Trump finally plunges into Afghan quicksand

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury | Published: September 10, 2017 22:29:43 | Updated: October 23, 2017 07:09:41

President Trump, after much oscillation, decided on August 21 to send more troops in Afghanistan. In a speech before military personnel he said, "My original instinct was to pull out - and historically, I like my instincts. But all of life, I have heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office".



For years Trump denounced the war in Afghanistan and asked when the troops would return home. In 2015, during the election campaign, he called Afghanistan invasion a mistake and added "it's time to get out and Afghanistan is a total disaster." Now Trump has seen the reality and despite the "total disaster in Afghanistan", he approved dispatching more troops to the hills of Afghanistan.



But Trump is not the first Commander-in-Chief to make a reversal of the pledge repeatedly announced in the pre-election rallies. President Obama made a solemn pledge to end the 'unjust wars' in Iraq and Afghanistan. He reduced troops in Iraq and finally shut down the barracks in Iraq in 2014. But in a shift to his declared policy to terminate war in Afghanistan, Obama decided in December 2009 to increase the number of troop by 30,000 at the advice of the military leadership. The Generals realised that a reduction of troops and ultimate withdrawal would enable the Taliban to regroup. Policy makers echoed the concerns of the Generals and advised Obama to reverse his policy to withdraw from Afghanistan. Obama announced increasing the force   with a heavy heart and hoped that this would "end the war successfully". He acknowledged that his decision could lead to more deaths of American troops. He told the cadets at the West Point Military Academy in New York, "I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those deployed….I have travelled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of soldiers returning to their final resting place. I see firsthand the terrible wages of war."



WHY DID THE USA INVADE AFGHANISTAN? The question is why did the United States invade Afghanistan? The United States and its European allies have seen how the Soviet Union paid a heavy price for its ill-advised Afghan invasion. Thousands of Soviet troops were killed and Moscow, after eight years of war, was desperately looking for an opportunity to exit from Afghanistan. The United Nations mediated peace plan opened the gates for Soviet exit.



Washington and its allies believed that Osman Bin-laden orchestrated the 9/11 attacks on the soil of the United States. Osama was a friend of the Taliban and was enjoying the hospitality of the radical outfit. Washington demanded Osama to be extradited to the United States. President Musharraf of Pakistan weighed heavily on the Taliban in favour of the US demand. But the Taliban refused. Consequently, the United States invaded Afghanistan. Taliban could not withstand the heavy bombardments and dispersed into the deep mountains. Kabul fell and an administration brokered by the United Nations came to power. King Zaher Shah returned from exile and Hamid Karzai became the President of Afghanistan. Refugees from Iran and Pakistan began returning homes amid hope of peace and reconciliation in a society that has not witnessed peace for decades.



AN UNFINISHED AGENDA: Hardly had the situation become stable, the United States turned its attention to Iraq. It had an unfinished agenda and looked for an opportunity to invade Iraq, remove Saddam Hussein and establish a foothold in the Arab world.



Iraq was under UN sanction since 1991 and had very little leeway to rearm its army or seek weapons of mass destruction. IAEA (International Atomic and Energy Agency) and UNMOVIC (United Nations Monitoring, Verifications and Inspection Commission) were engaged in regular inspection of defence installations and did not ever declare that Saddam regime had acquired weapons of mass destruction. The United States in concert with Britain trumped up charges against Baghdad and decided to invade Iraq. France and Germany opposed - the international community got divided. But the US remained recalcitrant and invaded Iraq in March 2002. The Secretary General of the Arab League condemned the invasion and warned "It will open the gates of hell".



WAR LORDS STAGE A RETURN: The shift of attention and the military hardwares from Afghanistan eased the surveillance needed on the hostile elements. The flow of economic assistance for the repair of infrastructure was not accompanied by adequate monitoring and resulted in the spread of corruption in the elites of the society. Construction of a gas station in northern region cost US$ 41 million speaks volumes about corruption and lack of scrutiny in the utilisation of development fund. The former war lords returned with their cohorts and tribal administration in defiance of "government administration" revived. Under this unravelling environment, the Taliban penetrated into the society. Political bickering and absence of consensus on the system of governance mired Kabul into inactivity. The diminishing US support and lack of good governance distracted the government security forces so much that Vice President Haji Quader was assassinated at the gate of his office.



Now after sixteen years of war, about half of Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. The NATO combat forces and the US army failed to check the advance of the Taliban. The painful realisation that Taliban retains the strength to retake Kabul and undo all the gains the country has made in the past sixteen years prompted the Trump administration to reengage in a meaningful way to consolidate the country to move forward.



TRUMP'S RE-ENGAGEMENT PLAN: Pentagon has been pushing for more troops and it is expected that another 4,000 will augment 8,500 American troops alongside 5,000 NATO soldiers. By deploying more troops, the United States and the NATO allies will be able to chart a way forward well into the 2020s when the Afghan Air Force will be self-sufficient and capable of confronting the Taliban. Trump has, however, cautioned that "our commitment is not unlimited and our support is not blank cheque. The Afghan government must carry their share of military, political and economic burden." Since over 100,000 well-armed troops in the past sixteen years could not expel the Taliban, a few thousands will not achieve the un-achievable. The troops surge would run the risk of dragging the United States back into a conflict that resulted in the death of over 2,400 American soldiers.



Trump's re-engagement plan is built on the premises of winning the war in the battlefield. It talks about training the Afghan army, building the air force, providing the military with improved weapons.



The plan is devoid of a political strategy. The fact that the war has been fought for a prolonged period with no victory in sight reconfirms that the Afghan crisis cannot be resolved by military means alone - it has to be complemented by a political dialogue. Britain could not destroy the IRA or Shim Fein; the crisis in Northern Ireland was settled through political dialogue.



Trump administration should not lose sight of the geography of the region. Afghanistan has neighbours like Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China. Washington has hostile relations with almost all of them. The people of Iran and Pakistan have deep and irrevocable relations with the people of Afghanistan. No political settlement in Afghanistan is conceivable without full cooperation of the governments of neighbouring countries.



Pakistan has long been accused of meddling in Afghanistan. It is undeniable that a section of the population in Pakistan is sympathetic to Taliban due to ethnic and religious affinity. But this does not stop here - even in the administration, military and in the police force Taliban has the support. Given Islamabad's long and bitter relationship with New Delhi, it cannot be expected that Pakistan will allow India to have a foothold in Afghanistan. These are the reality and Washington should take this into account. Defence Secretary's threat to withhold $50 million military aid would not dissuade Pakistan to reverse its long drawn policy towards India and Taliban.



The writer is a former official of the United Nations.



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