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Monday, September 27, 2021

The ‘disastrous success’ of the Taliban

Cold war legacies, American interventionism are behind Afghanistan's recent crisis

Written by Subrata Mukherjee |
August 25, 2021 8:11:54 pm
Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo)

On August 15, an unexpected and mostly bloodless coup was successfully carried out by the Taliban which has a support base of only 10 to 15 per cent of the population, mostly from the Pashtuns who are 40 per cent of the Afghan population. The majority of Pashtuns live in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

The post-Soviet occupation (1979-89) did not immediately lead to a transfer of power as the Najibullah government lingered for three years. In the present scenario, all projections were proved to be wrong as none anticipated the collapse of the Ghani-led government in a matter of days. The general expectation was that even if the Taliban succeeded, it would take three to six months. The slow building of civil society groups advocating minority rights, especially rights for women and the huge US investment of 3 trillion dollars could not establish a strong edifice of an enduring national elite with firm commitments to constitutionalism, rule of law and human rights. Corruption was endemic and the democratic coalition shaky. There was a total collapse of the judicial system — justice could be bought, especially in rural areas.

The Taliban are known for their instant and brutal execution of justice. 47 per cent of Afghanistan’s population lives below the poverty line and 25 per cent is unemployed in a country that is impoverished and crippled because of foreign interference — first, the former Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989, and then the 20-year-long period of US-led NATO intervention post the 9/11 attacks on the US. Ostensibly the US-led attack was a war on terrorism with a determination to decapacitate the terror strongholds which were supposed to be in Afghanistan. It is interesting that the attackers did not have a single Afghan. In that situation, the toppling of the Taliban regime without any UN sanction and the subsequent occupation of Afghanistan followed by the invasion of Iraq reflected the arrogance of the US at the height of US unipolarity. It was an existential crisis for Afghanistan.

Besides Afghanistan, there were interventions in other smaller nations with the intent to introduce Western-style democracy by force, utterly disregarding the age-old principle of inviolability of national sovereignty. It was part of the pax Americana project. The US forgot its own history of restraining England, France and Israel when they intervened militarily in Egypt in 1956. The US actions are reminiscent of the old Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty vis-à-vis communist countries.

The most admirable part of the Taliban’s long fight is its strategic patience strengthened by the SIGAR Report findings that the US had no coherent strategy. A massive intervention of the US along with 28 countries and a substantive troop mobilisation could not subdue a few thousand poorly-armed Taliban which lacked airpower. The tragedy became a farce when the USA legitimised the Taliban by initiating a dialogue with the latter in 2020 without involving the legal government of Kabul and without consulting its allies. An assurance was given to the Taliban that it could have its representation in parliament without contesting elections. It is ironic that Bush jr. invoked the NATO pledge of attack on one as an attack on all the other members but the Trump-Biden withdrawal decision was a unilateral one. Moreover, NATO was conceived as a group during the Cold War days when the world was viewed through the prism of ideology. It was directed against the countries of the Warsaw Pact that consisted of the former USSR and its communist allies. NATO was not against non-state actors.

It remains a grey area whether invoking a collective action in a terrorist act, however savage and severe it might be and if such a multilateral action is legally justified. The US did not think it necessary to take the approval of the UN before entering Afghanistan as an occupation army. It behaved in a rage after the shocking killing of 3,000 people in the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban regime wanted to negotiate with the US after the attack but the US refused. It did not even have a sound strategy and ignored the difficulties in building a national Afghan army and fighting in mountainous terrain. It is an example of over-reaction. All of a sudden, the US decision to pull out of Afghanistan was taken arbitrarily resulting in considerable disquiet among its allies. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister called it a hasty move “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’”. After the pull-out from Afghanistan, the US intends to do the same in Syria and Iraq.

