Who “Lost” Afghanistan, America or India?

chabahar port

I got this on WhatsApp this morning: “If you ever feel useless, just remember … USA took 4 Presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollar and 20 years to replace Taliban with Taliban.” Keeping aside the humour and sarcasm, one must admire Americans’ candidness, once they know what they are talking or writing about. However, the bulk of  Americans are least informed about their country’s horrendous foreign and domestic policies, and buy whatever their presidents, lawmakers, and elites tell them on all the unnecessary wars their country has been fighting in the last 70-odd years. Thus, they believe, their country has finally “lost” the war in Afghanistan, as it had “lost” wars in Vietnam and Iraq, in the not-so-distant past ! The average individual anywhere in the world doesn’t think differently, in this regard.

There are at least two opposite narratives of what happened to the US and then to Afghanistan, following the 9/11 attacks. We know America and some not-so-well defined Islamist “terrorists” locked horns in the inhospitable terrain of the country, also known as the graveyard of empires, soon after some mysterious adversaries had attacked the Twin Towers and Pentagon in September 2001. Interestingly, Islamist “terrorist” outfits – al Qaeda and Taliban – whom Ronald Reagan once likened to the Founding Fathers of his country, are said to have “lost” Afghanistan to America and its allies. For most Western experts and laymen, the “decisive” Taliban-al-Qaeda defeat in late 2001 simply “secured”, “salvaged”, “liberated” and “democratized” Afghanistan, once for all. Admirers of Francis Fukuyama’s half-baked theory of  the “End of History” might have heaved sighs of relief. The diametrically opposite view is all about Islamophobia and the “not-so-hidden” Western design against Islam and Muslims that led to 9/11 and the destruction of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and some other Muslim land. What are missing in both the accounts are the whole truth and objectivity.

Now, who “lost” Afghanistan – America or some other entities – is the question. I believe America had nothing much to lose in Afghanistan, while its Military-Industrial Lobby has been the sole loser. However, meanwhile the Lobby has already made a couple of trillion dollars from the unnecessary war. Some other entities, some of America’s old NATO allies, Britain in particular; and its relatively new “ally”, India under Modi, have been the main losers in Afghanistan. However, Britain made a big fortune through its exclusive control of Helmand – the “drug capital” of the world – for so many years by profiting from the opium cultivation and the processing of heroin, until its complete withdrawal of around 10,000 troops from Helmand. India, on the other hand,  has been the biggest loser in Afghanistan, and Iran.

India went on investing billions of dollars in the two countries to build a deep-sea port at Chabahar and industries around the port in Iran. It also promised investing billions in mining, railway, and highway projects in Afghanistan. All of these investments and the promises of further investments) have virtually gone down the drains, because the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, both for geo-political and ideological reasons will have to be friendly towards both Pakistan and China, which are anything but India-friendly. India, most imprudently, ignored both geography and global politics. It failed to realise that Chabahar would be no match for Gwadar. The latter’s size, location, and sponsors (China and Pakistan) outmatch the former. India simply failed to realise that the  Chabahar port project with geographical proximity to only Turkmenistan, but without connectivity to Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan , wouldn’t be  a viable one. And, last but not least, even if Afghanistan had remained under the tutelage of America, the latter wouldn’t have favoured its vassal Afghanistan (and the Central Asian republics) to use an Iranian sea port.

Since America decided to withdraw from Afghanistan during the Trump presidency, and has already withdrawn the bulk of its troops early this year, the Taliban takeover of the country has only been a question of time! The Taliban had been preparing the takeover of Afghanistan not long after their overthrow by America in late 2001. So, the Taliban takeover of Kabul last Sunday  was anything but “abrupt” or “unexpected”. Again, so many evidences shatter the myth of America losing Afghanistan. As one ABC documentary reveals in 2010, America have had some military advantages for remaining in Afghanistan. It tested the military capabilities of drone-warfare and some new “smart” weapons in the country, by using them against Afghan civilians and insurgents during the two decades it stayed there.

