Features | Security | Central Asia

Why the US Fumbled Afghanistan

A decade after the Afghan War began, it’s clear the US made a mistake in not working more with India. The missteps then have haunted it since.

India was one of the first countries to offer the United States unconditional support after September 11 for its ‘War on Terror.’ Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh called up key policymakers in Washington, offering logistical and other support against the Taliban-al-Qaeda axis headed by Mullah Omar.

Yet the full offer was seemingly rebuffed by a US administration that saw Pakistan as the key to defeating the Taliban. By September 13, the adoption of the 1979-89 play book, and the outsourcing of much of the 2001 campaign to the Pakistani military, became US policy. The United States seemed to look deep into the soul of Pervez Musharraf and accept his claim that Pakistan would turn on the militia that had been nurtured since 1993. As a result, they lost the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The day after 9/11, I was on the phone from a hotel in New York pointing out to friends in policy circles the dangers of relying on the Pakistani military, and the consequences of discarding the first Indian initiative to forge a military alliance with the United States since the 1962 Chinese invasion (when the putative partnership was aborted because of US-UK pressure on Delhi to surrender Kashmir to Pakistan as a precondition for the alliance).

The responses to my remarks ranged from scorn to amusement. After all, Pakistan was a long-term ally of the United States, while India ‘had sided with the Soviets.’ Implicit in such reactions was the memory of the Churchillian perception of India's majority Hindu population as unreliable, and, in Churchill's florid prose, ‘beastly.’ That India had as many Muslims as Pakistan, some of whom were serving with distinction in the uniformed services, and that India’s military had more than two decades of experience in dealing with terrorists of the same chemistry as the perpetrators of 9/11, seemed not to matter in the headlong rush of the Bush team into the waiting embrace of Musharraf's men.

Subsequently, several grave errors were made by US policymakers wedded to the theorem of reliance on Pakistan. Media reports at the time suggest that the Inter-Services Intelligence was allowed to evacuate 3,000 Taliban-al-Qaeda members, most notably from Kunduz. Had they been captured, the organisation would have been decapitated.

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Next, assistance was provided to ‘moderate’ Pashtuns and ‘reformed’ Taliban by NATO. However, these were identified by elements within the ISI, which, unsurprisingly, eyed fighters it regarded as reliable for its campaigns against India and others, rather than those who genuinely opposed the Taliban. For some time, I wasted much effort trying to bring to the attention of US policymakers the fact that the Pashtun elements they were lavishing treasure on would in time become the very force that challenged NATO, as indeed began to happen with growing frequency from 2005 onwards.

Although the US sought to prevent the Northern Alliance from actually entering Kabul, the Alliance did so anyway. But when it sought to enter southern Afghanistan and clear out the Taliban-al-Qaeda there, they were discouraged from doing so in the belief that the job could best be done by Pakistan. This decision to ‘bar’ the Northern Alliance from entering southern Afghanistan created the sanctuary that enabled the Taliban-al-Qaeda to challenge NATO in subsequent years.

Meanwhile, the 2001 brushoff by Washington weakened the lobbies within India that sought a firm alliance with the United States, so much so that in 2003, Vajpayee refused a US request that 20,000 Indian troops be deployed in the Kurdish zone of Iraq. This columnist was then – and is now – of the view that such a deployment would have been of immense strategic benefit to India, not least in terms of better access to the petroleum reserves in the Kurdish zone.

Also, the Indian military's counter-terror and counter-insurgency tactics are worlds apart from the ‘all guns blazing’ approach of NATO. The adoption of India’s alternative tactics in Iraq could have served as a lesson to other militaries on how to conduct operations without alienating the local community. Indeed, from 2003 onwards, during infrequent visits to the Pentagon, I would tell officials that US troops should ‘secure the borders and keep out of sight of the population’ and leave policing to the Iraqis. It seems no coincidence that conditions on the ground grew markedly better in Iraq once coalition forces stepped aside and allowed Iraqi elements to take over the responsibility of ensuring security. In Afghanistan as well, only the withdrawal of NATO from population centres and the creation of a well-equipped Afghan Army can rescue the situation from the present war of attrition between the alliance and the Taliban-al-Qaeda.

Now that Admiral Mike Mullen has made public the actual role of the ISI in Afghanistan, the Manmohan Singh government (which has been more deferential to US-EU wishes than any previous administration in India) has stepped forward to sign a strategic agreement with Afghanistan that will ensure that India train the Afghan police and military. The culture blind way in which various NATO partners have been seeking to train the Afghans has resulted only in huge costs – and in training that’s visibly unsuited to local conditions.

Rather than seeking to change the Afghan uniformed services into clones of the Germans, the Poles or the Australians, it would be both cheaper and more effective to have such training carried out by a nearby military that shares several cultural and historical links with the people of Afghanistan. ‘Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job’ ought to have been the Afghan plea that NATO acceded to, rather than entering into an expensive campaign using troops that ought never to be based outside Europe.

Now that India has entered the ring, perhaps Afghan President Hamid Karzai will escape the fate of President Najibullah, who succeeded in beating back extremist militias until Boris Yeltsin cut his supply lines to zero in 1993. Recovering from the errors of Cheney-Powell in 2001 – and ones made subsequently – will take time. But, unlike the strategy of relying on the Pakistan Army, it at least has a decent chance of success. That is, of course, assuming that another US policy disaster doesn’t come by to gift victory to the Taliban.