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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 5, New Delhi, January 16, 2021

Perils of Botched American Intervention in Afghanistan | Manoj Kumar Mishra

Friday 15 January 2021

by Manoj Kumar Mishra *

Following the 9/11 terror attacks on the US mainland, Washington’s response was initially framed according to Article 51 of the UN Charter, which stipulates that retaliation must be in self-defense. However, to legitimize its long-term presence, the US resorted to the language of humanitarian intervention and provided humanitarian justifications, so the removal of the repressive Taliban regime was provided as the rationale of the war and provision of a stable and democratic state capable of securing rights of women as well as ethnic and religious minorities was offered as a vision as was exemplified by the Bonn Agreement of December 2001. However, the American commitment to the vision remained inconsistent and fragile.

The US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was conceived and executed without deep analysis of the objectives of the war and ways for a safe exit. Previously classified memos dubbed the “Afghanistan Papers” containing 2,000 pages of interviews with senior US officials and others directly involved in the war effort revealed how public perceptions on the war were constructed and fed to the American people in a bid to hide the dark side of this misadventure.

In the first place, the US resorted to pre-emptive strikes against the Taliban regime, bypassing all the legitimate methods to capture the individuals who masterminded the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and the Pentagon paying scant attention to the fact that such attacks could be self-serving and actions against groups undermine territorial integrity of states within which such groups operate. Further, military operations against such groups foreclose the policing and extradition options on which international law is based.

There was not even anyone to decide if there was sufficient evidence of state involvement in harboring perpetrators of the terrorist act and, more important, the question remained unanswered as to whether the Taliban had the ability to deliver the mastermind of 9/11 to the US. The apologists of the War on Terror would certainly find it difficult to dismiss the contention that the US had ulterior objectives apart from taking on terrorism, a national security threat to America post-9/11. There are pertinent, logical questions which strengthen such contentions. First, why the American response was disproportionate to the 9/11 attacks in so far as it waged a war against Afghanistan instead of applying legitimate methods to capture a group of individuals who masterminded the act. Second, why did the self-claimed votary of the UN violate article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits change of regime in a country by external actors defying sovereignty and territorial integrity?

According to statistics put out by several reports, the protracted war took a huge toll on human lives, both military personnel and civilians, while continuing to dry up the American Treasury. Going by US Defence Department statistics, by the end of 2019 more than 2,300 US troops died in the conflict while 20,589 returned home wounded. The war continues to take lives of civilians apart from frequent tragic killings of Afghan security personnel. [1]

Meanwhile, about a trillion dollars had been spent despite the fact that the US had to spend far more on military operations in Afghanistan than it did on reconstruction, humanitarian aid, economic assistance and training of Afghan security forces (capacity-building exercises) and was still unable to find military solutions to the Afghan predicament.

Interventions could be successful in hypothetical cases where the polarization between the ruler (the government) and the ruled (masses) is more or less complete and the ousted regime’s ability to secure mass support and challenge the intervener is close to non-existent. However, defeating the Taliban on Afghan soil was a difficult proposition considering the ethnic divisions and entrenched religious values in the society.

The insurgent group continued to derive support from the Pashtuns — the majority ethnic community in the country — and its radical religious prescriptions, although conflicted with modern norms of human rights, were far from alienating the society — deeply rooted in religious values — at large. Even while many people still wanted to be rid of a radical religious regime, fighting insurgencies on the ground was compounded by complexities of asymmetric warfare where the distinction between an insurgent and civilian was blurred. On several occasions, the commanders and troops on ground were puzzled as to their strategies when the enemy many times appeared to be amorphous.

Many in the American military establishment acknowledged that the US turned down an early opportunity to engage the Taliban in talks and install a multi-ethnic government soon after their ouster from power. Many also believed that then-president George W Bush weakened the Afghan campaign by opening another theater of war — Iraq. The US had to divert its military focus away from Afghanistan, which contributed to the ability of the Taliban to regroup and bounce back from the fringes.

Weak Afghan state

The US applied a top-down approach to security and development without taking sufficient account of rural and tribal peoples’ interests. Corruption and competition for power within the government sapped the strength of the Afghan state. America’s initial reliance on warlords to fight al-Qaeda and Taliban forces and their accommodation into power structures could not take the US strategy to the local and grassroots level. Some experts ascribed the weakening of Afghan state institutions to the economic agenda of the intervening powers. The Afghan state has been conceived more as an enabler than a provider of economic growth. International aid was tied to the global private sector, which was entrusted with the task of reconstruction, and this kept the state overly dependent on external financial support.

Furthermore, the Americans tied aid to the purchase of US-sourced products and services, and a full 70% of US aid was made conditional upon US goods and services being purchased or employed, as Tim Bird and Alex Marshall relate in their 2011 book Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way. [2] Further, the weakness of the Afghan state and inefficacy of the capacity-building exercises are underlined by the fact that a major chunk of international aid was not channelled and spent through the Afghan government because of allegations of rampant corruption. This led to other players such as international consultants and private contractors getting involved, and massive aid becomes their source of income too.

