For three years, the world’s eyes have been focused on the Arab uprisings and subsequent events, but now the attention is going to turn to Afghanistan as US-led foreign troops prepare to leave the country next year. Even though some foreign advisers will remain, the NATO withdrawal will bring an end to the military response of President George W Bush against Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, which was launched with lofty promises after the September 11 attacks on the US.
It is undeniable that the war has been very costly. Today, the Taliban are stronger than they were immediately after their eviction from Kabul. The militancy has spread far beyond the country’s borders, and the mission that President Barack Obama called a “just war” is reaching its finale without its most important aims fulfilled.
It is difficult to think of an Afghan more congenial than Hamid Karzai that Washington could have found to install in power following the removal of the Taliban in 2001. As he prepares to leave office after the April 2014 election, President Karzai is sharply critical of NATO, remonstrating that “on the security front, the entire NATO exercise caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life and no gains, because the country is not secure”.
NATO and the US have accused Karzai of unreliability and corruption, but they ignore the Afghan reality. President Karzai has to voice the deep antagonism felt against foreign troops in the country and cannot remain silent about civilian casualties. He is mindful of the fragile nature of Afghanistan’s military and police forces, which NATO undertook to train and equip.
We will not be a pawn in someone else’s game; we will always be Afghanistan.
As many as 50,000 desertions are haemorrhaging Afghanistan’s security forces every year. The latest high-profile defector was a special forces commander who joined the Hizb-e-Islami organisation, a Taliban-affiliated group, taking with him guns and high-tech military equipment.
Corruption has been a sad historical fact in a country that is among the most impoverished in the world. Ceaseless wars since the 1970s – wars in which external powers, the US, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan’s neighbours have been active participants – have made Afghanistan’s destitution all the greater. Western accusations of corruption against the Karzai administration are self-serving at times, and ignore the West’s own corrupt practices in the course of the Afghan war.
Military occupation and offence to the occupied go together. Afghans have suffered cruel losses and humiliation again and again during the past twelve years, under Soviet occupation in the 1980s and before. Afghanistan’s ethno-tribal society requires its rulers to be close to their subjects in ways that Western governments have not fully understood.
A leader who imposes the will of a foreign master on fellow Afghans risks his credibility, his authority and worse. It should come as no surprise that in his final months in office President Karzai has thus far put up stubborn resistance to US pressure to grant complete immunity from prosecution to US troops who may be left behind for training Afghan security forces and for defending Western strategic assets.
The legacy of US war in Afghanistan
The departure of US and NATO troops in 2014 will be another landmark in the 35-year history of Afghan wars. The symbolism of the Soviet retreat in 1989 was greater because it happened as the Soviet empire was collapsing. The circumstances for the US empire are not so precarious, and NATO’s immediate future is not in doubt.
However, in Afghanistan and outside, there are going to be those who will see this withdrawal as another defeat of a great power. The US will continue to struggle to justify its claim that the Afghan mission has been a success. Once fervent supporters of the mission to eliminate terrorism and redesign society now realise the Afghan project’s grim realities. Even those less partisan may conclude that it has been a missed opportunity in several respects.
The legality and morality of US drone attacks across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and increasingly in other countries, is a subject of open debate, raising questions about laws of war, human rights and national sovereignty. The impact of this debate on international relations is going to be an enduring legacy of the Bush and Obama administrations.
That legacy will continue to evoke memories of the tense relationship between Obama and Karzai – who was the US choice to be the leader of Afghanistan but who could not entirely support Washington’s agenda. For all his charm, elegance and urbane manners, Karzai is still an Afghan who cannot remove himself enough from his fellow countrymen to please the US. He will be remembered as a president whose true authority was always limited, but was held responsible for many of the failures of others.
[Karzai] will be remembered as a president whose true authority was always limited, but was held responsible for many of the failures of others.
End of foreign involvement?
More than a decade after the US went to Afghanistan to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the curtain is about to close on one more episode in the country’s endless wars. In 1989, the Americans were euphoric about defeating the Soviet occupiers with the Mujahideen’s help in a proxy war. As the Americans prepare to bail out in 2014, the old fog of euphoria has lifted, and it is possible to argue with greater certainty that, ultimately, Afghans do not need a major external power to fight the enemy.
Words attributed to two of the best known Afghan warlords of modern times are informative. In the 1980s, when Washington was the Mujahideen’s main backer against the Soviet Union, Ismael Khan said: “The Americans want us to continue fighting but not to win, just to bleed the Russians.” Another anti-Soviet commander, Ahmad Shah Masood, remarked: “We will not be a pawn in someone else’s game; we will always be Afghanistan.”
The Obama administration’s attempts to launch negotiations with the Taliban on concrete matters have not brought success. At times, President Karzai has felt left out, and has reacted with his own overtures to the Taliban. Such overtures have not pleased the US, which has appeared to undermine Karzai’s independent initiatives. The recent arrest of senior Taliban commander Latif Mehsud by the US angered the Afghan president, because it was reported that his government was trying to recruit Mehsud as a go-between for peace talks.
As the departure of foreign troops draws closer, many in Afghanistan and its regional neighbourhood are concerned about the future. There are questions about next year’s presidential election taking place in a peaceful and orderly manner, and whether the new government will be stable.
What will the Taliban and members of Pakistan’s political and military establishments with links to the armed group do? How will Saudi Arabia and Iran, representing the Sunni-Shia struggle for influence in the Muslim world, affect Afghanistan as the country tries to stand on its own two feet? Will influential players of the international community help Afghanistan? Or will they walk away like they did following the 1989 Soviet retreat, leaving regional powers and Afghan factions to fight it out?
Such haunting possibilities are going to occupy minds more and more as US and NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan.
Deepak Tripathi, fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is a British historian of the Middle East, the Cold War and America in the world.