Home / Opinion / Columns /  How did America get so many things wrong for so long?

For the United States, the end of its ‘forever war’ could hardly have been more inglorious. It made little sense for the US to keep pouring money into Afghanistan—it is high time Afghans took full charge of their future. But exits are all about the way they are executed. And military helicopters hovering over the US embassy in Kabul, as the triumphant Taliban shouted “Death to America" on CNN, was a sorry sight. The only difference between Saigon 1975 and Kabul 2021 seemed to be the helicopter brand—in 1975, it was Bell; in 2021, Boeing Chinook. This exit went down as a defeat.

The last chapter of the story that began 20 years ago with the 9/11 attacks has been bizarre. In 2018, the Donald Trump administration started talks with the Taliban. But it kept the Afghan government, in which it had invested so much, out. At that very moment, the Taliban and their handlers in Pakistan would have known that they had won. All they needed to do was to play for time. The US was in a hurry, but jihad has no deadlines. The Taliban kept making promises about a ceasefire and peace, and kept breaking them, while the US forced the Afghan government to make concession after concession, and stick to only defensive military action against the Taliban.

Yet, however much US President Joe Biden may blame Trump for what happened, the final meltdown was his doing. On 16 August, after the fall of Kabul, Biden spoke on television for 20 minutes. Though he reversed most of Trump’s policies, he could do nothing about America’s Afghanistan strategy, apparently. He had decided to abide by Trump’s troop-withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, even as they reneged on every single point of the deal.

With regard to the principal reason why the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Biden said: “We severely degraded Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan." ‘Severely degraded’ is anything but ‘eliminated’. The Indian team looked severely degraded at Lord’s a few days ago when it was eight wickets down, till Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami came together for a match-winning partnership. In fact, a 2020 United Nations report found that “the Taliban appear to have strengthened their relationship with Al-Qaeda rather than the opposite".

Biden gave the assurance that all Americans and Afghan allies of the US would be evacuated to safety. But, a day later, the State Department sent a mail to Americans requesting evacuation that said: “Please be advised that the United States government cannot guarantee your security as you make this trip [to Kabul airport]."

Why, in early July, did the US abandon its biggest military base at Bagram in the dead of night, without even informing the local Afghan army commander? This was a demoralizing message to the Afghan army and triggered the final Taliban surge, which hardly met any resistance. US forces abruptly cut off supply lines and air support to the Afghan army. Why the breathless haste to get American soldiers out (the last US combat casualty was in 2016)? Was it all done so that Biden could deliver a self-congratulatory speech on the 9/11 anniversary? The way things have turned out in Kabul, his speech writers have a tough job on hand.

There seem to be four key factors to the debacle. One, the US tried to build an Afghan army with US-style rules, regulations, “best practices", centralized command and so on that were entirely alien to Afghan military culture. Men like Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abdul Rashid Dostum were successful against the Taliban because they fought in the tried-and-tested Afghan way that suits both temperament and terrain—decentralized command, small raiding parties that could appear and disappear at will and were bound by ethnic and tribal loyalties. Many soldiers in the Afghan army may have been confused and unmotivated.

Two, corruption. The Afghan government was crooked to the core, its grandees enriching themselves obscenely while exploiting the country’s population. US strategists would certainly have been aware of this, but appear to have taken a policy decision to do nothing about it. Could it have been because a lot of American businesses and private contractors were making sky-high profits out of this cycle of corruption?

Three, the leaders imposed by the US on the country. Hamid Karzai, its first post-Taliban president, played broker among such varied interests, ranging from the US energy industry to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that it was never too clear what was going on. His successor Ashraf Ghani, co-author of a 2009 book titled Fixing Failed States (fact, not a joke), reportedly fled Kabul with planeloads of cash.

Four, Pakistan. Washington has been consistently duped by the ISI and the Pakistan army, which have used US money to subvert US interests, sometimes openly. Trump initiating talks with the Taliban was just the opening Pakistan had waited for.

And through all of this—a wrong army, corruption, bad leadership and treachery—the American political and military establishment seems to have stayed either deluded or in denial.

Meanwhile, Taliban 2.0 leaders appear to have been coached carefully on how to play the media; spokesmen speak about “inclusive" government and protecting women’s rights. But only the overly-gullible would believe that a leopard changes its spots. And by bungling its last moves in this 40-year-long game, the US has supplied new energy to Islamist radicals across the world.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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