What the US misunderstood about Afghanistan
Karachi is the largest Pashtun city in existence. It is the port through which Afghanistan trades with the world, and is the country's lifeline to the oceans of commerce. Without Karachi, the bazaars of Afghanistan would stand empty.
Karachi is also located deep within Pakistan, far away from the internationally recognised border, the Durand Line. The lack of awareness surrounding Afghanistan's main port is indicative of conventional analysis of Afghanistan obscures the complex reality of the country.
The recent collapse of the 20-year old Afghan Republic and the surrender of its great cities was met with shock in the West by commentators and audiences alike. Perhaps because western reporting seldom noted that the Taliban had in fact long held sway in the countryside, where three-quarters of Afghan society is found.
Overlooking the real nature of the Ghani regime was a fatal mistake, one that enabled the illusion of progress by western military forces. President Biden conceded as much in his 31 August address to the American people after the US withdrawal, noting that the Afghan government's "corruption and malfeasance" enabled the Taliban victory.
"Western reporting seldom noted that the Taliban had in fact long held sway in the countryside"
By some estimates, nearly two trillion dollars was spent on the US occupation of Afghanistan. A significant portion of this treasure was diverted into the coffers of the US's Afghan allies. One measure of this corruption is the large number of luxury properties and businesses acquired by the Afghan elite in Dubai.
Another measure was the Afghan National Army (ANA) itself, which although purportedly some 300,000 strong, was, in fact, a fraction of this size. ANA troop strength was inflated to allow kleptocratic officials to steal salaries. The magnitude of this corruption has long been alluded to in detailed audit reports issued by SIGAR, the agency created to review US military projects in Afghanistan.
A massive narco-state also flourished under President Ghani and was readily utilised by Afghanistan's political class. Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai appointed his brother to oversee the province of Kandahar where he busied himself becoming the head of the local opium trade. He was eventually assassinated.
Another Karzai brother was linked to the collapse of Kabul Bank - a Ponzi scheme disguised as a financial institution that helped fund the lavish lifestyles of the Kabul elite, who then absconded with most of its funds, leaving one of Asia's poorest states to foot the bill.
Key issues raised before then-Senator Joe Biden's 2018 Afghanistan visit include: "increase in terrorist attacks, narcotics production & trafficking, lack of capacity in the central gov't, endemic corruption" and widespread frustration with Karzai's gov'thttps://t.co/bhUbaZrGGC pic.twitter.com/NDXRPp0Obs— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) September 1, 2021
Under the US-backed regime, Afghanistan also achieved the notorious distinction of playing host to numerous torture facilities and black sites through which countless victims were subjected to the connivance of the United States. The International Criminal Court is currently engaged in the glacial process of investigating these and other war crimes in Afghanistan.
At the same time, Afghan democracy did not take root as planned, and constant US intervention in Afghan elections was required to keep the edifice intact. This culminated in the odd power-sharing configuration of President Ghani's government which also contained a Chief Executive - an extra-constitutional US fiction concocted to sustain "democracy". In contrast, the Taliban's own succession of leadership has been largely free of such Byzantine intrigue.
For the Taliban, the reversal of fortunes has been a heady one. The Doha process recognised the political reality of the Taliban when it effectively sidelined the Ghani administration, and ironically, the US will now station its Afghan embassy in Qatar, as the Taliban consolidate their hold over Afghanistan.
Previously a predominantly Pashtun movement, the Taliban now represents more of Afghanistan's diverse ethnic factions. It is telling that the territories of Badakshan, far removed from traditional Pashtun regions of the South and East, fell easily to the Talibs, who reportedly used a mixture of social media campaigns and financial inducements to persuade government forces to surrender or switch sides.
The coming weeks will be critical for Afghanistan. If the Taliban elect the path of reconciliation with their former enemies, some modicum of progress could be achieved. However, this will require the Taliban to modify their own behaviour, a prospect rightly regarded with scepticism given their penchant for violence, restricting women's rights, and refusal to break with terror groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.
"Twenty years of drone strikes, assassinations, and carpet-bombing remote villages has not eradicated terrorism"
Perhaps their most critical challenge comes from the nature of Afghanistan itself. After stamping out the budding resistance in the last holdout province of Panjshir on September 6, the militia will soon realize that leading an insurgency is unlike governing a complex multi-ethnic state. Ordinary Afghans are unlikely to meekly accept the draconian decrees and arbitrary brutality that were the hallmarks of Taliban rule in the 1990s.
The US foreign policy establishment must reconsider its stale approach to Afghanistan. Twenty years of drone strikes, assassinations, and carpet-bombing remote villages has not eradicated terrorism.
Instead, such brutal methods have engendered a deep resentment among ordinary Afghans. The recent "retaliatory" drone strike in Kabul on 29 August killed a family of 10, including eight children, even as US officials maintain that the strike was meant to stop an imminent attack by IS Khorasan.
Enduring partnerships can never be fostered through such tactics, no matter how much money is expended.
Owais Zaheer is a freelance data researcher who has previously written for a variety of publications including The Friday Times, Muftah and the Daily Times. He is a researcher at 416LABS.
Follow him on Twitter: @EastofAden
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