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Sun. June 16, 2024
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The Callous Withdrawal from Afghanistan
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“Acts of injustice done, between the setting and the rising sun, in history lie like bones, each one.”  W.H. Auden

The Indian subcontinent, has witnessed one of the most tumultuous times in world history. There are in fact, compelling reasons to believe that India is the most invaded country in the world, ever. Cyrus I – the founder of the Achaemenid Empire was the first one to do so. Secure epigraphic evidence suggests that this invasion took place in circa 535 BCE. India was invaded and/or conquered nearly 200 times by foreign forces between 535 BCE and our recent Independence. Present day Afghanistan - a strategically significant region historically, served as the “gateway to India” - connecting the far East to the Mediterranean on the Silk road.

The name Afghan, historians believe, comes from Afghana. Afghana was the grandson of Israel’s first King, King Saul. Afghana became the commander-in-chief of the Israelite army under King Solomon and is believed to have migrated to this region. According to legend, he is buried in the Koh-e Sulaymanoh (Sulaiman mountains). Post-Islamic lore describes Qais Abdur Rashid, (a descendant of Afghana) as the founding father of the present day Pashtuns. Rashid is thought to have embraced Islam in around 642 CE.

Excavations of prehistoric sites suggest that farming communities in the region were one of the earliest in the world. The indigenous people were small farmers and herdsmen. Remnants of the Indus valley civilisation have been found in parts of Afghanistan. The city of Balkh (northern Afghanistan) situated between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Amu Darya (river) is estimated to be at least 2500 years old. The Arabs called it Umm Al-Bilad (mother of all cities) on account of its antiquity. Afghanistan saw the rise and fall of many small, local kingdoms until it became a part of the Kushan empire in the 2nd century (CE).  It was under the Kushan emperor Kanishka the great, that Buddhism reached and flourished in the region. (That’s how, the now destroyed, ancient Buddhas reached Bamiyan.)  After the death of Kanishka, Afghanistan exchanged  hands between many invaders, rulers and emperors. It was ruled by the Ghaznavids, the Ghorids, the Mongols, the Timurids, the Barakzais, the Mughals, the Uzbeks, the Safavids, the Sikhs and the British - to name a few.

Afghanistan’s history is both fascinating and interminable, although for briefness and clarity, we will sail straight to the 19th century. In 1830, the then Governor-General of India Lord William Bentinck was tasked to establish a new trade route through the Emirate of Bukhara. The British intended to make Bukhara a protectorate. The plan was to strategically use the Persian and the Ottoman Empire as buffer states to block Russia from gaining a port in the Indian ocean or the Persian Gulf. Russia was apprehensive about the British expanding their influence in Central Asia while the British feared that Russia had plans to grab the “jewel in the crown” (India) and add it to the ever growing Russian empire. It was believed that “Whoever controls the Khyber, controls India.” And quite rightly so. Situated in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, the Khyber pass is a chokepoint. In military strategy, a chokepoint is a geographical feature (difficult one to transit due to its daunting physical characteristics) that an army is forced to cross in order to reach its objective. Given its treacherous landscape, the Khyber is gruelling for an army to pass through.  It makes it nearly impossible to bring in superior numbers, thereby decreasing the combat effectiveness. If the Russian  empire could gain control of this region, the situation could have become exceptionally precarious for the British. This power tussle between the two mighty empires in this region came to be known as “the Great Game.”

India’s bountiful resources, abundant raw materials, fertile lands and a large population ensued a tremendously high collection of taxes. India was, quite understandably, the most prized jewel in the world. To gain control of this area, the British launched a war against the Afghans. The first war (known as the “Disaster in Afghanistan” by the British) was fought between 1839 and 1842. The British suffered heavy causalities and lost miserably. They attacked again, 36 years after their first defeat. The war lasted two years and the British emerged victorious (1880) this time. Afghan Emir, Mohammad Yaqoob Khan (Sher Ali Khan’s son) ceded various frontier areas including Khyber, Quetta & Kurram by signing the treaty of Gandamak (a small village between Kabul and Jalalabad).  He  agreed to all the British terms by famously declaring that, “I would rather work as your servant, cut grass and tend your garden than be the ruler of Afghanistan!”

After Afghanistan came directly under the British, Mortimer Durand (an Anglo-Indian British diplomat of the ICS) drew a line to separate Afghanistan from India. It came to be known as the Durand line. After the partition of India, the Durand line formed an international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Durand line cuts through Afghanistan and Pakistan. It divides the ethnic Pashtuns living on either side. The western end runs into Iran and the eastern end, into western China. It has often been described as the most dangerous regions in the world because of the cross-border terrorist movement and drugs and arms smuggling.

