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America’s Afghan Sojourn

Kartik Bommakanti was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 03, 2009

    Visceral anger animated the public mood following the September 11 terror attacks and Washington’s response was swift and exemplary. Eight years since that day public support in the US seems to be eroding, if not collapsing and the US finds itself wringing its hands over whether it should dispatch more troops to Afghanistan. This analysis looks at how America’s intervention in Afghanistan resembles both Vietnam and the humanitarian interventions it pursued in the 1990s.

    Contrary to claims made by political luminaries such as Bill Clinton that Afghanistan will become Obama’s Vietnam, the proposed troop surge is not going to significantly generate escalatory costs for the US. This dubious and at times fatuous analogy does not stand the test of evidence. The US has neither suffered the same devastating combat losses in Afghanistan as it did in Vietnam nor is the US as socially and politically divided as it was during the 1960s over a war that evoked considerable moral revulsion. Vietnam occurred in the context of the Cold War and the Viet Cong were supplied and funded by the Soviet Union. Further, Vietnam never attacked the US, but Afghanistan under the Taliban hosted terror elements that actually did so. Where the analogy is apt is that Afghanistan is as much a competition in resolve as was Vietnam and US forces are bearing ninety percent of the military burden, which tells us more about why NATO’s European members are so irrelevant to the war effort.

    Strangely America’s intervention in Afghanistan also mirrors at another level the humanitarian interventions undertaken by Washington in the 1990s. During the 1990s egged on by interventionist non-governmental organizations and the legal casuistry of UN officialdom, Western democracies wound up exacerbating rather than ameliorating many of the humanitarian interventions they pursued. In the Balkans the US hesitantly intervened but refused to side with any party for a substantial period until it was forced to take sides to end the violence. In Somalia, Washington did not back the Somali warlord Mohammad Farah Aideed, a claimant to political authority who could have stabilized the country. Rather US Marine and Delta Force Units wound up interceding in a bloody inter-clan fight that triggered their hasty withdrawal.

    Today we see something similar at work in Afghanistan. NGOs and mortified liberal constituencies in Western democracies question Hamid Karzai’s legitimacy for rigging elections and striking deals with clerics who seek the legal right to brutalize women. It is nonsensical to persistently demand liberal democratic legitimacy as the basis for governing authority of the Karzai regime for several reasons. The issue is about who governs Afghanistan. Both Hamid Karzai and Mullah Omar are Afghan nationalists. Mullah Omar seeks to impose Sharia law and convert Afghanistan into an Islamic Emirate with the help of his patrons in Rawalpindi, while Karzai seeks to unify his country without recourse to a stringent code of Islam (with some exceptions) and international support to consolidate his grip on power. The West’s liberal critics are telling us that Karzai is as bad as Mullah Omar. If the US is neither satisfied with Karzai nor is Mullah Omar acceptable then who would satisfactorily meet the test of democratic righteousness? Without a credible third alternative Hamid Karzai is basically the best of the worst for the international community. Here again, the parallel with Vietnam is instructive in that Hamid Karzai is to Afghanistan what Thieu was to South Vietnam and Mullah Omar is akin to the Viet Cong of North Vietnam. US forces held the line against the North overrunning the South, but Washington failed to credibly support Thieu in the end. History seems to be repeating itself in the case of Afghanistan.

    That apart, the Taliban has refused to sever its ties with Al Qaeda which was the basis for the Bush Administration’s decision to topple the Taliban and hoist Karzai into the Presidency. If the Taliban never severed their ties with Al Qaeda when the public mood in America was belligerent why would they do so today when they can clearly see domestic divisions in the US? In sum the US simply does not make any gains even against its principal foe - Al Qaeda. Instead, what the Obama Administration essentially is seeking to do is covertly outsource Afghanistan’s stabilization to Pakistan in a bid to limit its own burden. The outcome of this strategy is likely to witness a reversion of Afghanistan as a haven for transnational terror groups that directly grates against Indian interests. If anything, instead of hyphenating Pakistan and Afghanistan, Washington is now returning to hyphenating India and Pakistan. Using the dodgy analogy of Vietnam and assailing the legitimacy of Karzai become convenient excuses for making a hurried exit.

    Afghanistan is in the middle of war and balance is ultimately not justice in war. Right seldom makes might in combat. A state can intervene on behalf of one side and tilt the balance of military power as the US did in World War-I thereby ensuring victory. It can also tilt the local military balance by covertly siding with one of two antagonists. Two belligerents may exhaust themselves through devastating combat to find a negotiated compromise as was the case with Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. One side may overwhelm another as was the case in the recently concluded war between the Sri Lankan military against the LTTE. In all these and other instances, balance was never justice. Unfortunately, the liberal West periodically conflates and confuses legitimacy and justice with the goals of stability. Ultimately what counts at the end of any war is who rules within a state and between states it is the terms of the peace. The problems of Afghanistan are vexing and complex, defying easy resolution. The fissiparous nature of Afghan society, which incidentally parallels South Vietnam’s fragmentary political system, is compounded by the fact that it is a country ravaged by thirty years of war. Rebuilding a devastated state and reconciling a fractious polity is no mean task, because it does not lend itself to quick solutions. One can find sensible strategies to overcome some problems, but Washington seems to assume it can develop sensible and neat strategies that enable rapid resolution of all problems.

    Afghanistan’s problems are such that they can only be endured and managed. This requires fighting and defeating the adversary through attrition, patience and re-building critical capacities of the Afghan state. The challenge is that while the US is a superpower with interests that span the globe, the Taliban’s objectives are only limited to establishing their writ over Afghanistan. For Washington, Afghanistan is eventually a peripheral and not a primary interest, irrespective of the fact that Afghanistan served as a training base and played host to Al Qaeda terrorists who struck the US on September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, the soft underbelly of American power is American democracy. If the constraint is motivational, President Obama who eviscerated his opponents in both the primaries and the general election in 2008 that they supported an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq that depleted America’s war effort on the Afghan front and that he, if elected would invest more in Af-Pak by drawing down US forces in Iraq, has not made a political case to a wavering American public about why a troop surge is actually justified. This visible absence of Presidential leadership means he has trapped himself between opponents and supporters of a troop increase by choosing the safe option of persisting with the status quo. This middling position of Obama may obviate political pressures from the liberal base of his party, but ‘balanced’ positions work in the context of domestic politics. ‘Balance’ does not work in the realm of war. The US may have satiated its desire for vengeance but risks losing sight of its objectives due to liberal atavism, inconstancy, pusillanimity and operational ineptitude.