Lessons from Afghanistan

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 20 2021
Columns Lessons from Afghanistan

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe 

The bitter lesson Afghanistan is trying to digest is that your country is your responsibility. No other country, even as an ally or as a world body can safeguard your country. Other entities may support your endeavours but the effort has to be yours and yours alone. 

This point was underscored by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby’s statement that it was ultimately up to the Afghans to defend their country from the Taliban and other threats. Country leaders must understand that no other country will invest in another country without a self-serving agenda. 

US President Biden’s decision to actually withdraw the US troops from Afghanistan was dictated by this doctrine as he clearly stated that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was solely intended for counterterrorism purposes and not for nation building. 

It is noteworthy that President Biden withdrew his troops at a time when Taliban has regrouped to a formidable force capable of regaining ground. Indeed, this year was marked with incidents of increased violence, mostly from the Taliban. The victims were also mostly Afghans and Afghanistan. 

From a humanitarian’s point of view the US stance - that Afghanistan is the responsibility of Afghanistan - deserves condemnation from all civil-minded individuals and entities. It is akin to declaring that all the animals in the Dehiwela Zoo must henceforth be responsible for their own safety, food and other necessities. To clarify, there is absolutely no attempt on the part of the writer to draw a parallel between Afghan people and a caged animal. The point however is, since the 80s, the US played a decisive role in Afghanistan’s affairs. 

The US - Good Friend of ‘Freedom Fighter’ Taliban 

The late 70s was marked by political unrest in Afghanistan. Then in December 1979, the Soviet Union intervened. Whether they did so with an invitation from the Afghan Government or not really depends on who is telling the story. Either way, this precipitated in an armed conflict between the Russian forces and the Afghan Mujahideen insurgents who rose against the Soviet presence. 

This resulted in a 10-year war that costed more than one million Afghans and 13,000 Soviet troops. It was during this time the US began to back the Taliban and like-minded terrorist groups. 

Saudi national Bin Ladin’s Al Qaeda was one such group. Bin Ladin set up ‘guesthouses’ in Pakistan to facilitate passage to foreign national militants to enter the Afghan conflict. All this took place with the support of the US. The US’s objective of arming and funding the insurgents was simple. Their focus was never Afghanistan but the Soviet Union with whom they were engaged in a Cold War. Until 1989 when the USSR forces finally quit Afghanistan, the warfare was directly between the Afghan insurgents and Russians. 

The Americans mostly offered tactic support and as such gave legitimacy to the insurgents as ‘freedom fighters’. However, when the Russia negotiated its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was not primarily with the Afghans but with the Americans. 

This in itself is very telling as to the real identity of the parties involved with the conflict. In fact, the vacuum created by the Soviet’s departure was filled by America. It is hardly surprising the Taliban emerged shortly after the Russians left. 

On 26 September 1996 Taliban took over the Government reigns with hardly a fight from the Afghan forces. Meanwhile, the honeymoon between the US and the Al Qaeda had hit a rough patch.

 Two years after Taliban took over Afghanistan, the US was hunting down the Al Qaeda. Among the provocations, Al Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Then US President Clinton launched a series of air strikes on targets in Afghanistan but failed to produce results. 

Taliban - the Mothership of Terrorism 

Taliban is not to be confused with the Al Qaeda or the ISIS. On the surface, they are all Islamic extremists hell-bent on creating an Islam caliphate encompassing as much territory as possible. They all preach of a Puritan version of Islam ruled by the Sharia law. They not only believe that nonbelievers do not have a place in this world but also by eradicating these nonbelievers they earn their one way ticket to heaven. In practice, this is all nonsense. One of their main sources of revenue is through narcotics. Even those who are moderate followers of Islamism refrain from alcohol. 

It is in that context that we must study these extreme groups’ dealing with narcotics. It is also interesting that with the return of the Taliban, the western world is largely concerned about the plight and rights of women in Afghanistan. Yet, this concern does not spill over to other matters that are as, if not more, disturbing as the dangers before the youth in terms of radicalisation and narcotics. 

More to the point however, Taliban is only the mother ship for extremists. On principle, they do not agree with either the Al Qaeda or the ISIS. However, Al Qaeda always found space within the Taliban. The reason is more cultural than ideological. 

As explained in www. counterterrorism.com, “The Taliban’s fundamentalist ideology is overlaid with a strong Pashtun tribal affiliation. In addition to stoking rivalries between Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnic groups, the Taliban’s tribal emphasis on being a good host dictated that it maintain good relations with al-Qaeda despite doctrinal disputes.”

 ISIS on the other hand does not enjoy the tolerance with the Taliban. In fact, Taliban leaders find the ISIS too extreme and somewhat bogus. They regard the ISIS as new comers who are enjoying the fruits of their hard labour. 

It is a matter of grave concern however that not all Taliban followers agree with their leaders’ rejection of the ISIS. In fact, breakaway factions have already formed in support of the ISIS. This is something that our Catholic community and especially Malcom Cardinal Ranjith must understand. ISIS is not an organisation as the LTTE or even the JVP. It is more of an ideology, which makes it very hard to pin the actors - whether they may be the terrorists, funders or supporters. 