Jeffery Sachs commented that the US policy focussed only on a military solution with little or no efforts to build enduring institutions and initiate services like hospitals and schools. As a result, its popular support was impaired. No lessons were learnt from Vietnam, Kampuchea, the Gulf wars and the interventionist policies in Central America. Propping up unpopular and dictatorial regimes is part of a larger policy framework. Protracted, futile wars were propped up by corrupt contractors and with total disdain for other cultures. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock alluded to the fact that all three US presidents — Bush jr., Obama and Trump — knew the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable. The US propped up a government which, for many, was illegitimate. The national government did not enjoy any popular support. Increasing support to the Taliban to throw out foreign invaders was evident. The huge sums of money spent in Afghanistan allowed the American contractors and Afghan warlords to become part of a large network of corruption.

The much-vaunted bipartisan foreign policy of the USA has also become outdated. Foreign policy has become an important component of presidential elections. The Trump presidency was marked by volatility and discontinuity. The rejection of the Paris climate deal and its restoration by Biden and talks of renewing the Iran deal are important indications of how domestic considerations have superseded the consensual basis of foreign policy.

In Afghanistan, the personality of presidents differed widely. Hamid Karzai was a statesman. He continued to talk to the Taliban and was critical of many US policies. He has not fled and is staying on. His successor was Abdullah Abdullah, an anti-Soviet Islamicist, who fought the 2019 election and lost to Ashraf Ghani. Abdullah was a realist, whereas Ghani’s attitude was technocratic. He suffered the same fate as Amanullah Khan, the great reformer.

The Taliban victory is a negative and not a positive one. It has been described as a disastrous success. Since the Taliban’s capture of power was sudden and unexpected there is no carefully thought-out plan. A rigid attachment to religious fundamentalism cements their internal contradictions. Imran Khan described the Taliban victory as the end of slavery and it is expected that Pakistan would be a net gainer in the altered situation. Open links between the Taliban and Pakistan is also well-known. But such assertions ignore the fact that no popular support is being exhibited even in PoK. There is an overall realisation within a small section of the elite that in this age of globalisation, international support and recognition are the most important steps of stabilisation.

During 1996-2001, the rule of the Taliban was recognised by only three Muslim countries, which explained its lack of legitimacy. With the slow consolidation of democracy in Pakistan, there is also a larger realisation that the edifice of Pakistani democracy rests on adopting the British common law tradition. Appeasement of forces like the Taliban is always counterproductive. Pakistan’s own autonomy is limited: Unlike India, it is heavily compelled to have a close alliance with a larger power. This is reflected by its earlier recognition of the Taliban regime of the 1996-2001 and its volte face under US pressure. It is also faced with terrorism and division within.

The Durand line also remains an unresolved issue with Afghanistan and no new power equation, how so ever close to Pakistan, will resolve it as it gives Afghanistan a great advantage in dealing with a much bigger power. Pakistan has also to ensure that there are no safe havens in Afghanistan for Pakistan separatists. Its present plank of shifting from geopolitics to geo-economics also leads to compulsions of moderation. As the historian Ayesha Jalal notes, Pakistan’s attitude to extremism is questionable and for it, Pakistan has paid a high price. It is a reminder that roots of extremism remain and for any meaningful strategic change this has to be addressed in a society which is not monolithic. Pakistan has to comprehend that national interest and national security are different ball games. As such the present sense of triumphalism within a section in Pakistan would be short-lived, especially when Taliban’s capacity to govern and work out a power sharing with sections like the northern alliance is far from clear.

Pakistan’s perception that, with India, it always plays a zero-sum game is strategically counter-productive. India invested in Afghanistan to upgrade infrastructure, economy, healthcare and education. The three-billion-dollar investment that India made was to assist a fledgling democracy and not purely as a commercial investment. Unlike Pakistan, India does not have any external compulsion to be present in Afghanistan. It knew very well that its leverage in Afghanistan was limited. It actually helped to blunt Pakistan’s wild charges of India’s support to extremist forces in Baluchistan. The goodwill that India has earned in the mind of an average Afghani will linger on.

(The writer retired as professor of political science in Delhi University)

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