Yaqoob Khan’s (our gardener friend) descendant - Amanullah Khan, launched an offensive against the British in 1919. The war-weary British relinquished control and signed the treaty of Rawalpindi on 19th August 1919 – a day, the Afghans celebrate as their Independence Day. Afghanistan was ruled by the Khan family until 1973. General Mohammad Daoud Khan – the then serving Prime Minister of Afghanistan deposed his cousin and brother-in-law - King Mohammad Zahir Shah in a coup d'état. He abrogated the constitution, abolished the monarchy, established a Republic and named himself the first President of the Republic of Afghanistan in July of 1973. “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” – Daoud’s time came 5 years later. He was assassinated along with all his family members in 1978 in a violent coup headed by Nur Mohammad Taraki of the PDPA (People’s “Democratic” party of Afghanistan). Taraki appointed himself the head of state.

The PDPA’s stance was Marxist-Leninist. The traditional Islamic laws were replaced with much more secular ones. Mosques were off limits, men were “obliged” to have neat beards and women were banned from wearing veils. Forced and child marriages were outlawed, women were given the right to equal education, job security, health services and “free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country.” PDPA carried out socialist land reforms and promoted state atheism. Afghanistan really was ushered into a modern era by this dynamic albeit autocratic ruler. Seeing the progress, Afghanistan’s northern neighbour, the Soviet Union promised monetary aid in excess of a billion U.S. dollars. The Afghans invited the Soviets to help (we are only humans, eh?) in the modernisation of their economic infrastructure. The Soviets were to help Afghanistan explore rare minerals, natural gases, build schools, hospitals, roads, drill water wells and train and equip the Afghan army.

The government was hugely unpopular due to its non-Islamic stance and its ruthless campaign of violent repression that saw mass extrajudicial killings and the unlawful detention of the thousands of outspoken civilians. Some from within the government formed a splinter group called Parcham – meaning flag in Pashto. The Parcham faction felt that the government’s ideology clashed with the traditional Afghan understanding of Islam and thought that only Islam could  unite the ethnically and tribally divided population. The Parcham faction established a covert dialogue with the Soviets (who were very much present in Afghanistan and seeing the situation on the ground for themselves) in order to gain their support to overthrow the PDPA. The Soviets saw this as an excellent opportunity to “bolster” the Parcham faction. On the 24th December, 1979, Soviet Union sent in excess of a 100,000 troops to invade Afghanistan. The Red army was supported by another 100,000 Afghani soldiers who were Parcham supporters. The Soviet army was armed with tanks, missile launchers, combat helicopters and fighter jets.

The US had long been at cold war with the Soviet Union. Americans had faced terrible shame and humiliation just 4 years ago when the People’s Army of Vietnam (trained, aided and armed by the Soviets) captured Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) defeating the US forces and resulting in a hurried, demeaning withdrawal by the Americans. The Carter administration saw this invasion by the Soviets as a golden opportunity to settle old scores. Through the Pakistani spying agency ISI, the CIA pumped billions of dollars into Afghanistan and “cultivated an asset.” The asset was Maulvi (religious scholar) Jalaluddin Haqqani. Haqqani was an obvious choice as he had established himself as one of the most successful guerrilla fighters confronting the Red army in Afghanistan. The ISI organised a web of young mujahideen (fighters) and called it the “Haqqani network.” The “network,” headed by Haqqani, was handled, funded, armed and trained by the ISI. President Reagan’s administration (1981) not only continued Carter’s policy, Reagan in fact, went a step further. He publicly lauded Jalaluddin Haqqani as a “freedom fighter.” This emboldened the Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviets. (Little did the U.S. know at the time that Haqqani was harbouring, funding and training their worst enemy to be – Osama Bin Laden.)

Going by credible, trustworthy figures, the US and Saudi Arabia smuggled at least $40 billion into Afghanistan over the years through ISI. America “arranged” hundreds of thousands of guns, grenades, bombs and rocket launchers for the mujahideen. Despite all the efforts by the US, the Soviets were gaining ground because of their air superiority. To counter this, the US made available in excess of two thousand Stinger surface to air missiles. This surface to air capability proved to be a game changer. The Stinger missiles had a good hit rate of about 75%. According to reliable reports, the mujahideen achieved at least 200 aircraft kills. Owing to heavy losses and a mounting international pressure, the Soviets withdrew in 1989. This was seen as an ideological American victory. The US could have easily used their influence in the region to bring about peace, security and stability. Although, not so surprisingly, the Americans decided to just vanish into thin air, leaving behind all the arms and ammunition that had been sent into Afghanistan over the past one decade.