Interestingly, Islam extremists are not the only terrorists that enjoy good relations with the Taliban. The return of the Taliban was congratulated by 30 organisations with ties to terrorism directly or as proxies. The TNA is one of these 30 organisations. This should be an eye opener for anyone who still believes the TNA, who were the LTTE’s political proxy, is the voice of the Sri Lankan Tamils. 

T’was a Lover’s Tiff 

By year 2001, both Taliban and Al Qaeda were brimming with overconfidence. It was in March that the Taliban blasted the giant status of Lord Buddha in the Bamyan Valley. In September, Al Qaeda hijacked four commercial planes and deliberately crashed it against iconic targets in the US. While Saudi Arabia immediately revoked Bin Laden’s citizenship Taliban stood by the Al Qaeda.

 They refused to hand over Bin Laden or any of the Al Qaeda leaders to the US authorities. This was the point at which the US relations with the Taliban soured. 

Then U.S. President Bush declared war on all terrorists and rejecting terrorism as a tool for freedom fighters. This was welcomed by countries like Sri Lanka. This change in American policy helped Sri Lanka immensely to eradicate our own terrorist menace. President Mahinda Rajapaksa must be saluted for taking full advantage of this situation. 

The US using much of its might managed to dislodge the Taliban and install an American proxy Government. However, for its efforts the US could never totally rid the Taliban. 

If the hard facts pertaining to Afghanistan’s current events were analysed, it is clear that the US conflict with the Taliban was nothing more than a lover’s tiff. The quarrel was of course a twenty-yearold war, but after spending USD two trillion on warfare and related resources by the US alone, Taliban and US has concurred to put their differences aside. As agreed between the two parties, the Western forces - namely the US and the British - return home and Taliban regains power. Afghanistan, as the US observed bluntly, is the responsibility of Afghanistan. President Bush’s successors had the unenviable task as what to do with Afghanistan. President Obama decided not to touch it. 

President Trump set a deadline to withdraw the US forces by 1 May 2021. Whether he knew that he will not be in Office to oversee the withdrawal is anyone’s guess. Interestingly though, the US directly negotiated the withdrawal from Afghanistan keeping the Afghan Government only as a peon. The very Government the US backed and kept in power was not part of the decision making. 

Between the US and Taliban negotiators, they took a number of decisions that put the Afghan Government into embarrassing and sometimes even difficult positions. 

This included the agreement to release 5,000 Taliban insurgents in Afghan custody. Some of these terrorists were wanted even in NATO nations. It is noteworthy that many of the terrorists who were thus released had been arrested since for partaking in fresh acts of violence. It is clear that the Afghan leaders complied as they never believed that the US will forsake them. 

The stark truth that the Afghan leaders failed to note is that Afghanistan never had the support of the US. It is true that the US injected USD two trillion to fight the Taliban. 

During these two decades, according to the US Department of Defence, 2,442 US troops have been killed, 20,666 wounded and more than 3,800 US private security contractors are estimated to have been killed. However, these numbers pale against the other statistics. This same war took the lives of approximately 70,000 Afghan troops. By April 2021, it was estimated that 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops lost their lives. 

The actual number of Afghan military casualties is higher. The reason being, when President Biden unilaterally extended the date of withdrawing US troops from 1 May 2021 to September, 2021, the Taliban rejected it. 

If US failed to honour the original deadline, Taliban threatened with increased violence. As warned, the Taliban increased their acts of violence and even renegaded their promise to disconnect with the Al Qaeda, even though the US troops began to formally withdraw from 1 May onwards. According to the United Nations’ statistics, 2.7 million Afghans fled the country, while 4 million were displaced during these two decades. In 2020 alone, the war had displaced 404,100 Afghans and as of 21 May 2021, about 100,000 Afghans had been displaced since the beginning of the year. 

Since the US began withdrawing its troops, many have fled their homes fearing reprisals from Taliban. It is against such a background that UNHRC High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet found space to comment on Hijaaz Hisbulla in her opening remarks at the commencement of the September session. 

Hisbulla is currently under investigation as a suspect for propagating Islam extremism that led to the Easter Attack. If nothing else, this highlights the extreme politicisation of human rights by powerful nations and world bodies. It is easy enough to blame the US for the current fiasco in Afghanistan. 

The US’s withdrawal of its forces has put not only Afghanistan but the entire region in jeopardy. However, the fault lies entirely with the Afghanistan Government. They failed to fulfil their responsibility to their own country. There is credible evidence that the Afghan Government did not take the situation seriously enough. 

Even as the Taliban was gaining ground Afghan forces were not given adequate resources and some units were not even paid for months on end. In Sri Lanka too we have political and social leaders who blindly believes in the West. However, the moral of Afghanistan’s story is simple - our country and our people are responsibility. 

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 20 2021

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