Opinion | Why US strategy in Afghanistan failed against Taliban-Pakistan nexus?

Written By: Major General S B Asthana WION
New Delhi Published: Aug 08, 2021, 08:26 AM(IST)

File photo Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

Pakistan's nexus with the Taliban is quite old and its assistance to it was one of the causes of the US failure in Afghanistan as it manages to play a double game

As the Taliban captures two provincial capitals, the UN envoy has reported to the UNSC about the Afghan war entering a deadlier and more destructive phase, with over 1000 civilian casualties.

The US may have declared ending its military mission in Afghanistan as “Mission Accomplished" on the "Global War on Terrorism" (GWOT)”, but in reality, its embarrassing exit will continue to haunt its reputation for a long time.

With Taliban gaining territory every passing day simultaneously imposing horrifying restrictions on captured territory as "Islamic traditions" it indicates the transition of GWOT into global resurgence of terror in collusion with Pakistan.

Other regional stakeholders are concerned but are watching helplessly trying to mitigate the situation by talks. It is evident the strategy adopted by the Taliban assisted by Pakistan has done better than that of the US. A critical analysis of the strategies of each of the three directly involved in Afghanistan is necessary to infer future possibilities.

Why US lost GWOT in Afghanistan?

The US supported by multinational forces entered GWOT, post 9/11 incident with an aim to dislodge the Taliban regime which sheltered al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden who masterminded the execution of the barbarous terrorist act in New York.

Their military aim encompassed ensuring that no terror group in Afghanistan becomes strong enough to hit their mainland again, besides eliminating Osama Bin Laden and some other terrorist leaders.

Peace and development in Afghanistan was an expected side-effect, not their main aim. To execute it, the US had to depend on Pakistan for logistics chain, intelligence and boots on the ground despite full knowledge of Pakistan’s support to Taliban and other terror groups having gainfully used services of ISI and Pakistan Army against erstwhile USSR.

As per principles of war, had the US stuck to its aim and exited after dislodging the Taliban regime, reinstating a democratically elected government in place, eliminating Osama Bin Laden, marginalising al-Qaeda and other terror groups, it would have been a graceful exit.

It stretched its aim to an impractical limit of eliminating the Taliban and other Islamic terror outfits from Afghan soil, least realising that the military power by itself can’t eliminate Wahabi ideology. Finding only military solution to the problem of religious fundamentalism was a strategic misjudgement. This shifted the achievement of the aim of multinational forces (MNF) beyond their culmination point, operationally.

MNF was fighting from urban bases through technology and airpower could not eliminate the Taliban from rural areas. People are the centre of gravity in such operations hence one innocent killed in the collateral damage of airstrikes can lead to the birth of many terrorists strengthening the ideology of fundamentalists.

Battle fatigue and political considerations steered the desire of MNF to pull out. In exuberance to do so, sham peace negotiations of the US with the Taliban (which turned out to be an exit deal) was the next error committed by the US. It legitimised the Taliban as a political entity from terrorist status which led to a tired US military, fighting a defensive battle against a resurgent, legalised Taliban for a safe exit.

The US consistently underplayed Pakistan’s support to Sunni terrorists in the region making it a major beneficiary of monetary help and military hardware. It is to the credit of Pakistan that it lured the US to extract maximum by encashing their expertise in terrorism and finally helping the US in defeating itself in GWOT.

Now after 20 years of war, losing 2,400 soldiers and more than $3 trillion, the US and MNF have also lost the strategic space, bases in Pakistan, amounting to a walkover in the AF-Pak region.

A threat by the US not to recognise Taliban, if it takes over Afghanistan by force, forming Quad with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, some drone strikes and evacuating informers are weak responses to mitigate embarrassment indicating its helplessness. US continues to depend on Pakistan with a hope that it might need Pakistan again least realising that its strategic choices are hostage to China and it has no utility to the US, as its NSA recently threatened to say that if the President of the US can’t talk to his PM, “They have other options”.

Is the strategy adopted by the Taliban superior?

A battle-hardened Taliban having learnt some lessons after losing the war against MNF managed to survive in rural areas with full support of Pakistan hosting some of their leaders in safe sanctuaries in their country despite claiming to fight for the US and MNF.