Renowned American economist Jeffrey D. Sachs also believes that the US Military-Industrial Lobby has immensely benefitted from the illegal occupation and war in Afghanistan. Around 86% of the two trillion dollars America spent in Afghanistan to various US lobbies, while around two to three per cent of that money reached the Afghan poor. He has categorically rejected the arguments Americans have manufactured to blame the Karzai and Ghani Administrations for the Taliban takeover. He blames American Administration under Bush, Obama, Trump  for creating the mess in Afghanistan and leaving the country when there was not much left for extortion [Jeffrey D. Sachs, “Blood in the Sand”, Project Syndicate, August 17, 2021].

I saw an American woman asking this question on CNN on 17th August, two days after the Taliban takeover of Kabul: “I never understood why my dad died in Afghanistan”. Her father was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Her question reflects the average Americans’ growing disbelief about their leaders who lied to them about all the unnecessary wars where American soldiers died unnecessarily. One US veteran, who fought and killed unarmed civilians in Afghanistan, actually calls his leaders “liars”, for dragging him and others into the unjust war in Afghanistan. He writes: “Those of us who fought this war must now wonder: How could we have given the best parts of our lives to such a lie?”  [Timothy Kudo, “I Was a Marine in Afghanistan. We Sacrificed Lives For a Lie”, New York Times, Aug.16, 2021]. The punchline of Kudo’s essay could be: “You really don’t lose wars, which you start against fake enemies, only to make money, and finish them abruptly when your people and troops are tired, and you have no intentions of winning them, at all!”

It’s heartening that US veterans (800,000 served in Afghanistan in the last 20 years) and bereaved family members of those who died in all the unnecessary wars their country fought since the Korean War have started realizing that there is absolutely nothing to be proud of their country’s killing millions of unarmed civilians in those wars, and losing tens of thousands of young American men and women – in Vietnam, “the average age was 19” – was nothing but something the whole nation mourn for generations.

I cite another example in corroboration with Timothy Kudo’s essay in the NYT. Retired US General Wesley Clark narrates his firsthand experience about the Pentagon stage-managing the unjust invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of destroying Saddam Hussein’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction (YouTube Video, March 2, 2007):

About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon…. and one of the generals called me in. He said, “We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq”…. I said, “We’re going to war with Iraq? Why?” …. He said, “I guess they don’t know what else to do.” So, I said, “Well, did they find some information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?” He said, “No, no.” He said, “There’s nothing new that way. They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq.” He said, “I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments.” And he said, “I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”

Interestingly, one may cite another retired US General, President Eisenhower, who in his farewell speech on 17th January 1960 spelled out in the most unambiguous terms that all post-World War II wars that his country had participated so far had been useless, and waged simply for the benefit of the Military-Industrial Lobby. Eisenhower was the first (and possibly the only) US President to use the expression. The so-called “profits of war” has been the main factors behind all the wars America has fought since the Korean War. One may argue, since the wars America has so far fought after the end of World War II have been waged unnecessary, only to make money for politicians, and the powerful Military-Industrial Lobby, winning or losing them don’t make much sense, at all.

My experience of teaching and interacting with American military personnel in the US was baffling. As I witnessed rabidly pro-Bush and pro-Trump US military personnel, who believed American troops were fighting evils in Afghanistan and Iraq, restoring democracy and freedom, so did I come across some who didn’t believe in what their Presidents and the Pentagon said about the wars in those countries. Thanks to the Chatham House Rule (that the APCSS follows religiously, which is strict non-attribution to who said what behind the close doors) they got away with saying 9/11 was an “insiders’ job”! However, not only ordinary people, but sometimes highly educated and well-informed Americans also fail to realize that their leaders, who justify invading countries, are actually lying through their teeth. No wonder, Barbara Lee was the only member of the US Congress who opposed the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, while all her colleagues believed the Taliban had orchestrated 9/11.

