ccording to John Gray, the cataclysmic attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, heralded a new epoch in world affairs. The American military power was greater than the next ten most powerful states combined, a phase some saw producing an unprecedented situation in international history: ‘a unipolar moment’. But the attacks on American soil believed to be carried out by Al-Qaeda, operating from one of the least developed areas of the world, not only challenged the American power but also shattered its image as the sole superpower. What followed is history.
The recent takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, after Biden decided to withdraw from the Afghanistan and the haste with which the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country has created a chaotic situation. Unpersuaded by Taliban reassurances of a more moderate approach, many women and human rights activists have fled the country or gone into hiding. If the fall of Kabul has humiliated the US at the global level, it also showcased how hollow were the US policies for Afghanistan. It exposed the faulty approach and methods US and its allies followed from at least two decades; hence demands a fresh, impartial and critical analysis.
The Paradox of American Power
After 9/11, the US showed a willingness to employ its power — unilaterally if necessary — to defend what it saw as its vital interest. However, its experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan appear to demonstrate serious limitations on the capacity of military power and its ability to achieve complex political objectives such as ‘promoting democracy’. The Taliban’s entry into Kabul once again highlighted the paradox of American power — difference between the magnitude of American power and Washington’s inability to use that power to always get what it wants in international affairs.
James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu in their book The Narrow Corridor argued against this type of approach by highlighting that the idea of “a functioning state imposed from above by foreign forces” was misplaced. The top-down approach followed by the US policymakers and the assumption that by establishing an overwhelming military dominance over a territory, they can then impose their will, was dead wrong in case of Afghanistan.
The majority of the Afghan population from the very beginning perceived the US presence as a foreign operation intended to weaken their society. The US had no grand strategy to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the native Afghans or, for that matter, the Taliban. It is naive to argue that the US has lost the will to fight, hence withdrew from Afghanistan. They left defeated at the hands of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and its disparate coalition of anti-American factions.
Imposing the War on Afghanistan
For those who don’t know how this war was imposed on Afghanistan and are not able to differentiate the fake narratives and propaganda from the real events, let us revisit the history.
By the end of 2001, Hamid Karzai, the former President of Afghanistan, met a Taliban delegation headed by Mullah Obaidullah, nominated by Mullah Omar himself, in Shah Wali Kot district, outside Kandahar. The Taliban agreed to surrender, return to their homes if given a general amnesty. Hamid Karzai accepted the conditions of the agreement. Next day, he announced that the Taliban were the sons of the soil and would effectively receive amnesty. This came to be known as the “Shah Wali Kot agreement”. For the moment, the war in Afghanistan was over, but the US considered Taliban a serious threat and Mullah Omar the most dangerous after Osama bin Laden. Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Defense Secretary, blocked all the channels of reconciliation between Taliban and Hamid Karzai and withdrew amnesty. The US replaced Karzai’s choice with a stridently anti-Taliban warlord Gul Agha Sherzai. Thus began the arresting and hunting of the reconciled Taliban in particular and a forced war on Afghans in general.
When the Doha Agreement was signed in February 2020 to end the two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, the US remained lenient and agreed too many demands of the Taliban. The same deal could have been signed immediately after 9/11 to avoid the loss of thousands of innocent lives and trillions of dollars. What was the point in prolonging the war for decades and then signing a face-saving deal?
The answer is the ‘military-industrial complex’ of the US. “It is an unholy alliance of the myriad branches of its (US) government, arms dealers, and mercenaries. This wealthy and powerful coalition and their cronies profiteer from wars, so they persuade US governments to enter optional wars and then protract the conflicts in perpetuity,” writes Rajan Laad, an American thinker. The same happened in Vietnam, Iraq and in Afghanistan. The current mess in Afghanistan and the examination of history shows that most of these wars were unnecessarily fought and could have been easily avoided with astute diplomacy.
Behind the rhetoric of universal values, democracy and women’s rights, the US has used wars to justify a wide range of policy positions that strengthen its economic and military power while undermining various multilateral agreements on arms control, the environment, human rights and trade. The crimes committed by US demand mass public condemnation, so does Taliban and other such organisations’ military activities. George Bush and his allies exercised power in an irresponsible manner leading various scholars and countries, both at home and abroad, to oppose the war in Afghanistan. The US delivered war, not peace.
Taliban in Afghanistan: Expectations
The governments of Muslim countries may toe the line of America, but, deep within the Islamic world, the increased resentment and hatred against the US particularly in Afghanistan worked for the Taliban cause. The neo-Taliban (a phrase used by Giustozzi), or what some call as the Taliban 2.0, takeover of Kabul is a warning sign for those who seek to impose simple narratives over the complex realities of Afghanistan.
The Taliban have hinted to adopt the 1964 constitution, regarded as the most democratic constitution of Afghanistan to this date. They also appear to form an inclusive government by negotiating with the leaders of previous regimes like Hamid Karzai, Karim Khalili, Salahuddin Rabbani and other Islamic parties and groups like Hizb-e-Islami. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan deserves a chance. But no one actually knows what would be the actual course of events in Afghanistan within the next few months. It is very important to note that any future government formulated would have to absorb the shocks of a poor economic structure and devise strategies to keep the vested interests at bay who would constantly try to pull the strings from behind.
The losers of the conflict are always the people whose country has been annexed and turned upside down. Let us hope, this time, both the US and the neo-Taliban regime has well understood that bad peace is better than a good war. It becomes incumbent that the developed nations and the international organisations come to the aid of the war-torn country and work collectively with the Afghan state for the prosperity of its people.