Washington messed up everything in Afghanistan. Over to Russia, China to enter the quicksand

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    Stand by for military historians and strategic analysts to wheel out familiar tropes – march of folly, graveyard of empires etc – as the United States bolts ignominiously from Afghanistan. The chaos and mayhem unfolding on the tarmac of Kabul airport has been 20 years or more in the making. There is little doubt that Washington screwed up – not just in organising an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan but from the outset in its approach to the crisis itself. But who among its leaders is responsible for this catastrophic meltdown?

    As the White House incumbent, President Joe Biden is left holding the can. A man whose resume is loaded with foreign policy experience, he has botched the logistics of withdrawal even as he argues he inherited the broader crisis from his predecessor Donald Trump, who struck a Faustian bargain by signing what was virtually a surrender document in Doha in February 2020.

    That deal handed over Afghanistan to Taliban in return for tenuous commitments that would primarily ensure US security. Months before that fiasco, Trump accorded Taliban de facto recognition as an incoming dispensation by mulling an invitation to Camp David, in the process undermining the US-backed Ashraf Ghani government, whose goose was cooked when it was sidelined in the Doha talks.

    While the current mess involves at least four most recent US presidencies, the miasma extends to at least eight. It goes back to the Carter-Reagan era, when successive Democrat and Republican presidents thought it was a good idea (peddled by warmongering hawks in Washington) to get the Soviet Union stuck in a land called the graveyard of empires, with help from ally Pakistan. Forbears of Taliban were feted in the White House and celebrated as ‘mujahideen’ – freedom fighters. The seeds of the debacle were sown.

    Moscow retreated with a bloody nose, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Taliban, nurtured by Pakistan, rose in Afghanistan, which Islamabad regarded as its strategic depth in its ceaseless war against India. Taliban in turn fostered al-Qaida, which delivered 9/11 to avenge perceived American infidelities elsewhere in the Islamic world. A gung-ho novice in the White House correctly went after the perpetrators ensconced in Afghanistan.

    But he quickly lost the plot, expending time, money and energy on the unnecessary war in Iraq (at the prompting of the so-called Vulcans), a hopeless diversion arising from their pathology involving one man, Saddam Hussein, when its focus should have been Af-Pak, not even Afghanistan alone.

    A decade and a trillion dollars were wasted in this fruitless war before President Obama’s course correction resulted in hunting down Osama bin Laden – in Pakistan. But the distraction enervated 21st-century America that famously took to wars in the past, but now does not have the appetite for a fight, much less stomach for blood and body bags.

    With the benefit of hindsight, the US could perhaps have packed up soon after it killed bin Laden. President Obama tried, feebly, but by then Washington had been seduced into the business of nation building, with the sense that for the full mission to be accomplished, Afghanistan and its people have to be delivered to modernity.

    America did not reckon with the extant tribalism of the Afghan society. Instead of channelling aid to benefit the people of Afghanistan, as India did with its paltry millions (and was mocked by Trump for its effort to build and support institutions), US generals and militarists in Washington allowed Afghan elites and warlords to bilk billions, even as foot soldiers were left in the lurch.

    Initial reports suggest that the speed with which Afghanistan and its major provinces and cities fell had to do with unpaid and underpaid conscripts, who over the past few months simply sold their weapons and loyalty to Taliban while their masters fled with the loot after the Trump dispensation ditched two decades of US investments.

    So what now? On Sunday, as Americans and their allies jostled on the tarmac of the Kabul airport to clamber on to evacuation flights, the Russians (and the Chinese) are showing no such urgency or panic. They have kept their missions open and their people in place, having embraced Taliban, just as the Reagan White House did.

    Also gloating over the American fiasco – and Indian discomfiture – is Pakistan, the agent provocateur, which has gone unpunished, even rewarded for its depredations in Afghanistan. India, which has had to bear heavy collateral damage in the decade after 9/11, has barely been part of the conversation in Washington. It is once again in the crosshairs. With the return of Taliban in Kabul, Pakistan’s GHQ will once again be tempted to play with fire.

    But the firepit tends to consume those who kindle it, as London, Moscow and Washington have found over the past century. Perhaps it is Beijing’s turn to experience it now. Pakistan itself has been singed by the Afghan fire and has not learnt its lesson. At a time when India is in the throes of a fervid debate on partition horrors, and New Delhi is kvetching over Islamabad regaining its strategic depth, it can take some comfort in Pakistan being a buffer state that will take the heat from Afghanistan first, although it will be Pakistani civil society that will suffer.

    As for the US, it can take heart from the words of its Nobel winning singer-songwriter who advised its writers and critics who prophesise with their pen to keep their eyes wide and not speak too soon – “For the wheel’s still in spin/ And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’/ For the loser now will be later to win/ For the times they are a-changin’.” This is just another chapter in the Great Game.

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    Disclaimer

    Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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