With the Taliban exacting a humiliating defeat on the United States after a 20-year effort at nation-building, with the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, some are desperate to look for a scapegoat. Since the announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces, a vicious propaganda campaign has been unleashed against Pakistan, as leaders in the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Europe are unable to explain the loss of precious lives and trillions of dollars over the past two decades to their public. Now that it is clear these countries achieved nothing in Afghanistan, who are they going to blame for it? This is where Pakistan enters the picture.
The argument is simple: The Taliban beat the United States, and Pakistan supports the Taliban. In this story, Pakistan is the behemoth that helped the Taliban to win across Afghanistan. The narrative intentionally ignores the role of other neighboring countries, such as Iran, who backed the Taliban in Helmand to control the Helmand River, which provides water to a million people in Iran. Instead the Taliban are portrayed as a creation of Pakistan, which Pakistan continues to fund with the roughly $30 billion it has received from the United States since 2001. Ironically, the $1 trillion spent by the U.S. in Afghanistan during the same time period failed to negate the effect of the $30 billion given to Pakistan.
This fairy tale propagated across Western media is intended to hide the true causes that fueled the resistance movement, which point the finger of blame at what had been previously called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. ISAF was commonly referred to as “I Saw Americans Fighting” by U.S. forces, since other countries in the Western alliance never believed in the U.S. project and never committed to the fight. The British did try for a short period of time but were quick to retreat, handing all responsibility of fighting back to the United States, as symbolized by their withdrawal from Sangin in 2010. While these foreign soldiers dreamt of returning to their homes thousands of miles away, for the Taliban – a localized and indigenous insurgency – Afghanistan is home. This lack of commitment to the fight, further aggravated by “green on blue attacks” perpetrated by Afghan forces, ensured that non-U.S. ISAF forces spent most of their time inside their bases. That one of many reasons why the West were never going to win.
Another factor that contributed to defeat were the local Afghan partners of the United States, according to the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an office created by the U.S. Congress to monitor U.S. spending on Afghanistan. SIGAR’s annual reports often included scathing criticism of the Afghan government. It stated that the corruption of the United States’ Afghan partners was critical in undermining strategic U.S. objectives. Washington had allied itself with criminal war lords that committed heinous crimes against the local population, but they were allowed to behave with impunity simply because they were America’s partners.
A classic example was Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. On the payroll of the CIA, he was the embodiment of corruption and criminality, as he ravaged the local population. Warlords like Wali Karzai allowed the Taliban to gain control of the rural districts, which hold the majority of the Afghan population. Local people saw the Taliban as a better alternative to the rulers imposed upon them by the United States. Even before the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban controlled large parts of Afghanistan, running their own shadow government. According to U.S. estimates, by 2018 the Afghan government was only in control of 54 percent of districts across Afghanistan.
With respect to the Taliban’s financing, the West continues to focus on the $30 billion given to Pakistan over 20 years, ignoring the $144 billion spent on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, some of which benefitted the Taliban instead due to the corruption within the Afghan government. In addition, the Taliban were collecting tax revenues from the areas they controlled and financing their resistance through the drug trade. Due to the localized nature of the Taliban, they were adept at developing and maintaining their own sources of funds, without requiring significant outside help. Despite the availability of this information, there seems to be a focus on Pakistan’s funding.
However, the singular most significant factor behind the Taliban’s success was the occupation itself – the presence of people on Afghan land who did not belong. That fact alone drove ordinary Afghans to join the Taliban. Occupation forces brutalized Afghans in night raids, looked down upon them and saw them as belonging to an inferior culture. To the imperialist, occupation is their gift to the “uncivilized.” Such men can never understand the indignity of occupation or the true cause of their failure: Their very existence as armed invaders in a foreign land, where they were never welcomed. The United States gave itself an impossible mission in Afghanistan and when it failed, looked for every excuse, when all they needed to do was look in the mirror. It took the Americans two decades to realize that they were the fuel for the fire, and the only solution was to withdraw.
Unfortunately, Pakistan cannot withdraw, as it shares a 2,600-plus kilometer border with Afghanistan. It does not have the luxury of packing up and leaving like the Soviet Union or the United States. Instead, Islamabad must strive for the best possible outcome for itself, given the actions of foreign invaders that have devastated Afghanistan. Indeed, for the past five decades, Pakistan has only reacted to realities created by global superpowers, first with the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and then later by the United States. It had little choice in either situation, as its policy was dictated by existential concerns.
If the Soviet occupation of a landlocked Afghanistan had succeeded, Pakistan would have been next, as it would have provided the Soviets access to warm waters. Pakistan did not have a choice but to support the mujahideen resistance. Similarly, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan readily assisted, leading to a swift victory. But then the U.S. opened Afghanistan to India – Pakistan’s mortal enemy – going onto sign a nuclear deal with India, signaling it as the new U.S. strategic partner in the region. Pakistan now faced the threat of strategic encirclement. Once again, Pakistan’s choice had been made for it, by another superpower.
In response, Pakistan increased its cooperation with China and never looked back. The United States must have understood that Pakistan is not going to act against its own interests, creating an existential threat for itself by empowering India in Afghanistan, at the behest of a superpower that abandoned Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the 1990s. Ironically, the consequence of the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan in the early 1990s, paved the way for the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan in the first place.
Contrary to popular opinion, Pakistan did not create the Taliban, only deciding to support the group after they seemed likely to succeed against the mujahideen. The Taliban brought the brutal civil war of the 1990s to an end. Their only request to Pakistan at the time was to not support the mujahideen against the Taliban and not to disrupt their supply lines. Pakistan agreed to this request, asking the Taliban to ensure that India would not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base to attack Pakistan under Taliban rule.
This was the exact request made by Pakistan to the United States after it invaded Afghanistan. Unfortunately, after the initial success in both Afghanistan and Iraq, as the U.S. began to focus on China, it decided to ally itself with India to counter China and its relationship with Pakistan was the casualty. Washington continued to ask Pakistan “to do more” while rewarding India, and thus lost Pakistan as an ally in Afghanistan. The United States turned its most important ally in Afghanistan into a rival, albeit implicitly. Just like President George W. Bush lost the support of Iran in Afghanistan by labeling them as part of the “axis of evil,” similarly the U.S. lost Pakistan by failing to maintain the balance in its relationship between India and Pakistan.
Despite the above, a $20 trillion economy continues to blame a $300 billion economy for its own failures. That might help U.S. politicians in generating support for policies against Pakistan, but it will not change the situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan was a factor but by no means the most significant one in the Taliban’s rapid takeover. The primary reason behind the resistance had always been the foreign occupation, and even in the absence of Pakistani support, the Taliban would have survived and thrived. However, a true alliance with Pakistan would have allowed the United States to pull out earlier, at a lower cost in terms of both lives and money, and with a significantly better post-war arrangement in Afghanistan.
In conclusion, it is time for the United States to realize that it cannot coerce Pakistan to act against its own interests or hold it responsible for its own failures. And if it continues down this road, its relationship with Pakistan might only get worse, as the United States focuses its attention on its peer competitor China, after eliminating the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan that allowed China two decades of unimpeded growth. Being China’s closest ally, Pakistan will continue to pose a challenge for the U.S. for decades to come.
However, if Washington wants to change the calculus, then it must start by ending the propaganda campaign against Pakistan and own the consequences of its policies, which forced Pakistan to recalibrate its position on Afghanistan and pushed it into the arms of China. Continuing to malign Pakistan has not worked over the past two decades. To expect that to change would be the definition of insanity.