By K.M. Seethi
The 9/11 terrorist attacks had marked a defining moment in international relations. Even as the world community remembers its horrific effects after 20 years, the emergence of the Taliban in Kabul (with 14 of 33 members of the ‘interim’ government on UN’s terror blacklist) comes as an ironic twist of fate. Throwing all cautions to the wind, the ‘exclusive’ coterie of the new regime in Kabul are set to play a new game in the region with Pakistan, China and Russia hammering out fresh deals with the Taliban. The geopolitical setback Washington suffered in the last phase of its ‘engaging Afghans’ is also a reminder that the ‘war on terror’ did not auger well for the West. Rather it turned out to be a disaster for millions of people across the Eurasian region who still bear the brunt of the 20 years’ crisis.
The 9/11 attacks and the consequent militarism in the name of ‘war on terror’ caused extensive damage to people and valuable assets in the regions beyond Afghanistan. While the 9/11 episode set in motion further Islamist terror attacks in other places like London, Madrid, Bali, New Delhi, Djerba etc., nations and international organisations came together to face the threat of terrorism in different ways. While the American-led forces intervened in Afghanistan and pulled apart the Taliban and al-Qaeda infrastructure, it took several years for them to finish off the masterminds of terrorism, including Osama bin Laden. Yet, the task remains ‘unfinished’ with the withdrawal of the US-NATO forces, facilitating the return of the Taliban.
The most devastating effect of the post-9/11 US operations was in Iraq in March 2003. The dismantling of the Iraqi administration and military spurred a civil war, which eventually led to the emergence of al-Qaeda in the country. It also prodded Daesh—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a radical Sunni Islamic jihadi outfit which stretched across Iraq and Syria. ISIS is considered to have receded its fighting ability since 2015, but its ideology is seized by new Jihadi militants in other regions (such as in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and, naturally, it poses new challenges to international security and stability. The return of the Taliban is also a grim reminder that the Islamic Jihadi militants in many parts of the world will spur fresh bouts of religious mobilization. This is a dangerous scenario which China and Russia are conveniently glossing over. More than the specificities of Xinjiang and Chechnya, and more than the transient geopolitical gains of engaging Afghanistan, the two Asian giants must look at the religious spurt as something like a Jihadi-estate that will spell disaster for the entire world. A special grid in this emerging geopolitical scenario of Jihadi-estate is maintained by Pakistan with its oligarchic power structure operating at different levels. The happiest country in the rise of the Taliban in Kabul is undoubtedly Pakistan and it is quite possible that both China and Russia will look upon Islamabad as a ‘frontline power’ in their strategic games. Pakistan’s role as a ‘frontline state’ in the American strategy in South Asia had lost its relevance way back in the early 1990s, with Moscow’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the disintegration of the Soviet state itself. Though ‘war on terror’ warranted Pakistan’s second episode of ‘frontline’ role post-9/11, Washington knew that Islamabad would play a different sort of game in South Asia. This has been made evident in several reports, documents, and writings of the U.S. policy makers.
According to The 9/11 Commission Report (Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “Pakistan helped nurture the Taliban. The Pakistani army and intelligence services, especially below the top ranks, have long been ambivalent about confronting Islamist extremists. Many in the government have sympathized with or provided support to the extremists.”
The Report says that “Pakistan stood aside and allowed the U.S.-led coalition to destroy the Taliban regime.” It also noted that “the Pakistani government tried to walk the fence, helping against al Qaeda while seeking to avoid a larger confrontation with Taliban remnants and other Islamic extremists. When al Qaeda and its Pakistani allies repeatedly tried to assassinate Musharraf, almost succeeding, the battle came home.” The report further said: The country’s vast unpoliced regions make Pakistan attractive to extremists seeking refuge and recruits and also provide a base for operations against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Almost all the 9/11 attackers traveled the north-south nexus of Kandahar–Quetta–Karachi. The Baluchistan region of Pakistan (KSM’s ethnic home) and the sprawling city of Karachi remain centers of Islamist extremism…” The report noted that the “U.S. forces in Afghanistan have found it challenging to organize effective joint operations, given Pakistan’s limited capabilities and reluctance to permit U.S. military operations on its soil.”