A World Bank report titled “Financing Peace” pointed to the extent of external support that Afghanistan would need even after a peace settlement with the Taliban. It warned that the country would still require financial assistance at near current levels, as much as US$7 billion a year for several years to come, to be able to sustain its most basic services. [3]

Insurgency and Casualties

Difficult terrain, porous boundaries, and difficulty in understanding native peoples’ languages and cultural dissimilarities have impeded the American fight against the Taliban. In a conventional war the opponent has a regular army, but there is no identifiable enemy of such a kind in asymmetric warfare. They mingle with civilians and they can even enter the territory of some other states from where they can wage war.

The difficulties in the counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan revealed that the US Army embraced a big-war paradigm. President Barack Obama replaced the counterterrorism strategy of the Bush era with a counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) by inducting more troops to the Afghan theater and focusing on capacity-building of Afghan security forces as well as on winning the hearts and minds of local people. However, such strategies were not successful, as the Afghan government, propped up by external forces, was unable to muster unalloyed loyalty from its security personnel.

The US and allied forces, much like the erstwhile USSR, became a victim of the asymmetric warfare that the hills and difficult terrain of Afghanistan facilitate. While for the intervening forces the Afghan theater provided a limited-war scenario linked with certain political outcomes, it presented a total-war scenario for the insurgents, who considered the war as the determinant of the very question of their survival. Afghan insurgents proved former US diplomat and politician Henry Kissinger’s maxim, “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win”.

The continuing stalemate in the Afghan war implied that the Taliban were winning the battle. The insurgent group has only had to conduct a protracted war of attrition and wait out the American will to stay in Afghanistan. The tactical advantages of the asymmetric war also allowed the insurgents to respond effectively to predictable attacks by leaving the area under aerial and artillery bombardment and come back after the pro-government forces had returned to their bases. On the other hand, the insurgents’ unpredictable offensives dampened the patience of the government forces.

Apart from the advantages of geography and the tactics of asymmetric warfare, Afghanistan has witnessed gradual erosion of support for the government forces backed by the US and allied forces and swelling of the support base of the insurgents for reasons such as civilian casualties, unemployment and corruption. Each year civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces kept increasing. Figures released by one of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports covering the period from January 1 to September 30, 2019 ascribed 2,348 civilian casualties (1,149 killed and 1,199 injured) to pro-government forces, a 26% increase from the same period in 2018. [4] The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan also known as ISIS-Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) posed a serious security threat to Afghan civilians primarily the minority communities and the foreign nationals apart from the menace perpetrated by the Taliban. The killing of ISIS leader by US strikes such as Abu Sayeed Orakzai in August 2018 as well as those of the leaders Abu Sayed in 2017, Abdul Hasib and Hafiz Sayed Khan in 2016 indicated the American drive to weaken the group. However, insurgency by the group continued to transform rather than end and gathered strength and momentum in the lawless and anarchic environment.

While the primary targets for the Taliban remained the Afghan government institutions and officials aimed at the objective of piling up pressure on the US and the Afghan government to agree to their political claims and peace terms and the terror attacks by ISIS not only targeted at the Afghan government officials and foreign diplomatic presence considering them ‘apostates’, it indiscriminately targeted at civilians who they believed to be ‘heretics’ primarily religious minority communities in Afghanistan. However, amid the growing instability and insurgency perpetrated by various non-state actors, the Taliban remained the predominant insurgent group with claims for legitimacy.

The Taliban movement was strengthened by strategies such as tapping into nationalist feelings and creation of employment opportunities by running a shadow economy — production and trade of opium. Most Pashtuns live in the countryside and remained susceptible to the Taliban’s narrative of fighting against foreign occupation, as the group’s appeals were able to tap into Pashtun conservatism, which is embedded in the notions of national honor and pride and defending the country from foreign occupation at any costs. The insurgent group in its attempts to evoke the age-old Afghan pride in the country’s honor and independence among the rural masses revived and instilled the memories as to how their efforts and struggle won their country the much-prized independence against the British Empire in the 19th century and against the Soviets in the 20th century. Oral poetry, stories and songs became the insurgent group’s mode of communication in transmitting such messages to rural people who are largely illiterate.

The Taliban’s support base among the Pashtuns runs deeper than their actual number in Afghanistan. While about 40% of the Afghans are Pashtuns, Pakistan is home to more Pashtuns than Afghanistan. The Durand Line separates the Pashtuns of these two countries and those on the Pakistani side of the border have looked upon and assisted the Taliban’s insurgency as a legitimate struggle for independence from foreign occupation.

The Afghan Army was dominated by ethnic groups from northern Afghanistan and encountered formidable obstacles in fighting insurgency in southern Afghanistan — the stronghold of the Taliban. Soldiers not only needed to communicate through interpreters hired for the Americans, but the historical rifts between the ethnic groups in the north and south also led to them to be looked upon as outsiders by local residents. Drives to include Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan through enhanced quotas did not succeed.

Unemployment and corruption

However, long years of foreign intervention and endemic unemployment have helped the Taliban expand their base. A new generation of local commanders from ethnic groups of northern Afghanistan was attracted by the Taliban’s offers of jobs and joined the movement despite historical animosities. For instance, many Taliban fighters in Badakhshan province were drawn from the Tajik ethnic group. This apart, a perception of triumph that the insurgent group generated among fighters of other ethnic groups also induced them to join the Taliban movement.