The next few years witnessed the Afghan civil war between heavily armed groups fuelled by heavy foreign (Saudi, Iranian, Pakistani & Uzbeki) funding and support. The then ISI Director General Hamid Gul was most keen in orchestrating a trans-national Islamic revolution which would cover not only Afghanistan and Pakistan but also spread throughout Central Asia. Apart from achieving its objective of an Islamic revolution, the ISI had other ulterior motives too. They wanted to “teach the Soviets a lesson” as Soviet Union had long been an unconditional supporter of Pakistan’s main rival India. ISI masterminded the Jalalabad attack of March 1989 which resulted in over 5000 deaths. Despite all the efforts of the ISI, things did not quite go the way they had wished.

By the mid 1990s, the Taliban emerged as a significant force. Talib in Arabic means student or seeker. The Taliban (plural of Talib) was a formation of the mujahids who had fought against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Predominantly Pashtun, the Taliban were educated in Pakistani Madrasas (religious seminaries) by Sunni hardliners. With funding from Saudi Arabia and military support from Pakistan, the Taliban headed by Mohammad Omar captured most of Afghanistan by September of 1996. Mullah (cleric) Omar – an ethnic Pashtun, was born into a poor, landless family in a village in Kandahar province. He was a graduate from the Darul Uloom Haqqania (often called the University of Jihad) based in the Khyber Pakhtunwa province of Pakistan.

Not long after the takeover, the Taliban revealed its true colours. The situation in Afghanistan deteriorated swiftly. The Taliban imposed Sharia (Islamic) law and ruled with an iron fist (American supplied AK47s in fact!). They looted, killed, raped, kidnapped, mutilated at will. Girls as young as 11 were forced to marry these “freedom fighters.” The free world did recognise Taliban as a problem but failed to intervene in any way, whatsoever. Afghanistan became a breeding ground for terrorists. Ahmad Shah Masood was the only man in Afghanistan who could have toppled the Taliban. This mighty guerrilla commander had fought most fiercely against the Soviets. He strongly opposed Mullah Omar and refused to accept the Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.  Son of a well-to-do Royal Afghan Army Colonel, Masood (better known as the Lion of Panjshir) is often described as one of the greatest guerrilla leaders of the 20th century and has been compared to revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh, Josip Tito and Che Guevara. The Taliban were well aware of Masood’s capability as a charismatic leader who could bring different cadres together. A military strategist with an unwavering, intrepid spirit, Masood never let the Soviets or the Taliban capture his birthplace valley of Panjshir. Fearing an attack from Masood’s forces (the Northern Alliance), the Taliban repeatedly invited him to be a part of their government – an offer he (not so politely) refused on all occasions. Worth mentioning here is the fact that the then US backed Pakistani General-turned-President, Musharraf sent nearly 30,000 Pakistani soldiers to fight alongside Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden to capture and/or kill Masood. The lion of Panjshir fought bravely till his last breath. He was assassinated in 2001 by Taliban - just 2 days before the 11th September attack.

The attacks sent ripples through the whole world. The world as we knew changed drastically altering the course of history. Afghanistan came to the attention of the world once again as the hijackers were found to be members of al-Qaeda. Their leader, Osama Bin Laden was thought to be hiding in Afghanistan. President Bush issued an ultimatum to Taliban to hand over Osama Bin Laden, "Close immediately every terrorist training camp, hand over every terrorist and their supporters and give the United States full access to terrorist training camps for inspection." Taliban refused, stating that Laden was protected by the traditional Pashtun laws of hospitality.

In days to follow, in his famous speech, Bush declared “War on terror” (Terror is a tactic, not a physical enemy. Right from its inception, the “war” has been a flawed one.) On 7th October 2001, U.S. forces (along with UK and coalition allies) invaded Afghanistan. Nationally, Bush acted alone as US lawmakers were never given a chance to vote to declare the war on Afghanistan. Internationally, the US justified the invasion on grounds of self-defence (invoking Article 51 of the UN Charter). The US dressed this blatant invasion under the veil of  “a pre-emptive” strike.