Larry Pressler, former Chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Arms Control Subcommittee, writes in his Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent (2017) that America’s “rationale for continuing to provide aid to Pakistan” was “flawed.” Pressler quotes Matthew M. Aid’s 2012 work Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight against Terror: “US intelligence experts were reluctant to admit that the ISI and the Taliban were collaborating. But the evidence kept mounting and, in 2008, they determined that the ISI was providing training, money, and logistical support to the Taliban. Furthermore, a December 2010 National Intelligence Estimate claims that Pakistan continues to harbour every major terrorist group that the United States deems an enemy. The northern Pakistan region remains lawless ‘Wild West’ where the Pakistani Taliban and other homegrown terrorists roam without much interference.” Elsewhere Pressler writes: “We let Pakistan use US taxpayer money to build to their nuclear weapons programmes. Why do we now let them use US taxpayer money to harbour terrorists?”
The 9/11 Commission Report was equally critical of the role of Saudi Arabia. It says: “Saudi Arabia has been a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism. At the level of high policy, Saudi Arabia’s leaders cooperated with American diplomatic initiatives aimed at the Taliban or Pakistan before 9/11. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s society was a place where al Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities. It was the society that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers.” The Report clearly states that as “Saudi wealth increased, the amounts contributed by individuals and the state grew dramatically. Substantial sums went to finance Islamic charities of every kind.” And the Saudi government “uses zakat and government funds to spread Wahhabi beliefs throughout the world, including in mosques and schools. Often these schools provide the only education available; even in affluent countries, Saudi-funded Wahhabi schools are often the only Islamic schools. Some Wahhabi-funded organizations have been exploited by extremists to further their goal of violent jihad against non-Muslims.”
Barack Obama in his A Promised Land (2020)—which covers his political career up to the period of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011—explains many episodes of the difficulties in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. He writes: “ The lack of a coherent U.S. strategy didn’t help matters. Depending on who you talked to, our mission in Afghanistan was either narrow (wiping out al-Qaeda) or broad (transforming the country into a modern, democratic state that would be aligned with the West). Our Marines and soldiers repeatedly cleared the Taliban from an area only to see their efforts squandered for lack of even halfway capable local governance. Whether because of overambition, corruption, or lack of Afghan buy-in, U.S.-sponsored development programs often failed to deliver as promised, while the issuance of massive U.S. contracts to some of Kabul’s shadiest business operators undermined the very anti-corruption efforts designed to win over the Afghan people.”
Obama knew that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had tricky implications. He told Robert Gates (Secretary of Defence) that “my first priority was to make sure our agencies, both civilian and military, were aligned around a clearly defined mission and a coordinated strategy. He didn’t disagree. As a CIA deputy director in the 1980s, Gates had helped oversee the arming of the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet occupation of their country. The experience of watching that loosely organized insurgency bleed the mighty Red Army into retreat—only to have elements of that same insurgency later evolve into al-Qaeda—had made Gates mindful of the unintended consequences that could result from rash actions. Unless we established limited and realistic objectives, he told me, “We’ll set ourselves up for failure.”
Obama wrote that Joe Biden, after his visit to Kabul, “had convinced him that we needed to rethink our entire approach to Afghanistan” and “he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay a deployment, suggesting it would be easier to put troops in once we had a clear strategy as opposed to trying to pull troops out after we’d made a mess with a bad one.”
