Why the US Fumbled Afghanistan
Image Credit: US Marines

Why the US Fumbled Afghanistan


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).

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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.

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.

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