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America’s Absurd Afghan War (Part One)



“The United States fought an impossible war in Afghanistan,” wrote the analysts Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Jonathan Schanzer from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in 2014. The collected essays they edited in Allies, Adversaries & Enemies: America’s Increasingly Complex Alliances, available online, make for ever-relevant reading years later on the one-year anniversary of American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The greatest challenge for America in its failed 20-year military campaign the conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the FDD editors wrote, was that Pakistan was America’s “most critical ally and also its most deadly state enemy.” They added, “during the U.S. war in Afghanistan, America gave billions to Pakistan which turned right around and funded insurgent groups that killed Americans.” Analyzing a country often called by Americans a “frenemy,” the pair concluded:

Pakistan’s actions far exceeded the complexity of past U.S. relationships. Pakistan was literally functioning as ally, adversary, and enemy all at once. And the United States never quite figured out how to adjust.  

As the editors and other book contributors extensively detailed, “Pakistan’s military and intelligence services had come to embrace doctrinal reasons to sponsor jihadist militancy” in Afghanistan and South Asia. FDD Senior Fellow and former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht analyzed in his essay contribution:

Before 9/l1, it was gospel in the U.S. government that Pakistan interfered in Afghanistan primarily in pursuit of “strategic depth” in its rivalry with India. Islamabad needed, so the theory went, more space and manpower to use against New Delhi, especially in the disputed region of Kashmir. If India were to invade Pakistan, so the reasoning went, Afghanistan’s territory would allow Pakistan to undertake a strategic retreat, and manpower reserves could be deployed against the invading Indian army.

Pakistani “planners further believed (correctly, it turned out) that Afghanistan’s Islamist groups were more likely to be hostile to India, a non-Muslim power,” added Gartenstein-Ross in his own individual essay. Indeed, after the Taliban took power in war-torn Afghanistan in 1996, the “period of Taliban rule was the only time since Pakistan’s creation that Afghanistan had a strong relationship with Pakistan and an adversarial one with India,” he noted. “Some jihadists groups based in Afghanistan concentrated their militant activities on an issue of great interest to Pakistan: opposing the Indian presence in the disputed Kashmir region,” he added.

FDD Senior Fellow Thomas Joscelyn analyzed how Pakistan’s support of jihadist proxies became prominent in the American-supported Afghan resistance, the mujahedin, to the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 occupation. “While the United State shipped cash and weaponry to the mujahedin, American spies took a largely hands­off approach when it came to deciding which rebel factions were most worthy of support,” he wrote. On the ground, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) administered the CIA’s covert aid, such that “Pakistan backed the most radical of Afghan insurgent forces,” he observed.

While all mujahedin groups received aid from ISI, the “extremist factions garnered the lion’s share of resources,” Joscelyn noted, 67-73 percent in one estimate. “Among the ISI’s preferred clients were extremists such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,” Joscelyn added. “The U.S. government designated Hekmatyar a terrorist in 2003, specifically noting his ties to al-Qaeda.”

ISI’s clients also included Al Qaeda, an alliance that continued when America launched missiles against Afghan terrorist training facilities on August 20, 1998, in retaliation for Al Qaeda’s bombing of America’s East African embassies. “American officials alerted the Pakistani government of the coming missile strikes because the Clinton administration feared that Pakistan might mistake the missiles for a first strike by nuclear-armed India,” Joscelyn noted. Pakistani authorities in turn alerted the targeted camps, allowing Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to escape hours before the missiles hit, although some jihadists and their ISI trainers perished.

Understandably, American policymakers took no chances when they launched a successful special forces mission to kill bin Laden on May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, without prior notice to Pakistani authorities. Bin Laden “had been living near a cantonment outside of Pakistan’s most prestigious military academy for several years. After the raid, some Pakistani officials could hardly conceal their embarrassment,” Joscelyn observed. FDD founder Clifford D. May correspondingly asked in his chapter,

does anyone seriously believe that no senior Pakistani officials knew that Osama bin Laden—along with three of his wives and a passel of children—had taken up housekeeping in the hill resort of Abbottabad not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad?

Bin Laden’s sanctuary was perhaps Pakistan’s most egregious betrayal of the understanding given by Pakistani authorities to American leaders following Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. Gartenstein-Ross explained in his essay:

Pakistan was the main backer of the Taliban, which sheltered al-Qaeda’s leadership, but its geographic proximity to Afghanistan also gave Pakistan the potential to become an important partner in fighting Islamic militancy. The Bush administration addressed this dilemma by dispatching deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage to warn Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf that his country had to decide if it was with America or the terrorists—but, as Musharraf later recounted, “if we chose the terrorists, then we should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age.”

Gartenstein-Ross found it “unsurprising that Musharraf’s reversal of support for jihadist groups didn’t hold up. The factors driving Pakistan’s support for violent Islamist group in Afghanistan simply represented too tangled a web.” In the end, Pakistan “would become the most prominent sponsor of the insurgency in Afghanistan” against the American-led coalition fighting Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies. Yet the coalition’s “decision to route supplies through Pakistan also created such a dangerous dependency on Pakistan’s help that the United States fettered its own ability to respond to Pakistan’s support for militants,” he wrote. The result he termed a “Handcuffed Superpower.”

The FDD analysis confirms why any American objective in Afghanistan beyond devastating Al Qaeda to include a decisive defeat of the Taliban was, in the 2012 description of Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer, a “fool’s errand.” Yet Americans and their allies continued to expend blood and treasure in Afghanistan until 2021, even as FDD analysts gloomily foresaw a foregone, ignominious conclusion in region often called the “graveyard of empires.” The problems and dangers of the Islamic world are too deep-seated for any foreign intervention to solve, as the concluding article in this series will examine.