We recently marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Taliban capture of Kabul, which led to the expulsion of Ahmed Shah Massoud - an internationally-adored mujahid leader and fighter - the public torture and execution of former president Mohammad Najibullah and the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This event should serve as a poignant reminder to us of the consequences and unexpected outcomes of foreign policy meddling, well-intentioned or not.
The Afghan-Soviet War is widely considered to have been the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, and the metaphor is apt. The Americans were defeated not only by the fighting spirit of the Vietnamese, but also by the significant Soviet military aid given the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. So when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Americans explicitly planned to return the favour.
The Americans funded and armed Afghan mujahideen fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, at its peak giving the Afghans a billion dollars a year, which was matched by the Saudis. The mujahideen were given Soviet weaponry produced in China or Egypt, or captured by Israel, and were even given the Stinger missile, a man-portable air defence system (MANPADS) so advanced it had not yet been introduced into regular service with the US Army.
The Afghans defeated a superpower with superior fighting spirit and foreign assistance. However, under the administration of George H.W. Bush, American aid programs for Afghanistan dried up, despite the protests of those in the CIA and American government who, quite correctly, claimed that the country would descend into anarchy without foreign assistance for infrastructure and development. When the issue was raised with President Bush, he responded, “Afghanistan? Is that thing still going on?”
One unfortunately consistent pattern in Afghanistan is that after an imperial power leaves the country, typically with their tail between their legs, Afghanistan descends further into anarchy. When the Soviets left, defeated, the puppet government they had set up largely collapsed. The Afghan Civil War followed, from which the Taliban emerged the victor. The rest is history.
Mullah Omar’s astute observation that Canadians were good fighters, but their politicians were weak, is largely applicable to the broader political environment in Western countries, specifically NATO member states. While we may consider the work we do in Afghanistan to be admirable, and as much as we laud the Canadian Forces, we are unwilling to take the casualties or spend the treasure to accomplish our goals. If everything goes according to schedule, Western forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan mid-decade. Will our aid to Afghanistan end accordingly? No option could be worse.
Although Afghanistan is a key battleground in the war on terror, it is also an area of extreme political importance, considering its neighbours. Pakistan faces the difficult challenge of governing the ungovernable- the Waziristan region in northwest Pakistan on the Afghan border. A separate branch of the Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, operates with impunity in the region, either from Pakistani incompetence or indifference. A proper resolution to the Waziristan situation is needed before any serious shift in the Afghan security scenario can occur, as the Afghan Taliban uses the area as a launching point and safe haven.
Things in Waziristan are unlikely to change, however, for two main reasons. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is believed by those in the intelligence community to be complicit with terrorists, and the mujahideen committing attacks in Afghanistan. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Pakistan has a difficult enough time defeating militants in its own territory. In 2009, an offensive by the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militant groups was stopped only thirty kilometers away from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Were Western forces to leave Afghanistan, it is likely that newly freed mujahideen resources would be used to topple the current Pakistani regime. With that remains the constant fear of a fundamentalist, anti-Western government (at least more openly than the current one) in possession of nuclear weapons.
Afghanistan is, unfortunately, also essentially unable to govern itself. There are countless reasons for this: lack of national unity, inability or unwillingness to combat the opium trade (the largest source of income for the Taliban and Afghans themselves), gross corruption, a deteriorating security situation and the poor quality of Afghan Security Forces, namely the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). According to the Failed States Index, most Afghan institutions are descending further and further into uselessness.
These are not problems that can be fixed with time-lines. Unfortunately, we lack the domestic will to see out the progress of Afghanistan. We will leave Afghanistan prematurely, and we will do so because we feel that we are not making progress, despite declarations to the contrary. If we were serious about Afghanistan and regional security, we would stay there until we were no longer needed.
What will come from a post-NATO Afghanistan? Nobody can know for sure, but we can guess, if history has taught us anything. Regardless, the lesson that we need to learn from Afghanistan is that shortsightedness in foreign policy is disastrous. Could anyone in 2001 have predicted that Afghanistan would be the longest war in American history? Perhaps, but nobody was willing to make a call on something a decade away. Yet, unless we start to think in the long term, we will continue to make foreign policy mistakes.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.
photo credit Erwin Franzen