany who after protracted negotiation selected Abdul Hamid Karzai to take the leadership of the civilian government in Kabul. Karzai with the help of the United States and the United Nations was able to install civilian government in all regions. In the process, many former War Lords resurfaced and much to the dismay of the people, ascended to power.
The War Lords thrived on ethnic divisions and tribal bonds, cared little for the wellbeing of the population and harbored status-quo in the society. Conservatism, inter-tribal animosity and lack of educational opportunities in the countryside promoted loyalty to the war lords. Nevertheless, the people welcomed the invasion in the hope that the tyranny of the War Lords would be replaced by social justice. The resurgence of the War Lords in the post-invasion era marked the beginning of the alienation of the population. Bush administration had the lone objective to dislodge the Taliban. Once Taliban was removed and a civilian government was installed in Kabul and in the regions, the American government reached a comatose. It had no well-defined strategy. In the absence of a plan, the United States seemed contended in allowing the government in Kabul to function on adjunct basis. The State Department or the Department of Defence did not know how long to remain engaged in Afghanistan. The NGOs took the lead in implementing myriad socio-economic programmes which attracted youth and women. Schools resumed functioning, traders resorted to smuggling merchandise from neighbouring countries and shops reopened.
A semblance of normalcy returned. The inability of Taliban to strike back created an impression among the policymakers in Washington that the insurgency had been incapacitated. In mid-2002, Bush turned his attention to Iraq. His advisors discovered that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (which was subsequently proved to be totally unfounded) and the military began preparation for Iraq invasion.
The Iraq invasion consumed considerable time and attention of the Bush administration. The international community was bitterly divided. France and Germany vehemently opposed the invasion and strongly advocated the United Nations inspectors to be granted more time. The Security Council did not approve the invasion, but the US and the UK remained defiant. The shift of attention to Iraq led to transfer of troops and hardware from Afghanistan. The Afghan army was still under formation and lacked adequate ammunitions. Washington being preoccupied with Iraq relaxed its monitoring of the utilisation of funds provided to Afghanistan. The civil administration in Afghanistan devoid of trained bureaucracy to put in place accountability mechanism resulted in the diversion of funds to ill-planned and ill-executed projects. The corruption gradually engulfed almost all sectors of the economy. The United States observed the monstrous growth of corruption but failed to put pressure on the Afghan government to correct the situation.
The Afghan army was reorganised from the scratch. The recruitment, raining and arming were conducted by the American army. As the focus of the administration shifted to Iraq, the Pentagon allowed Afghanisation of the army earlier than required. Consequently, the Afghan army did not achieve the level of discipline, training and motivation expected from a professional combat force. The Afghan Police was no different. As the leaderships of the security forces passed on to Kabul government, the virus of corruption infested the security forces as well. BBC in its very recent disclosure revealed that the Afghan security forces had no more than 65,000 soldiers while about 300,000 combat troops were on government's pay-roll. With the depletion of US troops and absence of American intelligence and air coverage, the Afghan army could not put up strong resistance to Taliban's assaults. Biden's characterisation of the Afghan army as better trained, well- armed and outnumbered Taliban was an overstatement. Had the US military continued strict surveillance over the Afghan army for a few more years, it would have emerged as one of the strongest combat forces in the region.
Political system did not seem to have received public endorsement. Though Hamid Karzai was the re-elected president in 2006 and his successor Ashraf Ghani was elected and reelected as president, electoral outcome was far from being conclusive. Stalemates persisted following every presidential elections and settlements were reached at the mediation by the United States.
The resurgence of the war lords, inter-tribal animosity, corruption and failure of political system to win public confidence made space for the Taliban to regroup, redraft and consolidate its position, especially in the Pashtun community predominant in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan.
President Obama attempted twice to draw down the troops from Afghanistan. Given the unstable situation in Iraq and intelligence report confirming the resurgence of the Taliban in the rural areas he decided to leave around 25,000 troops. But the objectives of the deployment were limited to training, sharing of intelligence reports and supporting airstrikes on enemy sites. Trump downsized the troops at around 3,500 but kept the mission's terms of deployment unchanged. In addition, NATO had around 8,500 troops with identical terms of reference. The reduced level of foreign troops did not halt the outlying areas falling to the Taliban but retained the urban areas under the control of the Afghan security forces.
Long-term deployment of foreign troops on foreign soil runs the risk of being viewed as occupation army and in Afghanistan this perception grew rapidly. What became perplexing was Biden's abrupt decision taken in April without much home work. The State Department could not process the visa for thousands of Afghans who had worked with the American army in different capacities and promised of safe passage overseas. They scrambled at Kabul airport to escape Taliban's rage.
In Afghanistan, apart from the United States, there are other stake-holders and they are the European countries, NATO, neighbouring countries of Afghanistan especially Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan, the United Nations and the Afghan government. The State Department and the Department of Defence should have been entrusted to prepare the "pull out plan" in consultation with the stakeholders addressing the border control, proliferation of weapons to the Taliban, influx of refugees, displacement of population and a coalition government in Kabul. The exit strategy prepared in consultation with the stakeholders would have taken a longer period beyond Biden's arbitrary date of August 31, 2021; but it would have paved the way for peaceful transfer of power, orderly evacuation of thousands of Afghans who collaborated with the American army and safe exit of American troops. The catastrophe that has taken so many lives at Kabul airport could have been averted.
In 2002, Taliban Chief Molla Omar fled to the terrains of the Hindukush. Twenty years later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled to United Arab Emirates. Both "take-over and hand-over" took place at gun points.
The evacuation has been completed on August 31 as pledged by Biden. Taliban celebrated the new-found independence with gunfire at mid-night. Afghanistan began its troubled journey at the dawn of September 1, 2021.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.