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Lessons from Afghan Fiasco: Bold Political Leadership, Regimented Army Key to Resilient Nation

By: Pathikrit Payne

Edited By:

Last Updated: August 30, 2021, 16:03 IST

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan. (File photo/Reuters)

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan. (File photo/Reuters)

Be it Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani, none of them had any grassroots connect with Afghan society, beyond their own tribes.

On August 26, Kabul Airport was devastated by a deadly terror attack executed by Afghanistan-based Islamic State franchise, namely ISIS-Khorasan, which led to death of 182 people, including more than a dozen US Army troopers, and injured several hundred more. A couple of days before that, the CIA Director had personally gone to Kabul to meet the de facto leader of Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the light of the worsening situation in Kabul impeding the US withdrawal, including the challenges of the US to stick to August 31 deadline for conclusion of airlift of US personnel from Afghanistan.

The US did have intel inputs about an impending terror attack amidst the chaotic situation in the whole of Kabul and especially in the airport perimeter, thronged by thousands of Afghan people jostling against each other and odds, to get a one-way ticket out of the mess in Afghanistan. Yet, all the US had was intel with no wherewithal to put in place a security grid to prevent the attack. For, whatever the US created in Afghanistan in the last two decades, in terms of ousting the Taliban, resurrecting a civilian administration as well as an army, everything has just vanished into thin air, thanks to the uncanny ability of successive US administrations of leaving behind a mess every time they exit a country.

Irony of US Depending on Taliban to Provide Security

Ironically, the US personnel on ground in Kabul were literally banking on Taliban, a proscribed terror organisation against which the US unleashed Global War on Terror (GWOT) and fought for nearly two decades, to secure the city and prevent the impending terror attack. The bigger irony is that security of Kabul has now been entrusted by Taliban allegedly to Khalil Haqqani, a frontline leader of the Haqqani Network, known for his proximity to ISIS-K, Al Qaeda and Pakistani’s notorious ISI, as well as on whom the US had announced a bounty of $5 million a decade ago. Therefore, the US was banking on a bunch of dreaded terrorists to prevent a terror attack because there was nothing else left to bank upon. The government of Afghanistan, its administrative institutions and security forces have all collapsed faster than a pack of cards.


Afghans Let Down by Political Leadership & Armed Forces

Even when Taliban and their cohorts continue to claim that their real fight is to overthrow foreign powers and their sphere of influence in Afghanistan, in reality, Afghanistan would continue to be manipulated by external elements. The only difference being that the US might be replaced by China while Pakistan continues to be a common denomination. And two key reasons why the condition of Afghanistan has once again come to a naught are its sheer lack of decisive political leadership and an armed force that just simply did not have the conviction to continue with the fight, especially when the political leadership had capitulated and fled the country lock, stock and barrel.

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Deciphering Collapse of Afghanistan: Some Unanswered Questions

There can be a raging debate on whether the escalation of the Afghan crisis was by default or by design. Was the US really clueless about the impending outcomes as a result of their hasty decision of withdrawal, or was it deliberately done to recreate the cycle of uncertainty, lawlessness and mayhem with apocalyptic impact in times to come, on South, Central and East Asia? Whatever might be the case, the question that would haunt people of Afghanistan for years to come is how come their chosen government in Kabul as well as the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) just vanished into thin air? Was it then all a myth woven for 20 long years? Were the institutions of governance in Afghanistan along with its armed forces, never meant to stand on their own? Why could not their ‘beloved’ Afghan Army, the pride of the new generation of Afghans, simply not fight the rag-tag Taliban, in spite of having superior weapon systems and nearly 350,000 personnel on ground? Did they lack the will to fight or were they instructed not to fight back? Did they feel betrayed by their own government and the US? Or were they paid to exit without a fight?

USA’s Faulty Experiments with Democracy & Paradropped Leaders

Presuming that the Afghan fiasco was not by design, and was by default, the blame on the US should not solely be for its hasty retreat but also that for all the grand lectures that it delivers on democracy, and for all the fancy that White House has on democracy being a panacea for all global ill, in reality, the US has consistently failed, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan, to trigger grassroots democratic movements. Instead, in most cases, without even understanding the complex societal diversities inherent in these states, the US just installed puppet regimes in the name of democracy. In both cases, neither the democratic institutions nor the governmental wings had inbuilt resilience to sustain on their own. Sectarian, ethnic and tribal divisions remained so profound that the paradigm of democracy could simply not overwhelm those divides.