In international law, a nation can strike pre-emptively if it foresees an attack, the proof of which should be beyond any reasonable doubt. Self-defence can be justified in the face of an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm. The threat must be immediate and the response must not be pushed beyond what is reasonably required to repulse that threat. Self-defence cannot be invoked to justify a physical retaliation, that too, weeks after an attack. Self-defence has to be in the face of an imminent threat. The response must not be pushed beyond what is reasonably required to ward off that threat. A belligerent, non-proportionate retaliation, weeks after an attack, does not qualify as self-defence!

The attacks were never directly traced back to Taliban or Afghanistan. Agreed, that the Taliban was the only form of government in Afghanistan at the time of the attacks, but al-Qaeda was not a part of that government. Al-Qaeda had no control or influence in Afghanistan, whatsoever. It was a clear case of a state actor using force against a non-state one. Invading a sovereign state to eradicate a non-state actor is illegal by all means!

The initial invasion of Afghanistan was not conducted with the authorisation of a specific UN Security Council Resolution. This raises a pertinent question. Does the UN actually have any authority? If countries can invade/declare war in such an aggressive and a disproportionate manner without the UN’s approval, what legitimacy does the UN really have? The United States, “the leader of the free world” had every right to capture and punish those guilty of the attacks, but the reckless manner in which the US acted (killing thousands of innocent women and children within days of the first invasion) can only be summed up as “might is right.” Ancient historian Thucydides put it most eloquently, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must!” America must not dictate to the rest of the world what it itself does not adhere to. “Leadership by example” said the Mahatma who defeated the largest empire to have ever existed in the history of mankind, without firing a single bullet! It can most indisputably be argued that the invasion was not legal under the set, well established tenets of international law.

The cost of this war was gigantic. Most reliable sources suggest that the invasion of Afghanistan cost over 120,000 innocent lives. Mind you, these are conservative estimates. The war cost the US $2 trillion. As most of the money was borrowed, generations of Americans will be burdened by the cost of paying it off with interest. So, in essence, America spent trillions of dollars fighting this 20 year long war in which thousands of its own citizens lost their lives and tens of thousands of innocents were killed to replace Taliban with Taliban. (If my memory serves me right, Osama Bin Laden wasn’t captured from Afghanistan in the end.)

America is so naïve and gullible, the reader might wonder. Allow me to introduce Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein. In 2007, Klein wrote “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” Oxonian political philosopher John Nicholas Gray hailed it as “one of the very few books that really help us understand the present.” He described Klein’s work as "both timely and devastating.” Klein discusses (with trustworthy facts and evidence) how powers profit from disaster. She has provided persuasive evidence repeatedly to suggest that people close to the Bush family benefitted from the “War on terror.” In her article for the Guardian, “Bomb before you buy: What is being planned in Iraq is not reconstruction but robbery” Klein articulated that the “War on terror” wasn’t a war on just terror. In an embarrassing situation for President Bush’s administration, an exposé revealed the fact that figures from the senior Bush administration including (but not limited to) Zalmay Khalilzad, a former Ambassador to Iraq and Jay Garner a retired general were leading the “reconstruction” work in these war torn countries.

Journalist Anthony Loewenstein’s (a columnist for the Guardian) book “Disaster Capitalism: Making a killing out of Catastrophe” reveals how multinational corporations profit off of chaos. Loewenstein spent a long time in war torn Afghanistan, he paints a picture “of a crisis-stricken world in which virtually everything has been privatised, in which private military companies, or PMCs — 21st-century warlords — exercise more control over countries than their own inhabitants.” At the time of writing the book (2016) one in every four American armed personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan was a private contractor. It was found that the employees of the private military companies CACI and Titan Corp. were present at the Abu Ghraib (2003-04) prison when the ghastly, inhumane, shameful acts of torture took place. The private employees were found to be “individually culpable” although, agonisingly enough, never faced prosecution.

With great power comes great responsibility. Catastrophic events as distant as the fascist Germany and as close as Syria have shown us what happens when the free, democratic world decides to be a mute spectator. The Taliban will be Taliban, make no mistake. This incautious attitude is bound to cost us heavily in the future. The US cannot just walk away so callously from this situation – they created it in the first place! As an international relations expert with over a decade of close professional observation and a keen, in-depth study of the past, I understand fully well that words are easy, solutions aren’t. Be that as it may, I still firmly believe that the withdrawal was, without a shadow of a doubt, chaotic, poorly planned and rushed. So poorly planned in fact that the US had to send in soldiers to help evacuate its own embassy personnel. The US left in such a haste that not only did Taliban grab political power within days, they seized US firepower too! Mortifying pictures show the Taliban wearing US tactical uniforms, driving American armoured vehicles, showing off US made weapons and jumping on top of US Black hawk helicopters!