When the MNF crossed their culmination point, the Taliban with Pakistan’s support started expanding in rural areas.

Taliban encashed on the combat fatigue of US forces and its political ramifications encouraged the US administration to talk, establishing its legitimacy as an essential actor. Pakistan’s mediation in this exercise favoured the Taliban and not the US, although the optics was differently narrated.

Thus a rejuvenated Taliban was fighting tired US forces, operating from their bases avoiding rough terrain and infantry dominated operations relying more on technology and firepower which has serious limitations in the type of terrain in the area of operation. The air and drone strikes proved inadequate to prevent the growing influence of the Taliban.

With the US-Taliban peace deal signed and US withdrawal in progress, Taliban gained the maximum strategic advantage by consolidating occupation of rural areas and then increasingly capturing various border districts to takeover crossings of Afghanistan with other countries to isolate Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) which have numerical superiority but are based in urban areas having a defensive mindset.

With few military gains, the strategic momentum of the Taliban has improved and initiative is on their side. This has increased the pace of capturing territory while their political and diplomatic wing continues with sham talks.

Taliban also encashed on the urgency of US forces to exit by putting up demands like the release of 5,000 prisoners which the Afghanistan government had agreed under US pressure. This in effect increased the number of fighters of the Taliban. In the meantime, Pakistan increasingly under pressure from FATF diverted over 10,000 terrorists to fight alongside the Afghan-Taliban, besides some professional guidance from Pakistan Army and ISI and occasional air support.

Taliban is now in a position to insert itself between important towns to isolate the ANDSF, struggling with low morale due to some surrenders.

Taliban's current strategic aim is to get into power structure on their terms without fighting any elections by putting maximum pressure on the negotiating table after capturing maximum territory.

Taliban is aware that with Sharia law tag it can never win an election (which it terms as non-Islamic governance model of West). It may not be keen to seize power by force due to fear of being isolated which will make it difficult for them to govern giving rise to forces countering them within Afghanistan.

They are aware that they don't have mass people's support who have got used to democracy in the last 20 years. Taliban thus finds talks and offensive simultaneously as their best option for a political solution in their favour.

Terror attacks in Kabul is to strike the minds of Afghan leadership to weaken their resolve and position on the negotiation table. On the political front the Taliban has also successfully managed a photo session with the Chinese hierarchy seeking more legitimacy in exchange of promise of not supporting ETIM which it may/may not fulfil.

All promises of Taliban leaders that it is moderate Taliban in 2021 capable of meeting people's aspirations stand junked as Shariah Law-like curbs are back in place in Taliban controlled areas. Men lose the freedom to shave & smoke, women lose freedom and most disgusting is the listing of single girls between 15 to 45 years to be married to Taliban fighters as a "reward". Even if the Taliban leaders pose as moderates their fighters will not let the leaders settle down for anything but Shariah law.

Pakistan’s double game: Unprecedented opportunity with some concerns!

Pakistan’s strategic aim has always been to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan by enforcing the Durand Line over friendly or weak government in Kabul and edging out other players from Afghanistan.

It has been uncomfortable with the Indian presence for developmental work in Afghanistan and growing closeness between the USA and India to an extent that it was propagating an unsalable narrative that India is trying to encircle it.

Pakistan's nexus with the Taliban is quite old and its assistance to it was one of the causes of the US failure in Afghanistan as it manages to play a double game with the US and Taliban. It was also an opportunity for Pakistan to send out a large number of terrorists to fight alongside the Afghan-Taliban whom it wanted to relocate to avoid FATF fallouts and preserve what it terms them as their "strategic assets" to be used elsewhere later.

The opportunity is also marred with some serious concerns. Taliban in power never compromised on Durand Line and their stance in future is likely to be similar. Taliban also has many groups within including TTP which will also get stronger to strike Pakistan as the power of the Taliban grows.

Innumerable refugees outflow along with some inimical terror groups is also a concern. Pakistan’s strategy of joining hands with the Taliban while dumping Ghani’s government and luring China in this strategic space has gone off well so far. It has also been successful in edging out the US and India out of Afghanistan with its terrorists incrementally damaging Indian built assets.