In Iraq, for example, a Shia-majority country ruled and persecuted by Sunni Ba’athist leadership of Saddam Hussein for decades, the US installed Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shia dissident, as the Prime Minister who instead of creating an inclusive environment went for the purge, or a sort of revenge, to root out Sunni presence from key Iraqi institutions, including Iraqi Army, and replacing them with Shias. This only led to reverse resentment instead of creating coherence among all the factions. The US remained a mute spectator. Governance became a means of retribution against the Sunnis for all the wrongs that were done on the Shias and Kurds in the past during Saddam’s reign of terror. Dreaded terror organisations like the ISIS emerged out of the mess that was created in Iraq by the so-called democratic government installed by the US.

Afghan Fiasco: Governance Was by Kabul, of Kabul and for Kabul

In case of Afghanistan, it was no better. Be it Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani, none of them had any kind of grassroot linkages with the Afghan society, beyond their own tribes, and neither of them tried to deepen democracy in their respective tenures as Presidents of Afghanistan. They became heads of state with limited influence and reach beyond Kabul. The sway of militant groups beyond Kabul never receded because neither Ghani nor Karzai could make democracy a viable alternative. Presence of Afghan political parties or institutions of governance in every nook and corner of the state just simply never happened. In other words, in the absence of outreach of the long arm of omnipresent state, terror organisations like the Taliban and many others became de facto rulers and means of grievance redressal for the masses. Taliban might be vicious and primitive but it has presence far and wide, which the Afghan government never had. Both Karzai and Ghani were happy to be rulers of nothing but Kabul, and were more than happy in the cocoon created by the US for them. Both had falsely anticipated that it would continue this way for eternity.

Afghan Policymakers Failed to Trigger Industrial & Academic Revolution

Further, neither the US nor the US-supported regimes of Ghani or Karzai showed much interest in sowing the seeds of an industrial revolution or ushering a transformational education policy that could have structurally reformed Afghanistan beyond Kabul. Most of the populace continued to subsist on primitive cultivation, including the poppy growing economy. Modern education almost entirely remained non-existent beyond some major cities. In essence, in 20 years of the US experiment with bombs and democracy in Afghanistan, it failed to create aspirations among people. For Taliban, thus, getting a readymade supply of recruits from the religiously conservative peasantry to replenish the depleted manpower was not a difficult task. People of Afghanistan, in spite of being tagged as fiercely territorial, failed to create a nation out of it. The much-needed renaissance just did not happen in Afghanistan.

Leveraging Mineral Resources Could Have Created Viable Economy

What is more appalling is that for two decades, the successive regimes of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani failed to leverage the estimated $3-trillion mineral reserves of Afghanistan to usher in development in the country and make it self-sustaining. Of course, there were challenges including the civil war scenario and the presence of armed Islamist groups, including Taliban, across the country who often had more sway in the hinterland than the regime based in Kabul. Yet, the pertinent question that deserves an answer is whether the government of Afghanistan ever made any real effort to engage with the tribal warlords and Islamist factions to harness the resources of Afghanistan for collective prosperity. After all, if a substantial part of rural Afghanistan could be involved in poppy cultivation purely for monetary sake, then why not engage them in commercial mineral excavation and industrial processing?

Did Afghan government ever try to develop a mining infrastructure in the country? Even some of the poorest countries of Africa have been successful in leveraging their mineral wealth to bring at least some semblance of modest economic growth in their countries in spite of tales of rampant corruption often associated with African states. Afghanistan could not even do that. It failed in spite of having precise geological data on its precious mineral repositories that were pieced together by American geologists and the Soviets before that.

Ghani Remained Mute Spectator to US Negotiations with Taliban

The biggest litmus test of the fact that successive Afghan regimes since 2001 lacked decisiveness, conviction, resilience and even a long-term vision to create a viable sovereign state out of Afghanistan was their sheer capitulation in front of the US administration’s decision to negotiate with Taliban for conditional withdrawal of foreign troops bypassing the legitimate Afghan government from the negotiation process. The Taliban have been an anathema for anything that is even remotely progressive by definition and ironically, the US administration preferred to have negotiations with that very Taliban against which they fought for two decades.

If Ashraf Ghani had the spine, he would have rejected the US moves and made it loud and clear that he would fight to the hilt to secure the integrity of the Afghan government instead of recognising the US negotiations with Taliban. This would have increased his political approval as well. But he preferred to remain a second fiddle player and simply ran away especially when he needed to become the decisive face of an emerging Afghanistan’s fight against Taliban terrorists. Problem with Ghani is same as is with most leaders paradropped by the US in its experiments with democracy in failing states. Ashraf Ghani is an academician not a politician with grassroots understanding of how to govern and shape up a nation. He was almost like a CEO who exited when the ownership of the company changed. He himself did not have any stake or sense of ownership in Afghanistan.

