In summer 2010, I met a handsome young man at a social event in the suburb of Washington DC. He was accompanied by his wife and a beautiful daughter. He said that he had returned from Iraq after serving one term in the military and was looking forward to another term of deployment. When I told him that I had served in Iraq for two years and my assignment began prior to the US-led invasion, he was curious to know what I was doing there. I replied I was involved in humanitarian assistance programme under the Oil for Food programme. He narrated a few encounters he had with the enemy, and I noticed his voice raging in fury as he spoke. He seemed to believe that he could bulldoze his way out. I realised he was being methodically trained to hate enemies so that he could be okay with killing them. I never met him again. After two years, I came to know that he was divorced, had no family and was living in isolation. What then started to haunt me was the realisation that war is complicated - there is no easy "way in", and the "way out" is fraught with greater difficulties.
George Walker Bush, for no valid reason, had orchestrated a dangerous war plan and invaded Iraq in 2003. The entire nation was overwhelmed at the destruction of the Twin-Tower in September 2001. This was the first time the enemy was able to strike a target on the main land in the United States. The Congress was disillusioned, the intelligence agencies never comprehended that an attack on the soil of the United States was possible. At that time, the Congress bestowed unconditional authority on the president to take military action against the enemy. Only a handful of Senators and Congressmen opposed the resolution out of concern that the president might abuse the war resolution and drag the nation to an unjust war - like the one in Vietnam 55 years ago.
Afghanistan was attacked. Following weeks of heavy bombardment Taliban fighters and leaderships escaped to the mountains. The severity of aerial attacks on the Tora Bora Mountains convinced the military experts that Osama Bin Laden was killed. American troops landed in Kabul, Jalalabad, Gazni, Herat and other major cities. A civilian administration took the reign in Kabul. Normalcy started to return, and Afghan refugees began to return homes. The war lords reiterated loyalty to the new government in Kabul.
Rehabilitation of infrastructure began with international funding. Schools reopened and girls after decades of being denied education joined schools. Women started working in shops, restaurants and offices. Professional Afghan men and women came back to Afghanistan from the US, Canada and Europe to participate in the nation building programme. Exuberance among the people was noticed all over the country. By mid-2002, peace seemed to have dawned all over Afghanistan. There was no resistance by the Taliban. The military leadership began to conclude that Taliban had been decimated. But subsequent events confirmed that the Taliban was defeated but not decimated. They assimilated with the local population, regrouped and waited for the opportunity to conduct insurgency. They did not wait too long.
The political and military leadership in the United States appeared complacent. They concluded that the Taliban have been hit hard and that chances of their coming back to the battlefield were very slim. They placed confidence in the newly created Afghan military and the police to thwart probable insurgency. The presence of NATO troops and troops of other countries in Afghanistan prompted the US military to turn attention to another battlefield - Iraq.
It was later learned from credible sources that President Bush and his advisors had decided that it was the appropriate time to complete the unfinished task in Iraq. Iraq was reeling under international sanction. But to allow the population to meet their very basic needs, an immaculately designed "Oil for Food Programme" was approved by the United Nations Security Council, under which Iraq was permitted to export petroleum in small volumes, and the oil revenue was authorised to be spent on the procurement of essential food items, medicine and medical appliances, housing and construction materials, fertilizers and insecticides and text books and journals. The Iraqi government could negotiate on the terms of purchase but it had no access to the fund maintained with Bank Paribus in France.
The objective of the Oil for Food programme was to enable the Iraqi people to access food and other essential items but denied the government to make use of the oil revenue to revamp its military, procure arms and ammunitions and produce chemical and bio-logical weapons. International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) and United Nations Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) were under the mandate to oversee that Iraq was under the compliance of disarmament and was not in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors had unfettered access to sites inside Iraq to examine materials or products stored in military warehouses. Iraq was indeed disarmed. Neither the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) nor the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) reported Iraq having possession of the deadly weapons of mass destruction.
Nevertheless, Iraq was invaded. In two weeks, Baghdad fell and a provisional administration took charge of the country. But within three months, insurgency began to surface. As insurgency became widespread and fatalities mounted, Bush administration dispatched additional troops to Iraq. In the process, the US got fully entangled into a long-drawn warfare.
As the casualties of soldiers soared and economy plunged into recession, people demanded termination of the war and troops to be brought home. Barak Obama won the election with a solemn promise to end the unjust war. But by that time, damage had already been done. Over 4,500 American soldiers were killed and 30,000 wounded in Iraq. Unemployment exceeded by 10 per cent and thousands of families lost homes through foreclosures. The US troops were withdrawn in 2012 but Obama administration did not put in place a contingency plan in the event the situation took a different turn. Two years later, when the Islamic State (IS) emerged, Pentagon was dumbfounded. American troops were again dispatched to Iraq, though in smaller number, to train and guide the Iraqi army. President Trump has now pledged to withdraw the US troops from Iraq and Syria since the IS has been defeated. The assessment of the intelligence agencies is, however, different. They believe IS threat still persists and once the US troops are withdrawn, it would return with extreme brutality. CIA estimates about 40,000 IS fighters in the region.
Trump administration is negotiating with the Taliban to bring an end to the eighteen-year long war in Afghanistan. Interestingly, Afghan government is not a party to the negotiations because the Taliban terms the Afghan government a puppet regime of the United States. Though no breakthrough has yet been achieved, Washington seems optimistic about a peace deal. It is undeniable that there is no possibility of a military victory in Afghanistan but leaving the country at the hands of the Taliban will have the risk of losing whatever has been achieved in the past 18 years in terms of human development. Since 2001, enrolment in schools increased from 900,000 to 8 million and 40 per cent of students are girls.
Trump proclaimed that "Great nations do not fight endless wars." But termination of war should be followed by peace, progress and prosperity. Had the United States, following the World War II abandoned Japan and Germany they would have been lost to Soviet Union. Instead, the United States, under Marshall Plan invested millions in the development of physical, industrial and educational infrastructures in the erstwhile enemy countries and lifted them up to their best potentials.
Let's not lose sight of the fact that the Taliban controls 44 per cent of territory in Afghanistan and commands 77,000 fighters. A peace deal, hastily prepared and devoid of adequate safeguards for human rights, rule of law and some form of pluralism in governance will be cataclysmic to the people of Afghanistan and detrimental to the region. Washington should build a coalition of countries, including neighbours of Afghanistan, to be involved in the peace negotiation.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.
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