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The lonesomeness of defeat

Afghanistan has been a debacle for the Americans, but no less so for the Indians.

Sunil Sharan | New Delhi |


The great generals of the modern era, the Guderians, the Rommels, the MacArthurs, and without doubt the greatest of them all, Napoleon, always saw things clearly. They recognized victory to be victory and defeat to be defeat and did not confuse between the two. A superb German army opened two fronts in World War II, which led to its downfall. The Americans did the same in Iraq and Afghanistan, meeting humiliation in both places.

Opening up two fronts is tricky at best. Yet, India has chosen to open two fronts now: against China with the Quad, and the apocalypse that is now sure to emerge from the west. The Americans have hightailed it out of South Asia, and will not be seen there again for a very long time. Victors of the war in Afghanistan are many, beside of course the Taliban. First and foremost is Pakistan. It was 1971 and a muggy, morose afternoon in Pakistan when the fall of Dhaka was announced.

The spirit of the nation had been broken. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan saw its chance to break their backs and rebuild its own. Unfortunately for the Pakistanis, the Americans dumped them like a used condom after that war. The Pakistanis vowed never to put all their eggs in the basket of the Americans. When the Americans returned to Afghanistan, the Pakistanis maneuvered themselves shrewdly.

The fate of the second Afghan war was up in the air. It was then felt that some sort of coalition government would emerge in Afghanistan. The American exit from Iraq made many realize that they could meet the same fate in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis ramped up their support of the Taliban. The Americans could do nothing about it. Supply routes to their troops in Afghanistan lay through Pakistan. The Americans thought that they still had a shot in Afghanistan. India, willy-nilly, put all its eggs in the basket of the Americans.

Since 1991, the Indian power elite have become fascinated by America. Thy, meaning the American, wish is my command, they feel. The Indians trained officers of the Afghan National Army, who all chose to melt away as the Taliban took Kabul in 11 hours flat. What kind of training did our military academies provide the Afghan officers? It must be the same as being provided to their Indian counterparts. Should we not examine what went wrong with the Afghan officers?

Pakistan has now emerged from a failing state to an emerging midtier state. Our power elite abandoned our ties with Russia. Yes, we would buy the odd missile system, but that would be it. The Russians started supplying arms to their former bête noire, Pakistan. We got complacent. Who needed the Russians when we had the Americans? America was facing defeat after defeat, yet we couldn’t care less.

The Americans had humiliated the Russians in Afghanistan. Now it was the turn of the Russians to return the favour. And they found a kindred spirit in Pakistan. Whenever Moscow would hold Afghan talks, the Pakistanis would force them to marginalize us, which the Russians readily obliged. The lone superpower of the world has fled, Pakistan is an emerging power, and Russia is a world power. What about the emerging superpower, China? China is exultant about the defeat of its rival, America.

It is unhappy with India for its stance on the Quad, and through Afghanistan and Pakistan, will attempt to squeeze India. India was an emerging world power, but after defeat in Afghanistan and willy-nilly opening two fronts against China and Pakistan, may not remain so. Most of the time it is iron-brother China that bails out Pakistan. Now Afghanistan presents an opportunity for the Pakistanis to come to the aid of China by helping launch Jihad 2.0 against India. People are hoping that Taliban 2.0 will be different from Taliban 1.0. The Taliban too is making polite noises. But does a leopard ever change its spots, especially a victorious one?

Afghanistan has been a debacle for the Americans, but no less so for the Indians. Until the last minute we were supporting the puppet regime of Ashraf Ghani. We made only feeble attempts to talk to the Taliban. In 20 years of warfare there, why didn’t it occur to us to distance ourselves from the Americans, and perhaps act as good-faith intermediaries between the Taliban and the Americans? South Block is busy saying that it is prepared for any eventuality. But that is the language of losers.

There have been two losers in the Afghan war, America and India. One has quit the region, perhaps forever. We are the other loser, left holding the can. Even if we don’t have a Napoleon, where are our Guderians, Rommels and MacArthurs? If our military academies are not producing them, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

(The writer is an expert on energy and contributes regularly to publications in India and overseas)