Dr. Sunil Gupta
Experts say the sentiment on the ground is that the Taliban defeated the US and NATO forces and compelled the world’s most powerful military to cede the region back to the outfit.
Everyone knows American troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan. Everyone knows a deal was struck between the two belligerents – the US military and the Taliban – in 2020. No one, however, knows what America achieved in Afghanistan. Where did the so-called ‘trillions of dollars’ the US spent go? When will the human rights violation on Afghan soil end?
When the US launched the war against the Taliban regime in 2001, the stated purpose was to avenge the 9/11 attacks. American forces quickly removed the Taliban from power, ending the outfit’s five-year rule. The al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, who grew under the protection of the Taliban, was still elusive. It took the American forces a decade to locate Laden in Pakistan and launch a covert strike to kill the man who designed and executed the worst terrorist attack in America. The stated goal was achieved, at least in a rhetorical sense, under the leadership of Barack Obama.
The then-President Obama had increased the number of troops in Afghanistan. In 2011, the US had nearly 110,000 troops fighting against the Taliban and training the country’s legitimate security forces. By 2015, the level of troops fell drastically to below 10,000 before rising again in subsequent years.
The facts are all there in the open. What’s not is what exactly the US was attempting in Afghanistan. The war it started in 2001 was categorically against the Taliban. The outfit was notorious for its adherence to the austere, ultra-radical form of Islam. Men under the Taliban rule were to grow beards mandatorily, and Afghan women had to wear a long robe. Girls were barred from education, and sources of entertainment, including television and music that the Taliban considered ‘Haram’ were banned.
With American troops coming in and toppling the Taliban government in virtually no time, international media anticipated a better future for the region torn by war for decades. In two decades, American troops and their NATO allies killed nearly 85,000 opposition fighters, but the damage on the other side is hard to ignore. The same number of civilians died because of the war, and millions of Afghans were displaced. Over 75,000 Afghan military personnel have been killed between 2001 and 2021, and the number of foreign soldiers who lost their lives while fighting for the US and NATO allies is over 3,500. Tens of thousands of US troops were injured in the conflict.
Undeniably, the costs of the two-decade-long war were immense. Although the US government claims to have spent trillions of dollars in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the war, studies claim this to be in hundreds of billions of dollars. But even that is no mean amount. But what happened? The Taliban could negotiate with its arch-rival on the ground, the US, and extract a deal that only reinforces its presence in the region. Experts say the sentiment on the ground is that the Taliban defeated the US and NATO forces and compelled the world’s most powerful military to cede the region back to the outfit. This is one of the reasons why the Taliban could consolidate its grip over power within a matter of few weeks. The Afghan police and security forces surrendered without even mounting an attack. The Taliban could withstand the US and NATO attack for so long and remain a formidable power in the country is something that weakened the spirits of local rival groups and civilians.
What was the US thinking for all these twenty years? What was the rationale behind the withdrawal of forces at a time when the Taliban is blatantly violating human rights? Has the US considered the fallouts of the resurgence of the Taliban for the region? Does America believe that the threat that the Taliban can wage war against the West or, for that matter, any other country has subsided?
The threat has heightened. The Taliban delegation lately met China’s foreign minister in search of official recognition for the regime in the international arena. China has long been a backer of Pakistan and its
terrorist organizations with the same ideological underpinning as the Taliban. China has been supportive of the Taliban advance in Afghanistan to thwart any of US hegemony in the region is a harsh fact.
Both China and Russia are on the same side when it comes to the US. The former is now in the same position as the latter to challenge the American might on a global level. The two countries have been using terrorist outfits in Pakistan and Afghanistan to derail an advance of democracy.
On the other hand, India has been a backer of democracy and an American ally when it comes to fighting Islamist forces. Technically, India shares a border with Afghanistan. This border may lie within the Pak- occupied Kashmir region; however, India has clear sovereignty. It is also an acknowledged fact that the Taliban grew in Pakistan-bordered regions of Afghanistan during its initial years. That was where these radical Islamists found their calling and occupied the whole of Afghanistan in 1996.
The shared ideology of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and other Islamist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, is the greatest threat facing the world today. Since the sentiment in Afghanistan is that the Taliban could oust the Americans from their soil and regain all the lost ground, this will serve as a force to unite all Islamist forces of the world. These forces are set to find patronage under communist China and its ‘all-weather ally’ Pakistan. Both these nations possess nuclear weapons, and instability in Pakistan can lead to any disaster for the region and the wider world also remains a cause of concern.
In today’s world, which reels under the economic and social costs of the pandemic, the resurrection of Islamist forces is the last thing we need. Every country, developed or emerging, is running a high fiscal deficit to support their respective economies. Military spending will have to be cut as welfare programs need additional budgetary support. In this light, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the sweeping takeover of the country by hardliners must worry all democratic and progressive nations.
PS: Enough controversy was created in the US political circles when a film titled Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted the years-long US effort to locate Osama bin Laden, was released. The Republicans alleged that it was a move to tilt public support favouring Barack Obama, who sought reelection in 2012. Today, former US President Donald Trump has sought President Biden’s resignation over the prevailing situation. As the US evacuates its diplomats after Kabul fell to the Taliban and the western-backed Afghan President’s whereabouts are unknown, it can remind us of the ‘Fall of Saigon’ in 1975 when the US undertook a similar evacuation in Vietnam.
The writer is an author of "Thoughts Gallery", Member of FICCI National Executive Committee, Ex Director of Punjab National Bank, Dena Bank, General Insurance Corporation of India, Rural Electrification Corporation Limited