Indeed, the US is making much heavy weather of exiting Afghanistan, and of course it entered the Country in a fit of bullheadedness, Al-Qaeda having shown the red rag – without much forethought. But that happens most of the time, and since even the best laid-out plans fly out of window after the initial salvos; it’s the afterthought that counts. And that’s where America went awfully awry.
Don’t march on Moscow, should be the first rule of war – Field Marshal Montgomery once suggested. If still around, he might have added Afghanistan to his ‘no-go’ list. It’s not because roads to Moscow or Kabul were paved with catacombs. It’s about what happens at the end of the march. The history of resistance and the tyranny of geography takeover, and cause a great deal of discomfiture to the unwelcome guest. While no sane person in the present times would follow Napoleon’s or Hitler’s trail; a superpower – especially if it was the only one left – might fatuously believe that it would pull-off in Afghanistan what the British or the Soviets could not. Hubris may tempt you to jump in a quagmire, getting out needs more brains than brawn.
When the British vice-regent in Balochistan bragged that the Imperial Indian Army had entered Kabul, the Khan of Kalat famously quipped: “and how’re you going to get out of there”. That was 1942, and this legation could not. Ever since, anyone who stumbled in this eastern twin of Bermuda Triangle, had to address this question, sooner or later. After that fiasco, Britain, the sole superpower of the time, bribed the tribesmen to get in and out of Afghanistan. In 1989, it was the Soviets’ turn. Though still a superpower, they neither had the money nor any misplaced ego – and simply sought Pakistan’s help to guard their rear. They not only got home in reasonable shape, but their successor regime is back as the peace broker. No idea if the US was exhausting all other options before finding the right exit! (My apologies to the late Winston Churchill.) To me it seems that like the man who jumped in a river to retrieve a blanket, which turned out to be a bear, in Afghanistan the Amis have been caught by the blanket – except that this one is home woven.
Project Afghanistan crashed soon after its launch. The leaked Afghanistan Papers merely confirm what many others had already known. The vanity that in the first place had gotten the US in, was now coming in the way on the way out. Beating a retreat after its designs were foiled by a ragtag militia was not an attractive proposition. Understandably, it called for reinforcements. But since more of the same hardly ever works, they only reinforced failure. Getting stuck in the hole that was getting deeper all the time, had to be rationalized. Fighting terror and some other fancy stuff may have served the purpose. In the process, the beneficiaries of the war – the drug merchants, the warlords, and the arms dealers – had developed vested interest in perpetuation of this enterprise. Even the Taliban who were getting over 500 million dollars every year as their cut from the drugs and the development projects, and for providing security to the NATO convoys, found a modus vivendi. The regime installed in Kabul of course has no chance to survive without the American protection. And then the prospects of retaining a foothold in a critical region, might have provided some consolation for the cost and agony of hanging-in there.
There is a fable about the frogs. They could not come out of the jar because anyone who tried would be pulled back by the rest. No idea how it ended: the pot broke; or the frogs died of exhaustion! Afghanistan is not breaking apart, but the US is still lucky. None of its adversaries want it to be buried in the proverbial graveyard. Only its friends keep tugging at its legs to keep it in.
Biden’s decision to terminate the US military presence before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is sensible – and may even be implemented. But I’m not holding my breath. Taliban have good reasons not to publically acquiesce to the four months extension in the pullout date, but may be persuaded to abide by the spirit of the peace treaty. Exponents of forever war however would do their best, or their worst, to subvert the new deadline, as well.
It’s up to the President and his team to scuttle their infernal designs, and finally do what the US has always done to make up for its failed ventures – reconstruct the bridges it had destroyed.