The Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan(IEA) seems to be on the cusp of complete control of Afghanistan, the bulk of Northern and North Western Afghanistan has fallen and the spectre of the fall of Kabul is being felt across the mountains and valleys of the Hindukush.
Did the international community go wrong in its strategic assessment; what are the internal dynamics of the conflict and what options are available with the regional players—these are some of the questions this article aims to address.
There are some important internal factors that most international commentators on Afghanistan have not paid due attention to. Governance in Afghanistan has been marred by rampant corruption and cronyism in the Afghan politico-military leadership. The gap between rural and urban Afghanistan created a feeling of abhorrence in the common Afghan, who feels that the corrupt Afghan elite has done nothing for the common man. The US Special Representative for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been providing independent and objective oversight of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by successive US governments. SIGAR claims to follow the core values of excellence, independence and integrity in its audits, investigations and inspections.
Interestingly, successive SIGAR audit reports in recent years have clearly pointed out that the Afghan politico-military leadership is corrupt and has failed to build a transparent system of spending public money. In 2020, SIGAR concluded that the United States lost $19 billion in Afghanistan since 2002 due to “waste, fraud and abuse,”. 19 billion dollars is lot of money; if we follow the trail of this waste and plunder, one can find that the money was spent or laundered by the Afghan elite to build real estate in the Gulf and metropolitan cities of Kabul, Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar, expensive travels, recreation and building fortunes for their kith and kin.
Why did successive US governments fail to check on this wasteful expenditure? Trevor Noah carried out a satirical analysis of this trend in his famous programme The Daily Show in December 2019. The summary of the findings, extracted from research by leading US media houses presented by Trevor Noah is as following:
Successive US governments and their military commanders in Afghanistan lied to the American public that the war in Afghanistan was following a positive trajectory.
Suicide bombings in Kabul were displayed as signs of the Taliban’s frustration and American success.
US leadership appears to have had no plan for two decades of the war and definitely no end state in mind. This aspect has been substantiated by retired Lt General Tariq Khan, when he stated that the ‘American War in Afghanistan will be remembered as a war in the search of a strategy’.
US Retired General Douglas even went further and stated that the US leadership had no clue as to why they were in Afghanistan, ‘we didn’t know who the enemy was. We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking’.
While US governments keep stressing on transparency and accountability in spending, and they had a full-fledged SIGAR office to overwatch, most of the military commanders and diplomats posted in Afghanistan acknowledged that there was surplus money to spend and the congress as well as White House always wanted to spend it quickly to get results on ground. This resulted in wasteful and thoughtless expenditure of billions of dollars in Afghanistan which actually landed up with the corrupt elite and warlords. Millions of dollars were spent on growing soybean in Afghanistan, not knowing that neither Afghan soil is good for soybeans nor that the Afghans dislike it. 28 million dollars were spent on developing forest camouflage uniforms for the Afghan Army, whereas Afghanistan has only 2.1 percent of forest cover.
US governments had bluffed the American public by upbeat pronouncements by successive presidents, starting from George Bush Junior, Obama and even Donald Trump. Is it to do with the American establishment, who not only ill advised decision makers but also creates false narratives of bravado and all is well? This question needs to be asked by the American public.
Externally, the Afghanistan of today is very different from the Afghanistan of the 90’s. Afghanistan’s regional neighbours like Iran, the Russian Federation, the CARs, China and Pakistan want a peaceful Afghanistan with some semblance of control. IEA has already convinced most of Afghan neighbours that Afghan soil will not be used for terrorism against any one. There is growing understanding between IEA and Afghan neighbours that an Afghanistan led by IEA will be acceptable if the Taliban leadership does not cross certain red lines.
Afghanistan forms the centre piece of strategic connectivity initiatives taken by China, CARs, Iran, Pakistan and the Russian Federation. With the US getting out, there is a hope that Afghan leadership would realise that extra regional forces cannot solve its teething problems and it’s only through a regional approach that Afghanistan can find accommodation in the regional community.
An important factor in the whole gambit of Afghanistan is the India factor; despite its efforts to keep the conflict alive and use Afghan soil for conducting terror activities in Pakistan, India has miserably failed. Of late, there has been realisation that India, due to Modi’s hateful policy against Pakistan, has boxed itself into a position of a bystander in the Afghan endgame. Indian obsession with Pakistan led India into a blind alley; no wonder some of the retired diplomats are prodding the Modi regime to open doors for talks with the IEA—what hypocrisy.
Is the fall of Kabul imminent and where does Afghanistan go from here? This is a million-dollar question. In our humble assessment, it’s a matter of months now. Afghan military forces are highly demoralised and their lack of expertise and capacity is obvious when we find soldiers and officers laying down their arms in droves or witness the scenes of the Afghan National Army running across to Tajikistan, Iran and even Pakistan to save their lives from the onslaught of the IEA.
IEA strategy has been fivefold; perplex the Ghani regime and its military command by presenting a nonlinear front, choke the border crossings and deny revenue to Kabul, capture the North and North West and deny any space for forging an alliance, draw concentric circles around Kabul and present a fait accompli to Ghani—surrender or bolt away—and make the final push to a crumbling regime by advancing onto Kabul.
While some of the factions in the western media, the Afghan government and India are trying to deflect the blame onto Pakistan, we will advise them to have a glass of water and do some objective analysis of Afghanistan’s internal and external dynamics; soon, all roads to Kabul will pass through Islamabad.