Situations arose akin to the long years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gradually strengthening a perception among the troops drawn from the non-Russian Soviet republics that the people they were fighting against were more similar to them (shared common identities) than the Russians. The Afghan war accentuated ethnic unrest within the Soviet army and went a long way in discrediting it. The reliability of Central Asian soldiers began to be questioned and they were often removed from active combat duties in Afghanistan.

Thus it was not far-fetched to believe that the Afghans would appreciate each other’s identity more if a sense of occupation by foreign powers were generated with the collapse of the economy accompanied by rising levels of unemployment and corruption. The Soviet invasion fused Islamic ideology with the cause of national liberation, and thousands of officers and soldiers of the Afghan Army defected to the mujahideen, and the insurgents seized hundreds of government outposts, most of which had been abdicated by defecting soldiers.

Corrupt practices continued to sap the strength of the Afghan Army. There were reports of non-existent soldiers on the payrolls despite frequent desertions and absences — a practice that has been sustained by endemic corruption in the Afghan governance system. High casualty rates within the Afghan Army have led many to leave. Afghan forces were not properly prepared to fight a long war of attrition and suffered from casualties, losses, and low morale. The numbers of actual soldiers were much smaller in proportion to the population of areas to be defended.

According to World Bank estimates, Afghan population growth is so high that it needed an expanded and sustainable economy to absorb the youth bulge. However, the economy is dominated by massive aid and assistance and an informal and parallel economy — opium production. The Taliban not only earn millions of dollars a year through the opium trade, the country continues to subsist from the large amounts of money made from opium production, creating “600,000 full-time jobs” for its citizens. The American objective of “hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances,” as General John Nicholson has said, could not be successful without provision of an alternative and sustainable source of employment. [5]

It is worth recalling how the Soviets’ policy of destroying agriculture and depopulating the countryside alienated them from the rural masses. The counternarcotics effort of the US “has just been a total failure,” John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said at the Wilson Center in Washington.

The Taliban’s control over opium production and trade allowed it a disproportional sway in the rural areas and the group has been able to run a parallel government with a continuous flow of resources, whereas Afghan government’s reach in many local areas remained non-existent. While the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s 2018 report referred to failures in building a consensus among the members of the US-led coalition and the Afghan government on the importance of this trade in defeating the insurgency, the US despite several attacks and raids failed to curb it.

Many Afghans place nationalism above all other ideas and ideologies, and to uphold national pride and honor people rose above ideologies and ambitions to bring territorial incursions of British and Russian Empires and later the Soviet Union to a halt and raised formidable obstacles as and when the US and NATO forces behaved like occupying forces. Disparate local identities usually got transformed into a unifying national identity at the time of threat to the country.

Shifting and Secret Alliances

In the context of the post-Cold War era, it has been observed that alliances and partnerships are shifting because of relative independence from the US of regional powers, and therefore, American expectations of effective execution of the policy of coercion and reconciliation with the assistance of allies have been belied. What is more intriguing is that regional powers need not form alliances on a formal basis with other state actors and they can assist insurgents with aid and arms and change the tide in their favour. They can operate in a surreptitious way, as the other group is not a state.

For instance, the Afghanistan Papers brought to the limelight the open secret of Pakistan’s double game. While it sided with the US and became part of the “war on terror,” at the same time it provided sanctuary and logistics to the insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan to strengthen its position of power vis-à-vis India. While the US continued to harbour strong reservations over Pakistan pertaining to its being a reliable ally to fight terrorism, as secret defence documents disclosed by WikiLeaks in the past pointed out, nevertheless the US government continued to give lavish aid to Pakistan in the expectations of squeezing the support base for insurgents there. Similarly, Russia and Iran were also reported to have assisted the Taliban to defend their regional interests from perceived American hegemonic ambitions.

(Author: Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra is Lecturer in Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Jagatsinghpur, Odisha)


[1Mishra, M.K. (2019). “Tragedies of the Afghan War”, Asia Times, December 16, Available at https://asiatimes.com/2019/12/tragedies-of-the-afghan-war/

[2Bird, T. and Marshall, A. (2011) Afghanistan: How the West lost its Way, Yale University Press, New Haven, p. 135.

[3Haque, T. A. etal . (2019) Financing Peace : Fiscal Challenges and Implications for a Post-Settlement Afghanistan (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group, Available at http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/776581575555846850/Financing-Peace-Fiscal-Challenges-and-Implications-for-a-Post-Settlement-Afghanistan

[4“QUARTERLY REPORT ON THE PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS IN ARMED CONFLICT: 1 JANUARY TO 30 SEPTEMBER 2019”, UNAMA Report, 17 October, 2019, Available at https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_protection_of_civilians_in_armed_conflict_-_3rd_quarter_update_2019.pdf

[5Mishra, M.K. (2019). “Tragedies of the Afghan War”, Asia Times, December 16, Available at https://asiatimes.com/2019/12/tragedies-of-the-afghan-war/

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