Quoting from The Riedel report, Obama says “The report’s added emphasis on Pakistan was key: Not only did the Pakistan military (and in particular its intelligence arm, ISI) tolerate the presence of Taliban headquarters and leadership in Quetta, near the Pakistani border, but it was also quietly assisting the Taliban as a means of keeping the Afghan government weak and hedging against Kabul’s potential alignment with Pakistan’s arch rival, India. That the U.S. government had long tolerated such behavior from a purported ally—supporting it with billions of dollars in military and economic aid despite its complicity with violent extremists and its record as a significant and irresponsible proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in the world—said something about the pretzel-like logic of U.S. foreign policy. In the short term, at least, a complete cutoff of military aid to Pakistan wasn’t an option, since not only did we rely on overland routes through Pakistan to supply our Afghan operations but the Pakistani government also tacitly facilitated our counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda camps within its territory. The Riedel report, though, made one thing clear: Unless Pakistan stopped sheltering the Taliban, our efforts at long-term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail.”(emphasis added) In fact, what Obama wrote has actually come true today. Obama was also sure that the U.S. would face formidable difficulties in Kabul. According to him, “The situation in Afghanistan was bad and getting worse, with the Taliban emboldened, the Afghan army weak and demoralized, and Karzai, who prevailed in an election tainted by violence and fraud, still in charge of a government that was viewed by the Afghan people as corrupt and inept.” By November 2009, Obama realised “substantive differences” between members of his “team had by this point shrunk considerably. The generals conceded that eradicating the Taliban from Afghanistan was unrealistic.” However, Joe Biden and Obama’s “NSC staff acknowledged that CT operations against al-Qaeda couldn’t work if the Taliban overran the country or inhibited our intelligence collection.”
Several years later, the U.S. had to take an inevitable decision—to pull out troops from Afghanistan without anticipating any “unintended consequences.” In any case, the role of Pakistan in the Afghan crisis has increased, over years, with its consistent support to the Taliban and other Jihadi networks. This has been evident since the U.S.-Taliban deal and the subsequent announcement of U.S. withdrawal of troops (by both Trump and Biden). Amid reports of uncertainty in the days since the fall of Ghani government on 15 August, Islamabad had sent different signals to Kabul in the making of a new dispensation. That’s why Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had “warned of potential spillovers from the Afghan crisis, saying the world would have to deal with a “huge mess” if Pakistan’s advice on the war-ravaged country was ignored.” Following this statement came the visit of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt Gen Faiz Hameed and a team to Kabul. Gen Hameed said that “everything will be okay.” The new dispensation emerged within a short time after this ‘strategic’ visit. Many observers believe what Larry Pressler had written several years ago that the ISI ‘still matters’ in the making of a Jihadi-estate in Kabul.
The Jihadis who are wholly, or intermittently committed to al-Qaida and ISIS version of Islam are unreceptive to any persuasion or democratic engagement. The 9/11 Commission Report says: “It is among the large majority of Arabs and Muslims that we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity, even though our own promotion of these messages is limited in its effectiveness simply because we are its carriers. Muslims themselves will have to reflect upon such basic issues as the concept of jihad, the position of women, and the place of non-Muslim minorities. The United States can promote moderation, but cannot ensure its ascendancy. Only Muslims can do this.”
Is the Taliban’s ‘ascendancy’ an expression of American predicament or a wishful thinking? The new dispensation in Kabul has already intimated what an ‘inclusive government’ is. They have ‘included’ all blacklisted terror brains in the cabinet. The position of women has already been proclaimed—under the Taliban-dictated Sharia—and the place of minorities is writ large with fresh reports of persecution emerging from several provinces.
The upshot of the power games in Kabul is fairly clear. Global agencies have already warned of a devastating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with 18 million people being pushed into a deepening crisis of poverty. UNDP signalled that almost 97 per cent of the country’s population would fall below the poverty line if the current crises are not addressed immediately. With Afghanistan’s frozen assets still remaining blocked, the scenario in the country would be unpredictable.
The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala who also served as Dean and Professor of International Relations, MGU. He can be contacted at [email protected]