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America’s Absurd Afghan War (Part Two)



One year after America ended a failed 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan, the essays available online from the 2014 book Allies, Adversaries & Enemies: America’s Increasingly Complex Alliances remain as timely as ever. Herein analysts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) gloomily foresaw American failure to vanquish the Taliban seven years before the actual event.

FDD Senior Fellow and former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht open his book chapter with a compelling personal anecdote from the time when American policymakers were calculating military responses to Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks:

In October 2001, a highly Westernized and pro-American Pakistani diplomat expressed to me his reservations about imminent U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. He didn’t think the United States had the vision and stubbornness to stay in Afghanistan for the time necessary to deny the Taliban a rebirth. He was certain then that Islamabad would not forsake the zealously religious Afghan Pashtuns: They’d been a winning ally, excluding the little detour in which they harbored Osama bin Laden, and their support inside Pakistan, especially in the northern Pashtun regions, remained solid. As much as 9/11 had shocked this diplomat and his friends, many among Pakistan’s civilian and military elite experienced considerable schadenfreude when al-Qaeda laid low the Twin Towers and Pentagon. Al-Qaeda’s anti-American aggressiveness, in his view, wouldn’t fundamentally alter Islamabad’s regional, ethnic, and religious calculations.

The Americans would have to invade Afghanistan to kill or drive out bin Laden and his allies, and Islamic militancy in Pakistan would intensify as a result. Alliances among Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, would probably grow stronger. And Rawalpindi’s generals would do what they do best: try to play both sides. As my friend sardonically put it, it would be much better, from a Pakistani viewpoint, for his country to have al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban occasionally bomb America than to have Americans invade, which could tear apart Pakistani society.

As previously discussed, FDD’s experts expertly examined the “frenemy” Pakistan’s behavior in the years following 9/11. Pakistani security forces such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency continued longstanding alliances with jihadist proxies including the Taliban. Meanwhile Pakistan’s government allowed major supply routes for the American-led anti-Taliban coalition to cross Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Gerecht wrote of the continuing quandaries facing American leaders:

Washington is still understandably in a conundrum over what it can do about Pakistan’s duplicitous ways, especially since the Pakistani army has, at times, provided critical information to the CIA about al-Qaeda’s activities and personnel. Thousands of Pakistani soldiers and numerous ISI officers have died fighting Muslim militants. Islamabad picks and chooses its Islamic radicals, always maintaining the domestic narrative that there are good Taliban and bad Taliban.

FDD founder Clifford D. May concurred in his chapter:

Pakistan which declared itself the world’s first “Islamic republic” in 1956, is, at best, America’s least reliable ally. Since becoming nuclear-armed in 1998, it has been responsible for the proliferation of nuclear technology to any number of rogue regimes. Within the country’s powerful military and intelligence services, there are influential individuals whose sympathies lie with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Already in 2014, Gerecht weighed options for Afghanistan’s future, and came to a grim prognosis. “We don’t know now whether the American departure from Afghanistan will produce a rapid collapse of the country’s central government. It really depends on” continued American aid, he wrote. Trying to be optimistic, he listed some grounds for hope:

A decade of America in country may have had more effect on Afghans and their willingness to fight for their new freedoms than many people think. The memory of how cruel life was under the Taliban isn’t just a sentiment among Afghan minorities: There are many Pashtuns who hate Mullah Omar and everything that he and the new Taliban stand for.

Nonetheless, as other analysts have observed, Afghanistan’s Muslim culture offers little basis for a Westernized society. “But the odds of a triumphant Islamic resurgence among the Pashtuns are pretty good. There isn’t really another competing ideology that can send so many soldiers into the field,” Gerecht concluded. “As U.S. forces draw down from Afghanistan,” his FDD colleague, Thomas Joscelyn, worried in his essay, “Pakistan’s sponsorship of al­Qaeda’s allies will undoubtedly continue, thereby making al-Qaeda itself stronger.”

As a fallback position, Gerecht suggested American support for friendly coalitions of the willing in part of Afghanistan:  

As long as a revived Northern Alliance can control the top half of the country, then Washington may have a base of operations against resurgent global jihadists, but such bases would demand substantial American aid.

In all, Afghanistan held for May disturbing lessons about the broader Muslim world:

Many of us turn away from an uncomfortable truth: The ideologies most hostile to America and the West have arisen in the Muslim world and are derived from fundamentalist—not heretical—interpretations of Islamic scripture…Most Muslims do not embrace these ideologies. But for a host of reasons—fear undoubtedly high among them—neither are most Muslims battling them or even denouncing them publicly and without equivocation.

With this hostile ideological environment in mind, Gerecht eight years ago posed penetrating questions whose answers are only more depressing today after even more wasted American lives and equipment in Afghanistan:

If the head of al-Qaeda comes back to Afghanistan, if Pashtun Islamic militants retake Kabul, and if Pakistani generals back that reconquest, effectively putting them exactly where they were before 9/11, any fair-minded observer has to ask: What did we accomplish through the “good war”? Was not my Pakistani friend painfully prescient?