Curtains are to be drawn without a climax. “It is time to end America’s longest war,” said President Biden as he announced America’s pull out from an unwon and unwinnable Afghan war. And America’s allies would obviously follow the American route. Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 has effectively upheld the spirit of the Trump-Taliban deal of February 2020, in which the Taliban assured it would not let terrorist groups operate on Afghan soil, and, in return, US troops were scheduled to pull back by this May 1.
“We need to close the book on a 20-year war,” this is how US officials explained the proposed departure from Afghanistan. Biden’s team even called it a “moonshot” – the kind of imagining which soars beyond “blue sky” brainstorming. Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle’, Tina Fey’s 2016 film ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’, and Nicolas Wild’s graphic novel series ‘Kabul Disco’ (2009, 2013) reimagined Kabul as “Kabubble”, which is a paradoxical site of transnational career building, an inflated economy zone, and as a new kind of ruin – a ruin of late neoliberalism.
Today’s Afghanistan is still war-weary, lawless, and postmedieval. The situation is dire, and distrust, insecurity and fear are rampant. And Afghanistan might sink into deeper trouble by descending into chaos once again. Many Afghans and many experts beyond the border wonder whether the US millitary departure can end an endless war at all, or would it see the terrorist groups’ total rout in Afghanistan. Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the country’s defence forces “are fully capable of defending its people and country”, many experts doubt this.
US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the decision “a grave mistake”. “It is a retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished, an abdication of American leadership,” McConnell said. How was the decision of Afghan war taken in the first place? “Rule Number 1 in politics: Never invade Afghanistan,” then British prime minister Harold Macmillan declared in 1963. However, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Macmillan’s wisdom was ignored by the United States and its western allies when they launched an all-out war to dismantle the Taliban and their Al Qaeda guests in Afghanistan.
And it took twenty long years for them to relearn what Macmillan cautioned against decades ago. ‘Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World’ (2015) is an excellent account of the Afghanistan war, written by Christina Lamb, an award-winning war correspondent for ‘The Sunday Times’, based on her decades of experience in the country. Lamb investigated just how the might of NATO, with 48 countries and 140,000 troops on the ground, failed to defeat a group of religious students and farmers, and how success was turned into defeat in the longest war fought by the United States in its history and by Britain since the Hundred Years War.
In her book, Lamb noted unambiguously: “Maybe we hadn’t been chased out as in previous wars, but Afghanistan would always be remembered as a failure, in the same breath as Vietnam and Gallipoli.” It’s not that the policy-makers of Washington couldn’t understand that, but they were clearly hesitant to carry the stigma of another failed war, and consequently they remained ambivalent about the departure.
The Afghan war resulted in deaths of nearly 2,400 American troops, and cost around $2 trillion for the US. Over years, however, Joe Biden was in favour of restricting its goal to counterterrorism missions. In fact, in 2009, then Vice-President Biden had strongly opposed expanding the US military presence in Afghanistan. The Obama administration, however, went on to increase the number of troops. Still the ‘Exit Afghanistan’ strategy was first aired by President Obama in 2009, which was subsequently repackaged by President Trump in 2019.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said recently. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.” Fair enough. But, didn’t his predecessors make the situation utterly complicated by extending the US military presence in Afghanistan? In 2001, the Afghan war was initiated with a plan to crush Al Qaeda and run the Taliban out of the country. However, President Bush quickly turned it to an utterly ambitious and impractical Marshall Plan to rebuild Afghanistan.
Why didn’t the US pull out of Afghanistan once they were done with the killing of bin Laden on 1 May 2011? Why did they extend the wings of their mission beyond all practical imagination? The US and its allies certainly missed the face-saving opportunity. War in Afghanistan certainly was a different ballgame from wars in Iraq or in Libya. Historically, the Pashtuns have never tolerated foreign occupation of their territory.
Let’s quote from the first chapter ‘Getting In’ of Lamb’s book: “During the First Anglo-Afghan war in 1842, a British general asked an Afghan tribal chief, ‘Why are you laughing?’ The tribal chief replied, ‘Because I can see how it was easy for you to get your troops in here. What I don’t understand is how you plan to get them out.’” Sounds like the case of Prince Abhimanyu of the great epic Mahabharata? The ground reality of Afghanistan, however, remains unchanged.
Harold Macmillan knew that. President Obama could understand that when in May 2014, the White House released the ‘Statement by the President on Afghanistan’: “I think Americans have learned it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them.”
Understandably, the Taliban might be reluctant to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government at the moment. Critics fear that the US pulling out from Afghanistan might even lead to a repeat of the 1975 Fall of Saigon after the US pull out. Or even worse. As the “book” on America’s longest fought war is now going to be prematurely closed, the Afghan exit will also come with a moral cost. The unread chapters of the “book” would unfold in the future. Simon Jenkins, a columnist of The Guardian, opined recently: “In a world of apologies, some mighty big ones are due in September.”
In the Mahabharata, Abhimanyu couldn’t come out of the Charavyuha. Will America be able to get out of the Chakravyuha of Afghanistan at all? Maybe not, at least in the near future – the moral cost is too large to pay. The world would remain anxious, and the unwon war would remain as another Vietnam – in a different form, of course. And the spectre of Afghanistan would keep on haunting the US. For decades to come, at least.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)