by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 7, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1438)
The only thing new in Donald Trump’s much-anticipated announcement of August 21 about US Afghan policy was his direct threat to Pakistan. The armchair warrior vowed to “fight to win” in Afghanistan (Trump was a Vietnam draft dodger; he feigned “hurting feet” to skip the draft!). What would constitute “victory” and how it would be achieved was not spelled out but he did say he would destroy al-Qaeda, crush ISIS, and not allow the Taliban to come to power in Afghanistan. It takes gall; America decides who rules.
Trump’s boastful claims were somewhat tempered by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. At a press conference on August 22, he said, “I think the president was clear this entire effort was intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand that you will not win a battlefield victory.” Tillerson went on, “We may not win one, but neither will you.” So whatever happened to Trump’s boast to “fight to win”? The bottom line is that the war will continue indefinitely.
The merchants of death are pleased, as are hawkish senators — cancer-ridden John McCain and Lindsay Graham. Afghanistan’s corrupt rulers are overjoyed. Not only would the flow of US dollars continue, America’s indefinite war will help prolong their grip on power as well. The Hindu rulers of India also found their wishes fulfilled: more US pressure on Pakistan and greater role for Indian interference in Afghanistan.
Echoing George W. Bush’s infamous threat in the aftermath of 9/11, “You are with us or with the terrorists,” Trump issued a similar threat to Pakistan. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations,” he said, warning that US aid could be cut. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” he said. “That will have to change and that will change immediately.”
In his typically crude style, he alleged Pakistan had received “billions and billions” of American dollars as if this was bakhshish. One could almost hear him say, “beautiful” American dollars, as is his wont about everything American!
Trump conveniently ignored, or perhaps he is unaware that Pakistan has suffered huge losses totaling more than $100 billion as a result of the US war in Afghanistan. It has also suffered an estimated 70,000 casualties (deaths), more than half of them military personnel. Three generals, several colonels, and a large number of other officers have been killed in the fight against terrorism. The US, by comparison, has lost only 2,126 soldiers in Afghanistan since October 2001. The Americans clearly believe Pakistani lives are cheap and dispensable.
Policymakers in Islamabad have to make some hard choices; do they want continuous public insults or will they take a bold stand to protect their country and people? Trump invited Pakistan’s archenemy India to assume an even bigger role in Afghanistan. Kabul harbors anti-Pakistan terrorists but the Americans only see the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban as enemies. Islamabad’s concerns are completely ignored. To expect that Pakistan should accept India’s hegemonic role in the region would be suicidal.
Interestingly, the Afghan Taliban gave a quick response to Trump’s speech. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said on August 22 that the movement would turn Afghanistan into a “graveyard” for the US imperialists. This is not an empty boast; history shows that all invaders starting with Alexander the Great have suffered defeat at the hands of the Afghans. Why does Trump think he can do better than all previous invaders?
Students at Kabul University were similarly skeptical of Trump’s pronouncements. They are not wild-eyed Taliban supporters. Interviewed by the Associated Press on August 22, they said corruption would increase further (Afghan rulers are notoriously corrupt); unemployment would rise and there would be more instability, fighting and killings in the country. The only thing they liked in Trump’s speech was his criticism of Pakistan.
Under review for several months, Trump’s Afghan policy is a rehash of what has already been tried in the past — and failed. While Trump did not spell out how many additional US troops would be deployed, General John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, had sought 4,000 additional troops to bolster the Afghan army’s training program ostensibly to “defeat the terrorists.”
How would 4,000 additional troops, even if backed by NATO forces achieve this when at their peak the US-NATO combine had 160,000 troops in the war-ravaged country and failed? They want to better train the Afghan army, we are told.
For 16 years, this is what the Americans and their allies were doing: “train” the Afghan National Army (ANA), at a staggering cost of $714 billion. If the ANA is still a demoralized bunch characterized by frequent infighting and desertions, what more can another 4,000 US troops achieve? The Afghans are born fighters. The lightly-armed Taliban, without any formal training, have achieved spectacular successes against the combined might of the Afghan army as well as their American and NATO backers. There is little hope for the US with its latest surge in Afghanistan?
Why does Trump think he can win where others have failed so spectacularly in Afghanistan? How many wars has the US won anyway, discounting its 1983 invasion of tiny Grenada (in the Caribbean) with a total population of 110,000 that has no army and a tiny police force? The fun-loving Grenadians, frolicking on the beach, were surprised to see American warships appear off the coast of their tiny island state.
