In Afghanistan it is said if a donkey goes to Mecca, when it returns, it is still a donkey. Despite twenty-years in Afghanistan and spending USD2 trillion, the United States couldn’t even turn the Taliban against Al-Qaeda (AQ), the real enemy of the West. Demonstrating an intelligent enemy is better than a foolish friend. The world’s most powerful military, backed by the wealthiest countries in the West, has been beaten by dudes with AK-47s, wearing sandals, who mostly can’t read or write. While you are letting that sink in, let’s not forget the 42 Australian soldiers who lost their lives and the 261 injured during Operation Slipper. We have a duty to them and their families, along with the 26,000 other Australian men and women who served in Afghanistan.
There were two courses of action the US-led Coalition could have pursued from the get-go. Following the initial invasion to capture and kill AQ and those responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the first would have been to withdraw with a caveat, ‘invite AQ back and we will return with the wrath of Allah’. The Taliban never targeted the West. In fact, during the entire period of the Global War on Terror, not a single terrorist attack in a Western country was planned, funded or carried out by the Taliban. And many of the Taliban despised AQ because, ‘they treated us like dogs’. The second, would have been to take the South Korea option and stay there indefinitely. Although staying would have been like sun-bathing naked on an anthill.
As journalist and regional expert Ahmed Rashid explains, conquerors sweep through Afghanistan like shooting stars. The British experienced a disaster as they withdrew at the end of the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). Before their withdrawal, the British secured an agreement with the great-great-grandfathers of today’s Taliban that they could leave unharmed. While retreating over the mountain passes outside Kabul, 4,500 British soldiers and 12,500 civilians were murdered by local fighters. After the second Anglo-Afghan War, Winston Churchill wrote of Britain’s exploits, ‘Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question, and politically it is a blunder’. Nothing has changed. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British and the Russians all uncovered the same secret to Afghanistan – it is easily invaded but impossible to control. For a brief time one person did understand the place. It was the policy of Lord Curzon, Britain’s former viceroy of India (1899-1905) who implemented a cunning combination of tribal patronage with multiple agreements that as long as the tribes did not interfere with India, Britain would leave the tribes to conduct their own affairs. Who’d have thunk it?
There were two effective periods of Western engagement. The first was from October to December 2001 during the invasion to topple the Taliban regime and remove AQ, although many were allowed to escape into Pakistan. The second was during US General Stanley McChrystal’s time as commander of US-Nato forces (2009-10) when he implemented his Village Stability Operations strategy, a boots-at-the-grassroots approach (McChrystal was sacked for saying mean things about President Obama). It’s at the local level, surrounded by mud-walled compounds, karez systems, goat herders and smuggling routes, where a difference can be made working by, with and through the local leadership so they can remain the strongest tribe. This is not nation-building.
That’s the reality of surviving in these deeply contextual ancient parts of the world; embedding with locals and sipping sugary tea, where the truth reveals itself when talking about other things. Try being a foreigner travelling from the Pakistan border at Spin Boldak in Kandahar to Helmand. Or driving from Kabul to Ghazni. Without a web of protection across tribal elders and their trusted relatives; even if you’re dressed as a local, without this network survival will be down to luck; those same people who helped you in the day, might be the ones who kill you at night.
There are four main reasons for this situation. First, by continuing to support the same mujaheddin and warlords who ran the place before the Taliban, the US turned worms into snakes who simply got back into business. Second, each US administration ignored one of Afghanistan’s golden rules that requires weaving together local alliances (the Lord Curzon approach). Instead, Western policymakers insisted on centralised government-in-a-box where corruption became the oxygen of bureaucracy.
The third is Pakistan. It never stopped providing the Taliban with training, weapons and a sanctuary. When it comes to Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot be trusted. Even with one of the most skilled intelligence services on the planet, Pakistan never knew the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, was living in its premier military academy town of Abbottabad. Yeah, right.
The fourth is to repeat the lessons following the Vietnam war, when former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger said, ‘we fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion…’. In a theatre of such strategic significance as Afghanistan, and where we have the watches but they have the time, it was never going to be won in a generation. With a 6,000-year head start in convincing foreigners with money that an old horse with a new saddle is a new beast, it was always going to be an unfair contest.
Significantly, our fight against AQ and Islamist extremist terrorism is not over. Remember, that’s what it was originally about. AQ’s military training manual is explicit in describing the lengths this movement is prepared to go. Found during a 2017 counterterrorism raid of a Manchester flat, the manual states ‘the confrontation we are calling for with these apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates, Platonic ideals nor Aristotelian diplomacy.
But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing and destruction and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun’. Its authors are unequivocal and sadly historically accurate, when they also explain, ‘Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils. They are established as they always have been, by pen and gun, by word and bullet, by tongue and teeth’. These extremists regard themselves as vanguards of the Islamic revolution. It is a fight beyond time and geography.
Afghans have a piercing rationale to life. Throughout the peace deal negotiations the Taliban maintained the illusion that AQ is not in Afghanistan because that is what the peace agreement said. The trick would have been for the West to connect with that thinking. For whatever reason, no one explained to the Taliban the reason the US is in Afghanistan is because it was attacked from Afghanistan by foreign terrorists. No foreign terrorists, no US troops.
Inshallah, it could have been as simple as that.
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