US Congressman Steve Chabot (Co-chair of India Caucus - a bipartisan coalition that brings national attention to domestic and international issues that affect US economy and security) has applauded the Indian government for welcoming the “Afghan religious minorities.” In the same breath, he said that it was, “Disgusting to watch Pak officials celebrate the Taliban victory. Pakistan and its intelligence service have played a key role in fostering the Taliban and allowing it to eventually take over Afghanistan.” Should that come as a surprise to a US lawmaker? Without being influenced by foreign views, India needs to monitor the situation very closely. Any knee jerk decisions could prove to be detrimental in the long run. Taliban has announced that it wants friendly relations with India. The Indian policy towards Taliban should be an extremely cautious and a strategically well-planned one. (At least, better than the one that we have had with our sister state Nepal in the recent past.) In diplomacy, dialogue is always better than a deadlock. It would perhaps be wise to wait and watch but also keep in mind that it was this very Taliban that encircled the hijacked Indian Airlines (IC814) aircraft in 1999 in an attempt to prevent an Indian commando action. The released terrorists including Masood Azhar were given a safe passage by the Taliban.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world. Geologists believe that the nation is sitting on billions of dollars of mineral deposits such as gold, copper and iron and most importantly world’s biggest deposits of lithium – a scarce component used in rechargeable batteries. The Taliban are desperate for funds. A Taliban spokesperson announced on air that China can (please he means, I think) contribute to Afghanistan’s development. Time will tell if China, a neighbour of Afghanistan would want to invest and explore. China has major investments in the region. The security threats posed by this abrupt return of Taliban are far greater than any strategic interests in sight for China. Beijing will perhaps just work towards managing the threats in the region for now. With a history of China’s ill treatment of the Uyghur Muslims and a shared border with Afghanistan, China will have to be extremely cautious. India will have to be vigilant too, but with her cordial relations with Saudi Arabia (former funder of Taliban) and Islamic centres of influence based domestically, India has a clear advantage over China.

The Lion of Panjshir, Masood’s 30 year old son Ahmad Masood (Sandhurst trained, King’s College graduate) has asked the US to support the “cause of freedom” rather than abandoning the Afghans. (It is one thing to abandon common citizens, another to abandon those who you used for over 2 decades! Interpreters, liaison officers, informers, cooks, drivers, bodyguards - anyone with even the remotest link to the US will have to see his/her daughters/sisters/mothers raped, tortured, mutilated and hopefully killed. I say hopefully because a dignified death is better than the wrath of the Taliban) Masood hoisted the Northern Alliance flag in the Panjshir valley – the very first resistance against Taliban-II and announced to the world, "I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father's footsteps, with fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban.”

Afghanistan, as we have seen, is not an easy land to control. The Americans were apparently warned by a pro US feudal-warlord before the invasion, “You will be our enemy if you stay and cowards if you leave!” The greatest military leader of all time faced the strongest resistance in these very tribal areas. Alexander the great is said to have commented that this land is “Easy to march into, hard to march out of!” A vast majority of Afghans are full of hatred for the Taliban as we have seen in the past few days. Given strategic, tactical support, funding and armament, Masood Jr. will prove to be a formidable force and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he is successful in snatching away from Taliban, large parts of Afghanistan with a matter of months.

Tragic news from Afghanistan have left us all disconsolate. We have seen men falling out of an aircraft after its take off. To begin with, it seemed as though these poor, illiterate Afghans did not know that you simply cannot cling on to a flying plane and survive. It has now been reported that one of them was, in fact, a qualified doctor. They knew full well the risks and took them willingly. Immensely sorrowful.

If the mighty cannot save the weak – we as humanity have failed. Not only have we shamed our ancestors who propelled us to where we are today in the hope that we would build a better world, we have failed the generations to come. Recalling scenes from the Kabul airport, a British officer told news channels in England, “The mothers were desperate, they were getting beaten by the Taliban. They shouted, save my baby and threw their babies at us, some of the babies fell on the barbed wire. It was awful what happened. By the end of the night there wasn’t one man among us who was not crying.” To throw away your child over a barbed wire to complete strangers in the hope that they will live, albeit, never to see you again… To the leaders of the “free world” I ask, if that doesn’t prick your conscience, what will?

Sartaj Chaudhary is Master of Laws from the prestigious Kent University. His areas of interest are terrorism, regional conflict and international relations. An expert in International Law, he has written extensively about the changing global order and numerous other contemporary issues. 

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