Afghanistan has been an unmitigated disaster militarily as well as for the capacity of nation building. Last July, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report detailing costs over the 16-year period. The US has spent $714 billion in Afghanistan. What is the net result? Such huge outlays have led to massive corruption, especially at the top. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan 169 out of 174 countries on its corruption index. In other words, it is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, thanks to American presence and dishing out of dollars.
Under US occupation, Afghan-istan has become a drug wasteland. While the US’ fallback position has always been to demand that Pakistan “do more” — meaning it should fight America’s war and its soldiers must die — what is not clear is the US definition of success.
Over the years, American — and indeed Western — objectives have shifted. First, it was to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The latter is no more and has now been replaced by ISIS, but the former group is getting stronger. The Taliban control more than 40% of territory — perhaps more, depending on one’s estimates. Then the objective changed to “educating” Afghan girls and liberating Afghan women. This is a sure way of winning support at home: gallant white men saving brown women from the clutches of oppressive brown men, as one perceptive female Indian writer put it. Educating Afghan girls or liberating women has long been abandoned as a priority; it never was. Not surprisingly, this is no longer mentioned in Western media reports.
What about bringing democracy to the tribal-based society of Afghan-istan? The former US Secretary of State John Kerry produced the two-headed donkey rule in Afghanistan: a president (Ashraf Ghani) and a chief executive (Abdullah Abdullah) to placate the two major tribal groups: Pashtuns and Tajiks. The result is perpetual government gridlock.
The real US plan for Afghanistan is to permanently control the country because of its mineral wealth (estimated at $3–4 trillion). This is also closely linked to the American strategy to undermine regional powers Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran. American presence in Afghanistan has been enormously destabilizing. By getting India more deeply involved in Afghanistan would increase tensions in an already volatile region.
The one option that would help bring about peace in Afghanistan — negotiations with the Taliban — has been tried in fits but the US is insincere. The Taliban will not settle for anything short of complete US withdrawal while Washington wants to maintain permanent military bases in the country.
Several regional countries including China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan have offered to help the mediation process. The US wants the Taliban to surrender. This is impossible since American and a combination of allied forces have failed to subdue them in 16 years. Unlike other people, the Afghans are simply not prepared to put up with foreign invaders or occupiers. That explains why Afghanistan has never been colonized. On August 22, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Taliban should negotiate with the Kabul regime but he put the onus for bringing them to the negotiating table on Pakistan.
With his military incapable of fighting and winning, Trump has turned to the mercenary mass murderer, Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater (now renamed Bre-X), and brother of US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Blackwater mercenaries perpetrated horrific crimes in Iraq; perhaps Prince thinks he can do the same in Afghanistan. If he failed in Iraq, what chance does he have of success in mountainous Afghanistan, that is classic guerrilla country?
Prince wants to send 5,500 mercenaries into Afghanistan, ostensibly to advise and train the ANA. It would be augmented by a private air force that would conduct bombing raids against the Taliban. The idea is that the mercenaries would not be constrained by any rules that the US military supposedly is and, therefore, have greater success.
Relying on the mercenaries is a clear admission that the Taliban have defeated the self-declared “sole superpower.” Second, Trump wants to cause more bloodshed in the already ravaged country where perhaps as many as one million people have been killed. Not only would this constitute a war crime, a charge the Americans are not constrained by, it would also intensify resistance to foreign invaders.
One can speculate what might happen if the Taliban were to capture one of the Blackwater/Bre-X mercenaries. If they do not skin him alive, they would surely slit his throat. And this macabre ritual would be videotaped and broadcast globally. What would Trump do then: nuke Afghanistan? The country has already been bombed into the Stone Age. While the nuclear bomb will kill most Afghans and poison the environment in neighboring countries, it would also make Afghanistan uninhabitable and, therefore, no use to US plunder.
The Americans know that a military solution in Afghanistan in not achievable and that the Taliban are an essential part of the Afghan socio-political fabric. However, the military-industrial complex needs war to survive and this is how it will be for the forseeable future. That the Taliban must be accommodated, and that this can only be done at the negotiating table is just grist for the diplomatic mill. Foisting puppets on the Afghan people is not a solution to the long-festering problem that has earned the dubious distinction of being America’s longest war in history. It seems there is no American that can understand this simple truth.