That the United States has still not been able to defeat an enemy much weaker in terms of military resources in a war that is continuing for 17 long years in Afghanistan does not bode well for its image as the world’s mightiest military power.
Armed with nuclear weapons, mother-of-all bombs, precision-guided missiles and the advanced satellite technology, it can surely eliminate the Taliban and the ISIS in a matter of days or weeks even without the use of a single nuclear weapon. Then why has the US failed to defeat the Taliban? It is not that the US has no will power to end the war. The answer is rather linked to its strategy.
Landlocked Afghanistan provides the US a strategic base to keep watch on a host of hostile or not-so-friendly nations. In the west of Afghanistan is Iran, a US enemy. Sharing a 2,430km-long border with Afghanistan in the south and the east is Pakistan which now gives more importance to close defence ties with China than to ties with the often unreliable and ‘ungrateful’ US. Unreliable, because history shows the US uses Pakistan only to ditch it once its objectives are achieved. Ungrateful, because the Pakistanis feel the US has not appreciated the heavy price their country has been forced to pay for joining the US war on terror. In the north, Afghanistan shares a 76km border with China, with which the US is locked in a trade war and military competition befitting a fully-fledged cold war. Afghanistan also shares a 2,300km-long border with Central Asia, where the US has no military presence now after Kyrgyzstan closed down the US airbase in 2014 following pressure from Russia.
The US is not naïve to withdraw from Afghanistan and thereby squander the strategic advantage it enjoys. Its presence in Afghanistan is legalised and legitimised through a controversial Strategic Partnership Agreement the two nations signed in 2012. The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, after the Taliban rulers refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda which carried out the 9/11 attacks, although some analysts believed the invasion had more to do with a pipeline project to enable US oil companies to exploit Central Asia’s oil and gas.
President Donald Trump, surrounded by hardline advisors, is for an indefinite prolonged war in Afghanistan. Trump has said he has become convinced that the only thing worse than staying in Afghanistan is pulling out. In the context of this large picture, Afghanistan finds it difficult to extricate itself from the superpower power games. Afghanistan is being bled to a slow death, with none of the peace efforts undertaken by various interested parties moving beyond the preliminary stages. In 2013, Qatar facilitated a Pakistan brokered peace initiative between the Afghan government and the Taliban, only to see its early collapse after Taliban leader Mullah Omar was killed in a US operation. Recently, Qatar launched fresh attempts, facilitating secret contacts between the warring parties, including the US. However, it appears that after every step taken in the direction of peace, there comes a blow pushing the process two steps backwards.
There were also China-brokered peace initiatives. China sees Afghanistan peace as a crucial factor for the success of its Belt-and-Road project. Even these talks could not make much progress, because the US was left out.
In the aftermath of intense clashes for the control of the city of Ghazni last week, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani made a ceasefire offer to the Taliban, but it was met with Taliban rocket attacks on Kabul’s high security zone housing the presidential palace and the US embassy.
Russia, a country badly hit by narcotics drugs produced in Afghanistan, is also working out a multilateral peace initiative, but this is also likely to end as a non-event. On Wednesday, adding to the bloody mystery, the Kabul government indicated it would not attend the Moscow conference, although the Taliban said it would.
Not only peace talks, even war appears to be going nowhere. The Taliban control large chunks of the country’s territory. In addition, since last year, following the crushing defeats in Iraq and Syria, the ISIS has also been making its presence felt in Afghanistan. Probably carrying out a foreign power’s agenda, the ISIS largely targets the Shiite population. Two weeks ago, the ISIS carried out a massacre at an Afghan school, killing some 34 Shiite students. As if this bloodshed was not enough, the US-based war mercenary company Blackwater, notorious for massacres and human rights violations in Iraq, wants the Trump administration to privatise the Afghan war. In a recent interview with MSNBC, Blackwater founder Erik Prince said the privatisation of the war would be a big saving for the US government. He said his plan would see US troops replaced with private military contractors who would report to the President through a special envoy. Although the Pentagon is opposed to the Blackwater proposal, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton is receptive.
The proposal takes us to the warning the then US President Dwight Eisenhower issued 57 years ago about private defence contractors. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist,” he warned.
Adding to the conundrum is Pakistan’s new government headed by cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, who has said his foreign policy priority will be peace with India and Afghanistan. However, he is scoffed as ‘Taliban Khan’ for his comments which critics interpret as supportive of the Pakistan Taliban. A virulent opponent of US drone attacks that have killed many civilians, Khan has lambasted Trump, calling him “ignorant and ungrateful” after Trump had commented that the US got nothing from Pakistan in the fight against terrorists, though US had given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid. After his election victory last month, Khan, striking a conciliatory note, said, “With the US, we want to have a mutually beneficial relationship ... up until now, that has been one way, the US thinks it gives us aid to fight its war ... we want both countries to benefit, we want a balanced relationship.”
It is too early to say whether it is the military or the elected government which will decide Pakistan’s Afghan policy. However, for the US military to remain in Afghanistan, the support of Pakistan is crucial, because it is the only nation, through which the US could send supplies to its 15,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Occasionally, Pakistan has shut down the supply route to soothe public anger after US drone attacks killed civilians.
Even democracy has not provided an answer to Afghanistan’s conflict. Next year, there will be a presidential election, but as usual, the Taliban would not only take part, but also violently disrupt the process, thus offering the US a justification to continue its military presence in the country. When war becomes a daily routine, for Afghans, peace is, probably, anathema and suffering fait accompli. For the rest of the world, after 17 long years, Afghanistan is now the least spoken about war.