Md. Farijuddin Khan & Dr Aparaajita Pandey,
While the American withdrawal of troops might be a cause of concern and worry for most people, it most certainly should not be considered unprecedented. While Biden’s decision to retrieve the US military has been justified on the pre- text of having neutralized the threat of al-qaeda to the US in the backdrop of 9/11, it is hard to disregard that the US presence in Afghanistan was not originally described as a single point agenda.
The American penchant for being the harbinger of democracy to countries, often ends in a cycle of violence, up-rooting of an established administrative framework, dependence on the US presence, and their withdrawal among utter chaos. Taliban has begun to re- establish itself in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government is not ready for the challenge. The withdrawal of the US military troops at this moment reiterates the repetitive problem with the US occupation of states- their failure to establish an administrative order.
As per new reports from the U.S.-based Long War Journal, the Taliban is battling against Afghan forces for key provincial cities such as Kandahar. It is squeezing the national forces and the majority of the 34 provincial capitals of Afghanistan is falling under the Taliban’s control. Thus, there can be little or no doubt of Afghanistan facing various threats and a high possibility of returning back to political, economic, social, and cultural/religious turmoil which was the main highlight of Taliban rule. This was what the U.S. and its allies had tried to prevent for the last two decades, that is, preventing Afghanistan from retreating to the previous state of conflicts and chaos. Unfortunately, after two decades building a strong, democratic, peaceful, and resilient Afghanistan remains a far-fetched dream.
The reason being the way the U.S. handles the peace process in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led Afghan peace process lacked enough attention and it could not achieve its goals. Again, the reason for it could largely be attributed to its inherent contradiction between the premise on which the invasion happened and the outcomes the U.S. experienced in these nearly 20-odd years of occupation.
The US Approach to Peacebuilding in Afghanistan
The approach to the peacebuilding exercise adopted by successive administrations in Washington suggests a political top-down peacebuilding process through which an attempt was made to turn a war-torn chaotic Afghanistan into a self-reliant peaceful democratic state. However, on critical examination, it would be incorrect to state that the contradiction arising out of peacebuilding goals and the premise for invading Afghanistan was recognized very late by the U.S. For George W. Bush administration, weeding out al-Qaeda in Afghanistan thereby ending the threats it posed on American security interests was the primary goal of the invasion and peacebuilding goals were of secondary nature. A critical examination of the developments since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 highlights some major gaps.
Cut and Run
The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was an immediate consequence of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. In October that year, thousands of U.S. troops found themselves in remote parts of the South Asian country to topple the then Taliban regime in Kabul. It was a swift military victory for the Bush administration and its western allies.
By May 2003, the then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, announced that the U.S. major military mission in Afghanistan was over as it had dislodged the Taliban regime. The U.S. started to divert its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad leaving a war-torn Afghanistan in the hands of the newly-formed NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF). This new development coincided with the lowering of American troop deployments in Afghanistan in the next two years and then a gradual rise until Afghanistan saw the highest American troops stationed in 2011. Thus, the Iraq invasion had a negative impact on Afghanistan as the shift in focus helped Taliban’s resurgence in a short time. Between 2008-13, Afghanistan saw a sharp rise in terrorist attacks and heavy casualties on American and international troops.
Maintaining Strategic Continuity
The untimely invasion of Iraq was hurriedly carried out even before the post-war reconstruction of Afghanistan was fully started. Thus, the U.S.-led international peacebuilding forces were caught in the internal cross-fire. They were stuck in civil strife, ethnic and communal violence, poverty, internal struggles, warlordism, layered insurgency, instability and so on that had been the common features of Afghan polity and society for decades. Attacks on American and allied troops in Afghanistan began to surge and so was troops’ casualties. The Bush administration was surprised by the cycle of violence American troops had witnessed and related deprivation of basic human rights in the post-Taliban regime.
The Bush administration was left to decide a concrete strategy to defeat Taliban’s resurgence and take Afghanistan to a state of peace and development. Anticipating the worst violence and preventing Afghanistan from falling into further instability, the Obama administration made swift changes in tactics to handle the spiralling negative outcomes. In March 2009, the administration adopted a comprehensive strategy that focuses on two long-term goals of eliminating remnants of al-Qaeda units from Afghanistan and Pakistan; reversing momentum gained by the Taliban; and, empowering Afghan forces through advanced training and funding of local resources to prevent the fall of the elected Afghan government.
The new strategy’s theme ‘military to civilian’ indicating a more empowering role for civilian structures of power was put to test. However, the Obama administration was criticized for its inability to prevent attacks on American forces and his new strategy was simply a continuation of his predecessor’s earlier strategy. By mid-2011, the Obama administration started preparing for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan justifying that its main target, Osama bin Laden, was captured and killed from a hideout in May 2011 by U.S. special forces.
Exclusion of Afghans
The strategies adopted by successive administrations lacked a fundamental shift in attitude and actions from a militaristic approach of winning and domination to a more acceptable approach of conciliation and cooperation. This was evident from its unhinged focus on hunting down al-Qaeda operatives on the regional level and supporting the national government and the least was done on protecting vulnerable Afghans from insurgency, deprivations, corruption, conflicts, and lawlessness. Even on the political front, the U.S.-led top-down model of negotiated peacebuilding efforts devoid of any effective strategy to enable Afghans to deal with disputes in an organic and peaceful way.
Initiatives such as the Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation and the Peace Commission lacked clarity with its primary focus on the national level. They were partially concerned with local-rural Afghan communities such as the local level council of tribal elders known as shuras and jirgas. The enabling factor to resolve their own disputes in a sustainable manner resulting in lasting peace and development was missing.
The Failure and Exit Strategy
There was a contradiction in the U.S.-led peacebuilding efforts in Afghanistan from the beginning. The U.S. invasion in 2001 seems to have started on the premise that once the threat of al-Qaeda and Taliban are removed, peace in Afghanistan would naturally be accompanied by democracy through elected representatives, training, and boosting of developmental infrastructures on the national level. Peacebuilding has always been a multilateral process involving multiple stakeholders and thus involves bottom-up and horizontal coordination of stakeholders. It is, thus, never a unilateral process.
The U.S. strategic mantra of ‘Afghans speaking to Afghans’ involves facilitating peace talks among the leaders of the Afghanistan government, Taliban leaders, and other stakeholders. The complexity in addressing those insecurities faced by Afghan people has not been analysed and pursued in the discourse of peacebuilding, thus, leaving families, communities and tribes – the basic foundational block of Afghan society – extremely vulnerable to fragmentation, violence, poverty, and conflicts.
The premise that regime change would bring peace and stability in Afghanistan proves wrong. Afghanistan gradually became a liability for U.S. interests and hence the exit strategy became the most effective U.S. policy decision since the Obama administration. The U.S. approach to peacebuilding lacks comprehensiveness, far-sightedness, and the fundamental element of a conciliatory mentality. The U.S. approach to interventions in foreign lands seems to have been based on short-term military goals without assessing any long-term plans for post-war reconstruction. This has been the cornerstone of the U.S. interventions since the Vietnam War.
(More about the authors: Md. Farijuddin Khan, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Politics, Imphal College, Imphal. Dr Aparaajita Pandey, Assistant Professor at Department of Public Policy, Amity University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)