The Taliban’s Reconquista rocked the world – perhaps because of its blitz. Many on our streets whirled in a trance – they don’t get a chance all too often. But the most relevant reaction, though not in the best of tastes, came from the longtime Afghan watchers – “we saw it coming, and warned you so”. An old colleague, once frequently in-and-out of Washington’s corridors of power, told me soon after the US invaded Afghanistan: I cautioned them that they would lose this war.
He had history, geography, and the tradition of resistance, to back his judgment. Some like me still believed that the outcome this time might be different. It’s not beyond even a raging mad America to pause and ponder. And then the toppled Taliban, too, were willing to make peace to end the decades long war.
After their repeated offers were rejected by Rumsfeld, the American Viceroy in Kabul, because they were now history, the Taliban decided to revisit some of their own archives. Piecemeal resistance waged from behind the rocks, and on a terrain familiar to them, had frustrated many a powerful invader. And then there was always Kissinger who had advised them that they only had to survive to win. With American help they not only survived but also thrived.
Unlike the Taliban, the NATO militaries did not pay attention to any history books, or even their own field manuals. Counterinsurgency like all other warfare is about optimal synchronisation of battle and maneuver. In military strategy, these are used in tandem, each creating a favourable environment for the other – till the mission is accomplished. In COIN, the maneuver is all non-military, with the role of arms limited to shaping the right conditions for the more important political prong.
It’s a hard grind, and the states usually do not have the mettle to abide by its algorithm – especially if for the likes of the US, the main implement was a hammer. That alone portended failure – and it’s quite possible therefore that at some stage Washington relegated any ambitions to win on the battlefield. In 2005, when it decided to raise the Afghan National Army, one wondered why create another conventional force to do what the best in the field could not! It didn’t take long to discover the method in this madness.
During the next many years, the project helped the infamous military industrial complex pocket billions of dollars. Since making money was the aim, ANA had to be built upon an expensive model. That it could not sustain itself without a high-tech support system, which could only be operated by the defence contractors, was irrelevant to its creators. Deprived of this cover, when the ANA collapsed, it surprised or dismayed only its soldiers and officers, who had taken this support for granted.
In the larger scheme of things, the ANA was merely another ploy by the American deep state to maintain presence in a crucial region. Combating terrorism, regardless of what it meant, had long run its course. No one anymore believed that the US was in Afghanistan to fight terror; especially when it became obvious that the protracted foreign presence was producing ever more terrorists. That led to Obama’s famous doctrine of fight and talk to work out an exit.
It wasn’t too difficult for the Washington’s security establishment to subvert his policy. The argument that before talking the adversary must be brought in the right frame of mind, sounds so rational that one hardly ever posits that what if in the process the balance tilted in favour of the enemy. That’s precisely what happened and in the subsequent years, despite the surge and all, the Taliban with their nose to the ground grew from strength to strength. That made both staying as well as leaving unpalatable options for the occupation forces*. The Taliban on the other hand were preparing to meet both the eventualities.
Post 9/11, no development work could be started without paying protection money to the local warlord; often a Taliban loyalist. Poppy trade that Mullah Omer had banned, ostensibly on religious grounds, kicked-off again to help the Taliban finance their resistance. The wisest move made by them was establishing a system of local governance. They administered well and resolved disputes expeditiously. Though not apparent at that time but the traction the insurgents so gained in the rural areas, where most of the Afghans live, helped them unleash the lightening war that left us shell shocked. Control of the countryside also accrued a number of other benefits to the Taliban – extracting blood money from the occupying powers, was one.
What made the Taliban’s accomplishment more spectacular was that while the Mujahidin had the world on their side, the Taliban were pretty much on their own – with some minimum life sustaining support from their neighbours like Pakistan, who in the face of the mighty global alliance that was backing the Kabul regime, could not dare to do much more.
Movement of its convoys on the highways became so vulnerable to the raids and ambushes by the insurgents that the NATO was left with no choice but to pay them protection money. A decade back it was 150 Million Dollars per annum. Add to that their cut in the opium trade and commission on the development projects, and the Taliban were extracting over 500 Million Dollars every year – mostly from the American kitty.
All through the last two decades, any map that showed the areas controlled by the Taliban and the Kabul regime, made it amply clear that the militia was preparing for a battle of encirclement. After the Soviet withdrawal, the Mujahidin’s control of the countryside, with the PDPA forces confined to the garrisons, also provided the former the freedom of manoeuvre; an essential prerequisite for success. What made the Taliban’s accomplishment more spectacular was that while the Mujahidin had the world on their side, the Taliban were pretty much on their own – with some minimum life sustaining support from their neighbours like Pakistan, who in the face of the mighty global alliance that was backing the Kabul regime, could not dare to do much more.
Lately, there was near consensus amongst the Afghan hands that neither side could now impose its will by military means. This strategic stalemate was however more helpful to the Taliban: not only because they merely had to hang-on to win, but also because while they continued to consolidate their gains, the US merely hanged-in there. The logjam was broken when Trump and Biden pulled out their forces: what in the military terminology would be called – in a clean break.
Indeed, it’s not over. The Taliban may have regained power in Afghanistan with relative ease due to their hard work both on and off the battlefield, but there are enough number of challenges that have so often been talked about that they need not be recounted here. The need to maintain unity in their ranks will prevent them from going up the garden path that the outsiders plead will lead the country to salvation. Some may be sincere in their advice; others with tongue in cheek clearly mean to convey that the Taliban could do no good. Both the camps were well advised to save their breath. The Afghans will not do anyone else’s bidding, nor would they like to be seen doing so.
Though much is unpredictable, I would still stick my neck out to make a guess. If and when the Taliban are firmly in the saddle, they would deal with all the outsiders, the US and India as well, according to what they can get from them. Pakistan certainly has much to offer, and its support will be gratefully acknowledged, but they would still not give us the right to influence their policies and act against their traditions.
The best course for us is to operationalise the arrangement we had made with some neighbouring countries to synergise our assets to help the Afghans after the US withdrawal – and keep an eye on the bigger game that’s unfolding in the region and beyond.
Na paey Mandan, na jaey raftan – no place to stay and nowhere to go – is an age old Persian saying.