One may brush aside several myths and lies about what happened to Afghanistan following the US-led invasion of the country in the wake of the mysterious 9/11 attacks. America and its allies who overthrew the Taliban Regime not only outnumbered and outgunned the Taliban fighters, the invaders spent some 10,000 times more than what the vanquished ragtag Taliban forces (with no tanks and air force) ever managed to muster during the last 20 years. The Pentagon spent $85 billion to train up Afghan armed forces in the same period, which prompted Thomas Friedman to say this sarcastically in 2010: “Americans’ training Afghans to fight is like someone training Brazilians to play soccer…. Who are training the Taliban?” [CNN, Fareed Zakaria GPS, June 27, 2010]. By the way, most Afghan troops have been totally illiterate. Contrary to the popular belief that Ashraf Ghani’s government was a democratically elected one, one should know that less than to million Afghans out of their total population of 39 million took part in the elections. Then again, Afghanistan is not a secular country, from any stretch of the imagination. The country is known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, not run by secular law but Shariah. Last but not least, the current head of the Taliban Regime Abdul Ghani Baradar is an educated, relatively much liberal and modern than semi-educated Mollah Umar, who ran the Taliban Administration during 1996 and till its overthrow in 2001. What most “experts” conveniently forget or fail to mention that the Taliban are not only Islam-oriented but they represent more than 40% of the total Afghan population who are Pashtu-speaking Pashtuns. Both the pro-Soviet communist regimes during 1978-1996 and the Karzai and Ghani Administrations mostly represented the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazaras and other minority groups. So, unless one understands the Taliban also represent the Pashtun aspirations for their due share in the Administration, one fails to appraise the Afghan situation. Now, one believes the new Taliban Regime is least likely to repeat the obscurantist and cruel practices by their predecessors under Mollah Umar. There are promising signs of the new Regime’s allowing girls to go to schools, and Baradar’s promis of running an exclusive government with participation from other ethnic and religious communities, the country is likely to be re-railed in the coming days. One believes the main winners in Afghanistan (besides the Taliban themselves), Pakistan and China, will see to it that Afghanistan remains stable in the coming decades, for their common interests in the vast regions of China, South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Afghanistan has been integral to the Big Game –seemingly a never-ending game – once played between Russia and Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, and then again between Russia and the West up to the end of the Cold War; and yet once again, between the West (under US stewardship) and some stakeholders in Afghanistan, the wily Taliban. Interestingly, the end of the Cold War didn’t signal the end of the game in Afghanistan. Now, who lost and won the game is the question! Are they America and its allies, or India? And most importantly, are Pakistan and China among the main winners, besides the Taliban? In a nutshell, throughout history, truth and objectivity, humanity, human rights and human dignity have been the losers of all warfare and conflicts. The wars in Afghanistan have not been exceptional on these counts.

In sum, the return of the Taliban in the wake of the Longest War in modern history on this Sunday (August 15th) convinces many in the East and West that the ragtag, shalwar-kamiz and sandal-wearing guerrilla fighters never ever thought the game had been over, at all. Their return also convinces many that Afghanistan is not a trophy (and had never been so) to be won, or merely a game, which one could lose to somebody! Experts who believed Afghanistan had become a stable democracy have been proven wrong once again, and those who invested billions in the country –such as India – have simply been delusional and unwise! The Machiavellian warmongers who live on the profits of unjust wars – in America and Britain in particular – virtually lost nothing (as Machiavellians are devoid of dignity or self-respect) after the Taliban reconquista of Afghanistan. The “fall” of Kabul, despite its striking similarities with what happened in Saigon on 30th April 1975, shouldn’t mislead anybody to believe that the Afghan Capital was going through its “Saigon Moment” after the Taliban victory on 15th August 2021.

Taj Hashmi is a retired Professor of Security Studies at the APCSS in Honolulu (US). His major publications include, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia, Global Jihad and America, and Fifty Years of Bangladesh,1971-2021(forthcoming). He holds a Ph.D. in Modern History, and is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS). He is a columnist and commentator on current affairs and history.

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