Saturday May 18, 2024

In search of a scapegoat

By Dr Murad Ali
August 14, 2021

It is exceedingly unfortunate that there is an overriding set of assumptions among Afghan officials and common citizens regarding the role of Pakistan in the ongoing Taliban onslaught, which is capturing city after city in Afghanistan without much resistance from the government forces.

The Taliban have taken partial or full control of 14 provincial capitals out of a total 34. They have been able to capture districts bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan and China. During their previous reign over the country, the Taliban were never completely in control of northern Afghanistan but this time it seems their strategy is to secure the north before launching their campaign to close in on the capital.

In the backdrop of these unexpectedly swift advances, there are once again accusations that Pakistan is primarily the culprit behind the death and destruction in Afghanistan. There are some inherent fallacious assumptions among Afghans that durable peace in Afghanistan is impossible as long as Pakistan exists in its current form; that all pro-Pakistani Pashtuns in Pakistan are slaves of Punjabis and the county’s strong military; and that any Pashtun who disagrees with these narratives is not a real Pashtun but actually a Gul Khan (brainless Pathan, a protégé of the Pakistani state).

There is no doubt that the Afghans have suffered in an endless conflict which has brought untold miseries. To witness the horrors of war and conflict, one must firmly believe in a very pertinent German proverb that “a great war leaves the country with three armies – an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves”. While the army of cripples and mourners is visible to many, alas the army of thieves is not clearly discernible, and it is in their interest to find scapegoats for their failures and get themselves absolved of any omission or wrongdoings.

There are thoughtful questions that our Afghan brothers must ask from their own government and security establishment as well as from the US/Nato as to why the Afghan state is succumbing at such a pace. According to a recent report of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Afghan Taliban’s total “strength has been estimated at 60,000 full-time fighters, against Afghan government forces (army, air force and police) consisting of 30,7000” men, known as the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Why is such a strong military, equipped with all the sophisticated weaponry and associated paraphernalia delivered by the US and its Western allies, unable to defend its people from the Taliban blitzkrieg?

According to the same report of July 2021, since 2014, the US has provided around 75 percent of the estimated $5 billion to $6 billion a year required to fund the ANDSF. Besides military aid, the US has provided huge development assistance to Afghanistan. Since 2002, Afghanistan has received approximately $144 billion in aid only from the US. The US Department of Defense quarterly ‘cost of war’ report estimated the cost of US combat operations at $825 billion since 2002. Spending tens of billions of dollars on state-building and setting up a military of over 300,000 well-trained and well-equipped personnel that is unable to hold ground against a numerically much smaller number of Taliban fighters leaves one wondering who is to be questioned and blamed here.

A report from the Brookings Institution in 2001 estimated that if Afghanistan is “accorded the aid levels that Taiwan and South Korea received half a century ago, [Afghanistan] would need about $1.5 billion a year for 10 to 15 years”. In contrast to these estimates, the country has received a staggering amount of foreign assistance from the international community but what are the actual accomplishments on the ground?

After ousting the Taliban from power, US president Bush delineated in 2002 that “by helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall”. Outlining his future reconstruction strategy for Afghanistan, Bush had further specified that “we’re working hard in Afghanistan. We’re clearing minefields. We’re rebuilding roads. And we will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world’s demand for drugs”. What is the actual story and on-the-ground accomplishments of the US’s reconstruction efforts and its so-called Marshall Plan in Afghanistan?

As per a report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in one specific case the US gave $1.1 billion for fuel for the Afghan military without determining the actual need. When SIGAR investigated the matter, it unearthed that the Afghan military was counting trailers and non-motorised conveyances in vehicles needing fuel and all the records of fuel receipts had been destroyed. Similarly, there are reports that in numerous cases, soldiers have been recruited and only exist on paper while no such enlistments have taken place in reality.

While Afghanistan is usually described as the ‘graveyard of empires’ on account of the much-extolled notion of invincibility of the Afghans, it can also be labelled as the ‘graveyard of foreign aid’ because colossal international development cooperation has achieved very little to show to the world.

The question is: who is responsible? After pouring tens of billions of dollars over the last 20 years, can the Afghan government justify the time and money invested in it by the US and its allies? Also, our Afghan friends must ask from the US and Nato as to what has been achieved by over 50 advanced armies at the end of the day after staying there for more than 20 years.

A sad and agonizing reality is that Afghanistan was and is a strategic space for international and regional powers. They assemble in Afghanistan or use their proxies when they fight a war. Resultantly, like any other states in the world, Pakistan also takes sides with one or more powers against the others in line with its own interests. It is unfortunate that Pakistan has historically mostly sided with a party against the aspiration of Afghans, but this does not mean Pakistan can be held exclusively responsible for violence in Afghanistan, as our Afghan brethren so vehemently do.

Like all global and regional powers, Pakistan has a part in the damage, but with or without the presence of Pakistan as Afghanistan’s neighbour, Afghanistan would still be in turmoil due to its unique strategic position, the ‘Great Games’ of the great powers (Russia, the UK, US), and lack of internal cohesion with a central authority acceptable to all stakeholders. The Afghan people now must come forward in unity and peacefully resolve their own frictions. Once they are united internally, only then can they ask other states not to use Afghan soil for their proxy wars. But here the onus is on different Afghan factions and ethnicities who are reportedly readily available to work as proxies for external powers.

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.