What is going wrong with ANDSF strategy?

ANDSF in numbers are two to three times more than Taliban fighters but are low in morale suffering a defensive mindset. They are not venturing out of urban areas and trying to halt the Taliban with less potent air power in comparison to Americans.

Over the last 20 years, they went into a syndrome of overdependence on foreign forces and foreign aid. The Afghan government with fractured mandate and various groups eyeing to share power weakened the homogeneity as an effective establishment to govern.

In military strategy, a defender can never win, but can at best delay defeat. Operationally ANDSF is making the same mistake as MNF made by trying to win by airpower and defending bases thus leaving the initiative with the Taliban.

If ANDSF fights with an offensive mindset, effective use of available airpower and sound strategy, small gains can improve sagging morale which can change the tide against the Taliban.

Response of other stakeholders!

The US also tried the idea of outsourcing regional peace in Afghanistan to regional stakeholders. All other stakeholders are concerned with the likelihood of export of terrorism but are gravely short of options and leverages as no one is keen to put boots on the ground knowing fully well that no foreign recipe of peace in Afghanistan has worked in past nor will it work in future.

Almost every neighbour (Russia, Pakistan, China, Iran, CAR and Qatar) are organising peace talks between various stakeholders, primarily to suit their own interests making no headway.

China keen on connectivity and economic exploitation of Afghanistan is hesitant on becoming the third power (after USSR and USA) to suffer in the “Graveyard of Empires” hence will prefer working through Pakistan till the power structure stabilise.

India has always emphasised on Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, Afghan-controlled, elected, democratic government and has invested a tremendous amount of goodwill in the people of Afghanistan and Ghani’s government through a large amount of development projects and capacity building of various institutions including ANDSF with a cumulative sunk cost of $3 billion.

India suffers from a major handicap that despite being a legal neighbour of Afghanistan it doesn’t physically hold a common border, thus has no direct land route. It reduces the capability of India to directly influence outcomes in Afghanistan hence it was never taken seriously by other stakeholders even during talks. Diplomatically India has left no stone unturned to mitigate the crisis.

Way ahead

There is a need to boost the morale of Afghan forces with air support, military assets and maintenance of its existing damaged air assets. An offensive mindset and sound military strategy can turn the tide in ANDSF's favour. They need to focus on recapturing border crossings, utilise other supporting non-state actors in engaging the Taliban to weaken blockades with guerrilla tactics. The momentum of the Taliban can break while fighting in urban areas due to weak peoples support, lesser numbers, and no air resources. There is a need to create a viable countervailing force within Afghanistan.

There is a need for the UNSC to rein/sanction Pakistan for adding strength to the Taliban by using its non-state actors against an elected government of another country for the sake of innocent people, women and children of Afghanistan.

While the statements condemning violence have been issued, but there is a need for a resolution against sponsors and global condemnation of the Taliban’s effort to takeover by force.

India as the president UNSC continues to highlight the issue of violence and atrocities by terrorists in Afghanistan and flags the reports of the Afghan government and UN regarding almost 10,000 Pakistani terrorists fighting alongside the Taliban against the democratically elected government.

If left to Afghan people, civil war will continue and the Taliban even if in power will also face an unprecedented cycle of instability from angry population resenting Sharia law and rival groups in Afghanistan and within the Taliban.

Various tribes and terror groups will ensure that no single entity or foreign player gets that strategic space exclusively. It is unlikely that China-Pakistan will find it easy to exploit the situation amid expected instability.

It will certainly have a telling effect on the regional and global security situation as the Af-Pak region will become the largest breeding ground for terrorism with some of the terror groups again becoming strong enough to strike the US, EU, China, India or CAR.

Afghanistan seems to be heading for a situation wherein different areas will be under influence of different entities, leaving the helpless population suffering under the hands of fundamentalists, if no mid-course correction is undertaken.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

Major General S B Asthana

The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years of experience in national & international fields and UN. He has been awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Moldova and Governor of Haryana. He is currently Chief Instructor at USI of India.

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