The Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and withdrew, exhausted and demoralised, 10 years later. In Moscow a joke had long circulated: “Why are we still in Afghanistan?” Answer: “ We are still looking for the people who invited us.”
The same is true for the Americans and Nato who are now moving through the exit door. They came to obliterate Al Qaeda after 9/11, 2001.
There was certainly no invitation issued by the Afghani government, then controlled by the militant Taliban. The US was angry that Afghanistan sheltered Al Qaeda and didn’t have the time of day to discuss an invitation. After an air and ground campaign it savaged Al Qaeda. Its rump, including its leader, Osama bin Laden, fled to the barely accessible mountains of Pakistan. Ordinary Afghans had never really liked al-Qaeda and they certainly never equated their home-grown Islamist movement, the Taliban, with the Arab-led extremists. Yet the US and its allies were not prepared to declare victory and leave. They changed the goalposts and stayed on to confront the Taliban, determined to drive them into the ground and to nurture the creation of a democratic government. But there was still no invitation. Only after the longest war in American history are the US and Nato now leaving, albeit leaving behind a sizeable residue of special forces to continue “training” the country’s own army. As Jonathan Steele writes in his seminal book, “The Ghosts of Afghanistan”, “The principal ghosts are the dead on every side. In 35 years of unfinished civil war, made worse by foreign intervention, close to 15,000 Soviet dead, over 1,500 Americans, nearly 400 British and 500 from other countries. Above all, the sons and daughters of Afghanistan itself: some 20,000 troops and as many as two million civilians.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of aid workers have also been killed.
American involvement began with President Jimmy Carter’s decision, fashioned by his National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to send in covert military aid to the mujahedin that were trying to end the Soviet occupation. They did. Brzezinski’s ambition was, in his words, “to give the Soviets their Vietnam” and to undermine the political stability of the USSR. The victorious mujahedin, always a fissiparous group, despite US and Saudi Arabian military aid, were eventually dominated by the Taliban who imposed a peace that lasted until the massive bombing launched by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Then the Taliban was forced out of Kabul and has continued ever since to wage war with the Western invaders. Despite all the blows received over the last decade it still remains strong, especially in the south. Who would say the West has garnered a military victory? At best it is a sort of stalemate.
At the moment the Western-backed, democratically elected, government is in the saddle in Kabul. It claims it presides over most of the country which, thanks to Western governmental and NGO aid, has good roads, electricity, many more hospitals, clinics and schools, (including female pupils), with a fast declining infant mortality rate, increased longevity, and also increased economic activity. But no one can honestly say that in the end the Taliban will not triumph.
The US leaves Afghanistan in a better state than it did Vietnam or Iraq. However, it took the long road round the mountain- thirteen years of warfare to do what could have been done with a good, well thought out, aid programme, in half the time. (I’ve seen the speed and efficiency of a fast aid programme at work in Uganda after the fall of President Idi Amin who had devastated the country.)
Afghanistan’s future, to say the least, is unclear. The newly-elected government must face the fact it has to forge a power-sharing deal with the Taliban (as in Northern Ireland). Since the latter seem uninterested in a nation-wide deal it will have to be a slow process of negotiating local ceasefires. The country is awash with guns. It has been traumatised by war. The omens are not good.
Pakistan, whose army’s secret service provides covert help to the Taliban, partly, if not largely, because it wants to remain on the winning side- although publicly it is on the Western side- has to be persuaded that it must end its support. Pakistan has to take the risk of refusing to do anything that would work to undermine the Kabul government, (even though India is Kabul’s ally). After all Pakistan must know that in the long run a Taliban government in Kabul would not make life easy for Pakistan.
Afghanistan remains one of the world’s messes. If only the US and Nato had limited themselves to destroying Al Qaeda, Afghanistan would have remained an introverted Islamist backwater, slowly but steadily developing with outside aid, capable of harming no one but itself.
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