In his June 23, 2019 Military Times opinion article “America’s three big mistakes in Afghanistan,” Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc (Ret) correctly noted three factors, which contributed to the pending U.S. defeat in Afghanistan:
“Misstep No. 1: The expansion of US forces and the introduction of large conventional units into the vast expanse of Afghanistan;
Misstep No. 2: Allowing the Taliban resurgence to occur in Afghanistan-2003-2009 and 2014-2019;
Misstep No. 3: Our inability to manage, let alone solve, Afghanistan’s illicit narcotics trade.”
Yet, none of those three could have been corrected or decisive while ignoring the geopolitical realities upon which an effective strategy is based.
That geopolitical reality is Pakistan, which has never shared the same objectives for Afghanistan as the U.S. and from which American strategic “mistakes” originated, those beyond the self-inflicted wounds of poor management and accountability, well-documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
American military leaders consistently violated the most fundamental of strategic principles, ones taught at every U.S. war college, know your enemy and do not mistake a war for something that is alien to its nature.
The war in Afghanistan is not an insurgency. It is a proxy war being waged by Pakistan against the U.S. and Afghanistan.
Both the Pentagon and multiple U.S. political administrations have known from nearly the beginning of the conflict that an American victory in landlocked Afghanistan was impossible as long as Pakistan regulated the operational tempo by providing safe haven and support to its Taliban proxies and controlled the supply of our troops, critical factors which have never been adequately addressed.
Under such conditions, the application of counterinsurgency, which, I hasten to add, is a doctrine or collection of tactics, not a strategy, would ultimately be ineffective, whether executed by conventional or special forces. The same is true for counter-narcotics operations, where the trafficking of Afghan opium is largely occurring unimpeded through Pakistan.
Over nearly the entire course of the conflict, the U.S. supplied Pakistan with generous aid packages to bribe them from pursuing a course of action opposed to our own, but one Pakistan considered in its national interest. In essence, our leaders, through a combination of incompetence and indifference, allowed the United States to be defeated by Pakistan and paid them to do it.
Pakistanis now openly brag about it.
Shortly before his death in 2015, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI, a committed Islamist and known as the “godfather of the Taliban,” said in an Urdu language television interview:
“One day, history will say that the ISI drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan with the help of USA and another sentence will be recorded that says the ISI drove the USA out of Afghanistan with the help of the USA.”
The Pakistani audience roared with laughter and applauded in approval.
The same pattern of duplicitous behavior by Pakistan has continued for seventeen years.
Late last year, during a Taliban attack on the Afghan provincial capital of Ghazni, large numbers of Pakistani nationals were found among the dead, presumably fighting with the Taliban. The bodies were subsequently returned to Pakistan.
In a recently released video, al Qaeda emphasizes its unity with Taliban and its role within the Taliban insurgency, as the jihadists, including Pakistanis, fight together to resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
And yet American political leaders and senior military officers have done nothing, preferring to remain puzzled or cynical as to why we have not won in Afghanistan.
Despite Pakistani duplicity, Taliban safe havens in Pakistan remained largely untouched.
Pressure was never applied to Pakistan’s pain points, its moribund economy and financial insolvency and the existential threat of ethnic separatism, in particular among Pakistan’s Baloch and Pashtun populations.
An American withdrawal from Afghanistan will only be a humiliating defeat, if the U.S. is forced into strategic retreat from South Asia because we do not have a plan in place to address the changing regional conditions in a post-U.S. Afghanistan.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D.