A dismal failure in ‘nation building’

21-08-2021 12:51 PM

BY Michael Jansen

No one should have been surprised by the Taliban's stunning victory in Afghanistan. The movement had been planning for two decades for the take-over and had systematically implemented a simple two-pronged strategy which, towards the end, involved limited fighting. The first prong involved long-term Taliban infiltration of the countryside inhabited by conservative tribesmen largely alienated by the neglect of the Kabul-based, US-backed government, which focused its development efforts on cities and towns which were, gradually, surrounded by the Taliban.

The Taliban openly administered villages and hamlets, ran schools, allowed international aid groups to operate health centres, and mounted check points to define their areas of control, apprehending wanted government-employed men. A BBC team testified to this remarkable situation when given a guided tour of Taliban-controlled territory near the city of Masar-e-Sharif in mid-April this year. Its correspondents were told by their host, Haji Hekmat, "We have won the war and America has lost." Indeed, they had. Four months later the Taliban entered Kabul.

The second prong, described by Susannah George in an article in The Washington Post on August 16, was launched early last year about the time the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban providing for full US and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. This prong consisted of deals initially reached in rural villages between the Taliban and low-level officials in the Afghan bureaucracy. These arrangements were touted as ceasefires but, in fact, involved payments to government units which handed over their weapons and quit the battlefield. These deals, wrote George, "advanced to the district level and then on to provincial capitals, culminating in a breathtaking series of negotiated surrenders by government forces". Taliban fighters took over provincial capitals, one by one, and then Kabul — largely, unopposed.

It is surprising that the US, its NATO partners, and the Afghan authorities did nothing to obstruct or halt the two-pronged Afghan offensive. The failure to do so, only shows that they were not interested enough to intervene: the US and NATO because they were leaving while the Afghan government could not be bothered even though its every existence and the lives of the country's people depended on stopping the Taliban. Perhaps the politicians and administrators believed that the US cavalry would come to the rescue at the last moment as is often the case in US films about the Old West. This did not happen because, according to former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, vice president, Biden had made up his mind that the US should withdraw as early as 2009 after an acrimonious dinner with then Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan will pay a high price. It is bitterly ironic that August 15, anniversary of the allied victory over Japan in World War II and Indian Independence Day, should be the date of the return of Afghanistan to the rule of the Taliban.

In his August 16 address to the US public, President Biden said he had no regrets about withdrawing US troops, the action which precipitated the Taliban's victorious take-over of the country. On this issue, he said, "the buck stops here", before blaming Donald Trump for taking the initial decision to pull-out, the Afghan government for fleeing, and the Afghan army for refusing to fight.

Biden reiterated his claim that Afghan troops numbered 300,000 and that they had been well trained and armed by the US. He was stretching the truth when he said this. The Afghan army and police were understrength and overstretched due to the fact that from the outset of the US military mission in that country, officers claimed salaries for soldiers who did not exist. While US military intelligence should have told him that, as The Washington Post reported, an unknown number of troops had done deals with the Taliban, reducing the number of those in the ranks. It is likely that Biden knew about this if he is a reader of the Post as the article was published ahead of his appearance.

Biden was correct in saying that the Afghan army was trained by the US military but this effort was modelled on training for US soldiers rather than Afghan youths whose background differs dramatically from that of US troops. The US also supplied Afghan troops with hi-tech US-made weapons which did not suit them. One expert on Afghanistan said its soldiers would have been better served if supplied with simpler Russian weapons.

Biden ignored the fact that the 2,500 US troops and 15,000 contractors remaining in Afghanistan before the pull-out were in charge of maintenance of equipment, logistics, communications, intelligence, air support and overall leadership. When the US departed Afghan troops were left to cope on their own without orders, food, water and ammunition. Biden declared, "We paid their salaries." The US may have provided the money to pay their salaries, but many had not received their salaries for as long as six months before being abandoned. The US failed to make certain salaries were, in fact, paid. Thanks to US mismanagement and corruption, which Biden did not admit, morale was low in the Afghan army. Many soldiers did not want to die fighting to maintain a inept US occupation which did not benefit them, their families, or their country.

Biden had pledged to tell the truth to the "American people”. Instead, when brought low by a self-made catastrophe, he broke his promise several times in his first comments on the debacle.

He said the US had succeeded in the mission it set for itself when it invaded Afghanistan. This was to eliminate Al Qaeda's presence in the country. However, the US also removed the Taliban which hosted Al Qaeda. These days, the Taliban not only hosts Al Qaeda but also Daesh which took part in the campaign to reconquer Afghanistan.

Although Biden argued the US does not do "nation building", this was the only way for Washington to prevent the Taliban and its takfiri allies from returning. Unfortunately, the US is a dismal failure when it comes to nation building. It failed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Having emerged victorious in its long wars with France and the US, the Viet Cong rebuilt Vietnam. Iraq is crisis-ridden and close to becoming a failed state and Afghanistan faces an uncertain future in the 21st century while the medieval Taliban is in charge.

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