Was the war on terror in Afghanistan worth it?
Shahab Jafry
It seems the Afghan war is finally grinding to a halt. So now, perhaps, someone can address some questions that journalists have found no answers to – I’ve often thought of them myself – despite covering this war for years; on the ground as well as from the newsroom.
As somebody who joined the profession not long before 9/11, I remember the early days very clearly. Up until that fateful September, in Pakistan, much of the venom in editorial meetings was directed towards General Musharraf, the dictator who had just upset the democratic process and was now going to gag the press just like all the tyrants before him. And young journalists, with vivid memories of General Zia’s regime, wrote their pieces with the passion of soldiers defending some mythical frontiers of democracy and all that.
Everything was Musharraf’s fault. In fact, even when Musharraf caved in to President Bush’s “with us or against us” threat, delivered by then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, the executive editor of a local daily I worked for ordered a lead editorial saying if only we had a working parliament, instead of an army chief-cum-CEO running the country single-handedly, we could have said ‘Sorry, Mr Deputy Secretary, but we need to debate this in the House before we can give you a definitive answer’.
Years later, when I put this question to General Musharraf in Dubai, I learnt how real life decisions, especially those that risk war and deaths, might be a little bit more complicated than deciding editorial content. And Armitage had really threatened to bomb us to the Stone Age. The Americans were angry, and they were going to strike somewhere. They had apparently also hinted, just for good measure I’m sure, that the last time somebody had the audacity to attack their homeland they dropped a couple of atom bombs to teach the whole world a lesson.
That was also just when then Fox TV superstar Bill O’Reilly, long since swept away by the #MeToo storm, replaced Larry King as the world’s most watched TV show host with his ‘No Spin Zone’ O’Reilly Factor. And practically on the eve of the war, he gathered some State Department and Pentagon spokespersons who claimed, with some pomposity, that given Afghanistan’s many problems and limitations this war would not even last a day. If only some of them were available for comment now.
And it’s precisely this divorce from reality, displayed by successive US administrations, that has baffled journalists and war correspondents for the last 19 years, leading to all those questions that nobody seems able to answer. One, how could a military establishment as complicated as the US’s get the basic war plan so wrong? Instead of concentrating on the few hundred Arab Al Qaeda foot soldiers in Afghanistan, the Americans spent two decades bombing remnants of the Taleban, all local Pashtuns, up and down the country; making sure most vegetable-sellers and shoe-shiners in the market became guerilla warriors by night.
Two, even with the faulty strategy, how could the mightiest army in the world be brought to its knees by a rag-tag militia? Everybody knows how the mujahideen famously bled the Soviets by a thousand cuts; and just where the money, weapons, training and intel was coming from. But how did local Afghans, most of them living below the poverty line, make the Americans eat their words in this war? Has anybody forgotten how George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld brushed aside all offers of talks in the beginning? “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” they said.
Three, how on earth can the Americans now walk away from all this, after lengthy negotiations with none other than the Taleban, and count the ceasefire as some sort of victory back home? There is talk that an end to the war could even help secure a second term for President Trump. But the Americans have been losing ground, money, personnel and their reputation since at least the famous 2006 Spring Offensive of the Taleban.
Up to 10 feet of Himalayan winter snow makes fighting virtually impossible for a few months every year in Afghanistan. It resumes when the snow melts in springtime; hence the term ‘spring offensive’. Check all available facts and you’ll see that the Americans had it good till late 2005 at best, which means four years, and have been on the receiving end ever since; more or less 15 years. How can the world’s most advanced society, most powerful democracy, most potent media, etc, celebrate this desperate cut-and-run as an outright victory?
Four, what purpose did this war really serve? Let’s not forget that hundreds of thousands have died, and millions upon millions have been maimed, raped, disfigured for life or displaced. You’ll find few people outside American government and media circles who’ll really buy the argument that the war against terror reduced terror or extremism in any way across the world. If anything, it has led to greater disenfranchisement in the main theatres of war, and far more militant, extremist outfits than ever before.
And five, what if the Taleban simply tear the peace treaty and go back to taking over the whole country after the Americans leave? They still don’t recognise, much less respect, the official government. And since the Americans aren’t good for their word at all, what have the Taleban got to lose by doing the same when they call the shots? They are winning on the ground, after all, and it’s not like the Afghan army can do much about it.
What was this long, expensive, ugly war really for?