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Afghanistan Could have Emulated India as a Model

It would be wrong to say that Afghanistan was an isolated case in terms of an emerging state’s struggles. Even a country like India, battered after centuries of foreign subjugation, emerged from ashes in 1947 with a near non-existent industrial base and a plethora of problems to deal with, including wars with Pakistan and China. Many had written off this country, including Winston Churchill. Yet India survived. Successive leadership in India worked painstakingly along with policymakers, social reformers, scientists and industrialists to create the institutional frameworks needed for a nation to sustain. Mistakes were made too but India learnt and moved on to emerge from an impoverished new born in 1947 to a $3-trillion economy in 2021 with one of the most disciplined armed forces in the world. Leaders of Afghanistan could have emulated this but chose otherwise.

The Curious Case of Afghan Armed Forces

If the hollowness of its political leadership has been a major reason, of case-study proportion, for the present crisis in Afghanistan, other reason invariably has been its armed forces, namely the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). In fact, the manner in which the ANDSF simply vanished into thin air at the face of Taliban’s rampage across major parts of Afghanistan vindicates that the armed forces of a nation is much more than just arsenal and manpower. The Afghan National Army or ANA had both. Its infantry battalions were equipped with some of the most impressive small arms, including M-4, M-16 and FB Beryl assault rifles, M240 and M249 machine guns, as well as M24 sniper rifles. The ANA had thousands of Humvees, and tactical military trucks from Navistar and Ford stable, in its vehicle fleet.

The Afghan Air Force had more than a dozen Super Tucano Light Attack Aircraft, capable of firing missiles and laser-guided bombs, several dozen helicopters including Mi17, Mi-24, Sikorsky UH-60 and MD500 Defender. For a country with a mere $20-billion GDP, the arsenal of Afghan Armed Forces was massively impressive, thanks to the largesse of the US and other countries including India. Yet it failed to fight.

Did Afghan Army Lack Conviction to Fight for Honour and State?

The fundamental question that haunts many is what ailed the Afghan Armed Forces? What did they lack that they capitulated so easily? Was it about its military leadership that did not know what to fight for, especially when the political leadership fled the country? Was it the political leadership alone, whose spinelessness broke the back of the Afghan Armed Forces? Was it sheer lack of logistical and intelligence support that was becoming increasingly absent as the US withdrawal neared? Was it the agreement between US and Taliban, which emboldened and made Taliban realise that it was only a matter of time before the institutions in Kabul would simply crumble?

Did the Afghan Armed Forces lack the conviction, the regimentation, and belief in the idea of the nation they were supposed to fight for? Did they even have an ideology to fight for? Can the Afghan Armed Forces be actually called an armed force in the real term or were they simply a motley group of personnel dressed in modern army fatigues that totally depended on the US for all kinds of support starting from logistics, intelligence, air cover, and perhaps above all, leadership directions?

If the replies to these questions are in affirmative, then the ANDSF and the ANA were simply not worth calling a ‘National Armed Force’ because no armed force worth the name would just give up in front of a terror group equipped with much inferior manpower and weapons systems, simply because the political leadership decided not to fight. In an existential battle, any army worth the name would take on the mantle of leadership when void is left by the political class, and fight till the last man. They would fight till finish in honour of the regiment, flag and the oath. ANA could have done that since it had the popular support of the people of Afghanistan. But perhaps it lacked the very regimentation that steels the resolve of any armed force.

In a country where even the common folks including women are willing to take up arms to fight the Taliban or are risking their lives on a daily basis to leave the country from the clutches of Taliban, one is just appalled to witness top generals of the Afghan Army standing in queue like common men to leave the country.

Lessons for Other Countries: Build Resilient Institutions

Of course, corruption in political leadership and bureaucracy also has to be taken into account, which contributed to the Afghan National Defence Security Forces remaining merely a tiger on paper. However, in essence, the Afghan Armed Forces never really evolved out of the shadows of the US, and never became an integrated institution which would not depend on anyone else for logistical and intelligence support. Also, its leadership failed to stand up to the issues of embezzlement of funds and corruption in the Afghan political class. Eventually both contributed to the fall of the fledgling state. Decisive political leadership that is passionate about the state’s future and a regimented armed force that would never give up against all odds, are key to making a nation survive and thrive. The Afghan fiasco, in the absence of both, is a lesson for many to learn from and remember.

The author is a geopolitical analyst. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:August 30, 2021, 16:03 IST
last updated:August 30, 2021, 16:03 IST