Taliban gains are being cheered by some sections in Pakistan. The United States and its allies have lost in Afghanistan and the Taliban will be romping to victory. Voila! Nothing could be more nonsensical.
The idea that the US has been defeated is also a hot topic on television talk shows. One could perhaps forgive non-military analysts for not situating the US withdrawal in its perspective, but it is somewhat disconcerting to see former army generals make that point without contextualising it.
How exactly does one define ‘victory’ and ‘loss’? Cathal Nolan, a military historian, says “it is the single hardest thing to do, to translate combat into achievement of an important strategic and political goal that the other side is forced to recognise and accept when the war is over.” Sometimes it can happen; other times it doesn’t. A good example is the first Gulf War in which Saddam Hussain declared victory.
That said, if we compare what the US achieved against Germany and Japan post-World War II, turning those hostile powers into friendly economic giants and pulling them in as trusted allies, we could perhaps say that the US did not achieve its geopolitical objectives in either Iraq or Afghanistan (I will come to whether this is true or not later). In fact, one could also make this point with reference to Syria and Libya. Note that I have not said the US lost the war but that it failed to achieve in those countries what it had managed spectacularly well with Germany, Japan, South Korea etc.
This is not because the US military is a poor fighting machine. Far from it. It remains the most powerful military machine in mankind’s history. That has not changed with its withdrawal from Iraq or Afghanistan. If anything, it will continue to invent and incorporate emerging technologies in a bid to stay on top of its game. Given that it is now in competition with a rising China with the latter’s own formidable capabilities, the US military will be pushed into retaining its edge.
And yet, despite tactical wins in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it did fail in its stabilisation operations. There’s a reason for that and those who gleefully talk of US ‘defeat’ need to understand it. An industrial, interstate war is very different from what General Rupert Smith called “war amongst the people”. Notice the ease with which the US military dislodged the Taliban and/or Saddam Hussain and compare that with years of struggle to stabilise those countries. Put another way, its offensives against the Taliban in Afghanistan as also against the Saddam Hussain-led Iraqi army were cakewalks. Reason: it was fighting a war and won it with the same ease with which Tyson would knock out a four-year-old. But winning a war is not the same thing as stabilisation. It’s easy to knock out a four-year-old; it’s far more difficult to raise one.
Here’s some bad news for military analysts who do not tire of cheering America’s ‘defeat’ in Afghanistan: the US has left Afghanistan; it retains its position as a hegemon
Two important lessons were forgotten: one, interstate wars are different from handling insurgencies and long-drawn conflicts; two, counterinsurgency operations become Sisyphean if one doesn’t understand that they are more political than military. In his Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell offered a superb insight into how the political and the military objectives become enmeshed when one is fighting a civil war: “… it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish Civil War from a purely military angle. It was above all a political war.”
General Smith retired in 2002, just as the US and its allies were getting embroiled into two-decade-long conflicts. Even so, he understood that internal conflicts and stabilisation operations required a wide array of actors and not just military officers, that force is to be used in the service of overall political objectives. As he put it in his book, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, “[This] led me to realise there was a dissonance between the organisation of existing [western] forces and their operational activity.”
Smith’s book was published in 2005. Seven years later, another British officer, Capt Emile Simpson, wrote War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics. Simpson has a vignette in his book: “In April 1975 in Hanoi, a week before the fall of Saigon, Colonel Harry Summers of the US Army told his North Vietnamese counterpart Colonel Tu, ‘You never beat us on the battlefield’, to which Tu replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant’.”
Yet, it’s easier said than done, especially when a military force is operating among the people and in a country that is tribal and divisive. The traditional approach to use of force is to establish conditions for a political solution. War among the people, as Simpson argues, “directly seeks political, as opposed to specifically military outcomes, which lies beyond the scope of war in its traditional paradigm.”
To sum up the above, the US military remains the most powerful armed force in the world, singly and in tandem with its allies. It can win wars but not conflicts, especially in areas where it is operating among foreign populations. The latter is also true of other militaries; two, use of force has many frameworks and success and failure would depend on how force is being applied, against whom and to what end. For instance, Iran uses proxies across the greater Middle East to neutralise its asymmetrical disadvantages and its relative military weaknesses against its adversaries. Israel uses a mix of strategies to retain its dominance. The IDF, one of the most formidable armed forces, had a hard time dealing with Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War. But it remains the dominant military force in operations which do not require getting bogged down on the ground against elusive adversaries.
In case the argument is still unclear, let me assume a scenario for further clarification: in the event the Taliban take control of Kabul and with that a large part of Afghanistan, and in the event that they embark on a policy that the US considers inimical to its interests, the US has the capabilities to destroy Taliban forces. How? One, as noted earlier, the US can win a war against most adversaries very easily; two, the Taliban forces and assets — elusive as an insurgent force — will be over-the-ground as an established government. It’s difficult to operate against elusive forces; it’s easy to destroy concentrated targets.
Let me now come to another issue with reference to victory and defeat, which I flagged above. The US, a western hemisphere superpower, came to these shores to achieve its geopolitical objectives. It could achieve them both in ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’. What do I mean by that? In victory, i.e., in the event it could stabilise Afghanistan and Iraq, it would have two new allies; Iraqi stabilisation could also yield positive results for it in the Middle East. That did not happen and yet it now reaps the dividends of what many consider its ‘defeat’. How? It has cut its losses and gotten out, leaving regional countries to deal with Afghanistan’s likely spillover. Two of those countries are also its geopolitical competitors: China and Russia. Russia is already doing military drills with Uzbek forces as part of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation); China is bracing up for any spillover effects in Xinjiang.
In the Middle East, if Iraq, Syria and Libya cannot be stable US allies along the lines, for instance, of the Southeast Asian states, the US and Israel can reap the benefits of continuing instability in the region. A fractured region is the second-best option if you can’t get a stable, peaceful, US-friendly region.
So, here’s some bad news for military analysts who do not tire of cheering America’s ‘defeat’ in Afghanistan: the US has left Afghanistan; it retains its position as a hegemon; it remains a nearly USD 23 trillion economy. Meanwhile, in this hour of ‘great victory’, Afghans are killing Afghans and by the looks of it, that’s not going to end anytime soon.
Hamid Dabashi, the celebrated Iranian-American author and academic recently wrote an article, “Why the US war in Afghanistan was a resounding success.” While I do not agree with many of his observations, he is spot-on when he says, “There is nothing sillier than the cliched assumption of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires”. The US empire did not die in Afghanistan, nor did Russian imperial designs before it. Quite the contrary: both the US and Russia are robust military and imperial machines at work from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean and beyond.”
Afghanistan is only the graveyard of Afghans. That’s called deep tragedy, not victory.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider