A History Of Chaotic Politics In Afghanistan

A History Of Chaotic Politics In Afghanistan
Afghanistan has been in the global limelight for the past couple of centuries owing to its unique geopolitical position. From the 19th century ‘Great Game’ between the British and Russian empires to the 20th century Cold War between the US and USSR, Afghanistan remained epicenter of global politics due to ‘Afghan jihad’ which ended with the Soviet collapse.

In the post-Cold War period, civil war engulfed the country in which the Taliban emerged as a strong stakeholder by the mid-1990s. The Taliban were able to establish an Islamic emirate in 1996, which was recognized by Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. However, the US-led western world and China were reluctant to recognize the Taliban rule (1996-2001).

The Taliban enacted a primordial style of governance and political economy. Their rule ended because of the US-led War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. The US held the Taliban regime responsible for not only hosting the top al-Qaeda leadership but also protecting Osama bin Laden.

The US-led NATO forces attacked Afghanistan in October 2001 to accomplish three objectives.

First, they wanted to eliminate the Taliban and their supporters that were regarded as a grave security threat to Afghanistan, the region as well as the world.

Secondly, the western alliance aimed at democratising Afghanistan so that it gained political and socio-economic stability in medium to long run.

Thirdly, having helped Afghanistan have a viable political and economic system in place, the western policy makers desired to withdraw its forces from the country.

In hindsight, the US-led NATO military alliance ended the Taliban control over Afghanistan within no time, thus, achieving the first objective hurriedly. However, attaining remaining two objectives proved a Herculean task. For example, despite resort to political activity and electoral politics in which, first, Hamid Karzai served as president for two terms (2001-2014) and, later, Ashraf Ghani in power sharing with Abdullah Abdullah (2014-2021), Afghanistan could not have realized an effective governance mechanism and a stable political and economic system. Instead, issues pertaining to law and order, corruption, tribal tussles and weak foreign policy were hallmark of the said political dispensations.
Islamabad, however, countered such policy pronouncements, arguing that the US had failed to win in Afghanistan in the past 20 years and, to hide its failures, had shifted the burden onto Pakistan.

Importantly, issues of poor governance and security provided a contextual justification to the US-led military alliance to prolong its stay in the country to neutralise militant organizations that were deemed not only anti-Kabul but also antithetical to the US and its allies’ interests in West Asia.

Unsurprisingly, General Stanley McChrystal, who was former commander of the US-led NATO forces, stated two major threats to the Karzai government, namely, the Taliban resurgence and incapable institutions to tackle governance issues such as the rise of the Taliban in periphery.

After assuming power in September 2014, President Ghani signed the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US and a similar agreement with the NATO the same month. These agreements, which saw daylight in the wake of President Obama’s remarks on the “drawdown” in May 2014, though ended combat operations of the US-NATO forces yet it ensured logistical support of latter for the Afghan government, especially its embryonic military that assumed the security responsibility for the country in 2013.

Owing to peculiar security situation in Afghanistan and the region, President Obama later hinted at reversing the so-called ‘drawdown’ to safeguard American interests in South Asia. However, due to domestic electoral factors where the Democratic Party focused on the anti-war constituency, American policy on Afghanistan could best be termed as a stalemate under President Obama who neither could ensure a complete withdrawal of American troops nor reverse such a move due to political and electoral reasons.

Domestically, the democrats could have been shocked to see Donald Trump assume the US presidency – who announced his South Asia strategy in August 2017, which, overall, highlighted ambiguities in the Obama-era policy. In order to meaningfully end the prolonged American war, he announced a surge in the US military forces in Afghanistan to aid the civil government in Kabul.

Trump also urged his Afghan counterpart to improve governance, tackle its Taliban problem, and enhance economic performance to reduce its over-reliance on external financial and military help.

President Trump took a bold step to open communication channel with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in October 2017. Interestingly, he had announced the same year that the number of American troops would be increased but in 2018, he reverted to Obama approach and declared that the number of US troops would be further reduced to 7000.

The Trump team differed with its predecessor over the US-Afghanistan relations in three ways.

One, there was a clear shift from a time-based to condition-based approach. This was done on purpose in order to tactically confuse the Taliban, which both Washington and Kabul had to deal with accordingly.

Two, the Trump-led US relations with the Ghani-Abdullah-led Afghan government was a combination of diplomacy, economic and military support, aimed at stabilising the country to not become an easy prey for the Taliban who used military means effectively to re-capture Afghan territory in different provinces on a sustained basis.

Three, the Trump Administration hardened its stance on Pakistan, holding it responsible for providing safe sanctuaries to the Taliban especially the Haqqani Network.

Islamabad, however, countered such policy pronouncements, arguing that the US had failed to win in Afghanistan in the past 20 years and, to hide its failures, had shifted the burden onto Pakistan.

Read Part II of this Article: Afghanistan-US Relations: From War to Withdrawal

The writer has a PhD in civil-military relations from Heidelberg University. He is DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and teaches at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached on Twitter @ejazbhatty