History is poised to witness a second superpower’s exit from Afghanistan in four decades. Earlier this month, when US President Joe Biden announced that it was “time to end the forever war”, he was standing in the same Treaty Room as George W Bush when the latter had informed the American people of the retributive strikes on Afghanistan as payback for 9/11.
Now, as then, the presidential speech was rather unclear in places, with Biden starting by echoing the original premise for war: “We went to Afghanistan in 2001 to root out Al Qaeda, to prevent future terrorist attacks against the United States planned from Afghanistan.” In the next breath, he noted that the US had delivered justice to Bin Laden a decade ago while musing that “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear, even as the terrorist threat that we went to fight evolved”. He concluded by saying that the US “cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal”.
The 9/11 attacks changed the course of US foreign policy. President George W Bush, who was at the helm at the time, wielded enormous power in his pursuit to defeat the enemy. Yet in doing so, he ended up overlooking important considerations such as Afghan reconciliation and the interests of major allies, holding the key to American success in Afghanistan. Pakistan, for its part, not only assisted the US by providing logistics, including access to airspace and military bases, as well as intelligence-sharing but also in determining the end of the war that is happening right now. Many factors have contributed to the effective US failure in Afghanistan. However, two stand out and if Washington had considered them, the closing chapter of the US-Afghan war would have played out very differently.
Both the Trump and Biden White Houses failed to prioritize intra-Afghan talks. Had this happened, the May 1 deadline for US complete and unconditional troop withdrawal would have been achievable.
Firstly, despite Pakistan being the US’ most allied ally in the war on terror, Washington repeatedly disregarded the country’s sensitivities, thereby irking Islamabad in the process. This precedent was established in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Bush administration issued Pakistan with seven demands, including stopping Al Qaeda at the border; providing the US with landing rights to conduct operations against the terror outfit; sharing intelligence; helping the US destroy Bin Laden while also breaking off ties with the Taliban. Islamabad had no choice but to comply, fearing that neutrality would allow India to step into the vacuum.
Meanwhile, General Pervez Musharraf put forward three valid concerns to the US: evacuation of Pakistan’s operatives from Afghanistan; no Indian influence in Afghanistan; and no major role for the Northern Alliance in Kabul. President Bush agreed to the points and cooperation began. Pakistan took little time to evacuate its operatives from Afghanistan but the latter two concerns had to be proven over time. Unfortunately, the Bush administration afforded India a major role in Afghanistan while Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance with US support. Moreover, in the post-Bonn landscape, major ministries went to the Northern Alliance, whom Islamabad still regarded as an adversary from the days of the Taliban regime (1996-2001).
All of which was of grave concern to policymakers in Pakistan, prompting Islamabad to prioritize Indian and other anti-Pakistan elements in Kabul. The country’s strategic location and lawless border areas provided the Taliban with enough room to re-organize. Had Pakistan not been encircled and had it not supported the Taliban as a direct result of this — the situation would have been different for the US today. What Washington refers to as double-dealing was, in reality, nothing more than a defensive measure.
Secondly, the main factor behind the US failure in Afghanistan was Washington’s miscalculation of the Taliban. The Bush administration used full force to dismantle the group while overlooking the role of the leadership in its earlier guise as part of the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets before going on to fight in Afghanistan’s civil war.
President Obama recognized the need for reconciliation as part of a political settlement. Since then, President Trump entered into a bilateral agreement with the Taliban, and currently, the US-backed Doha talks are aimed at bringing Kabul and the Taliban to the table. This underscores how the Taliban is now recognized as a political and military force in Afghanistan. Although much time has been unnecessarily wasted. Especially since both the Trump and Biden White Houses failed to prioritize intra-Afghan talks. Had this happened, the May 1 deadline for US complete and unconditional troop withdrawal would have been achievable.
However, all is not lost. If President Biden supports the Doha peace talks and sticks to the new and revised exit date and if the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan is not again postponed because of a Taliban no-show — then peace might have a chance.