Do Pakistanis need to pay the price for America’s failure in Afghanistan?

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The United States of America began the war in Afghanistan in late 2001 after the mysterious terror attack, said to be carried out by Al-Qaeda, on the World Trade Center in New York and elsewhere in the United States. Following the attack, US President George W. Bush announced that “those who are not with us are against us.”

Bush then declared war on Afghanistan to punish the Taliban government on the grounds that it had provided shelter to Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was considered to be the mastermind of the terror strikes on America. As a consequence of the explicit threat made by Bush, a large number of countries, including Pakistan, joined the alliance, led by the US, against the Taliban.

The continuous air strikes launched by the US on Kabul and other regions occupied by the Taliban strengthened their local foes, especially the so-called Northern Alliances. This led to the defeat of the Taliban and their retreat from the regions that were under their control including the capital city of Kabul. The Taliban militants then headed to the tribal regions on the border with Pakistan. According to some reports, which appeared during those days, some Taliban fighters secured a safe passage to the south by bribing local authorities.

The US presence on the ground in Afghanistan was meager and it was the allied forces that waged the ground war. The allies relied on US air strikes that weakened the Taliban and eventually calm prevailed for some time. But that calm did not last long as the Taliban were making preparations for a new round of fighting.

Taliban leaders started threatening the US troops and declared that Afghanistan would not be a safe place either for US forces or for any of the invading forces and that the country would be a cemetery for the invaders as it had been throughout the country’s history. After a brief period of time, the Taliban seized the opportunity for launching a counter attack, taking advantage of the preoccupation of American forces in its war in Iraq. This situation put heavy pressure on Pakistan to fight the war on behalf of the Americans to crush the Taliban. This was after the failure of the Americans, along with their Afghan allies, to defeat the enemy.

Pakistan has made several attempts to flush the Taliban out of the tribal regions, but could not achieve the desired results because it was engaged in an asymmetrical and unconventional war. This angered the Americans who in turn accused Pakistan of illicit ties with some unknown groups. In fact, the war in the rugged tribal regions was not as easy as it was perceived to be by the US.

Moreover, Pakistan also had to battle with the Pakistani Taliban and its affiliates. After the attack on an army school in December 2013, the Pakistan army launched an all-out war against various factions of the Pakistani Taliban and crushed them completely. Pakistan asked the Afghan government and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to eliminate the Taliban militants that fled to the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, but these militants went into hiding in those regions and launched attacks against both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Even after 16 years of war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and spending billions of dollars, the United States has failed to eliminate the Taliban and install a stable government in Afghanistan. At the same time, the US continues to blame Pakistan and accuses it of not doing enough to eliminate the terrorism that strikes Pakistan itself. The US administration is not ready to acknowledge Pakistan’s sacrifices and successes, with its limited resources, in eliminating the Taliban infrastructure, albeit with heavy casualties.

When President Barack Obama came to power, he found a heavy legacy left behind by his predecessor George W. Bush, and considered that the war in Afghanistan was justifiable and a good war. It was, he felt, a war of necessity, unlike the war in Iraq, which, according to Obama, was a war of choice and should have been avoided. However, in the course of time, Obama also found that the goals of the war in Afghanistan were unattainable, and hence he seriously thought about the prospect of a withdrawal, but his military commanders did not share his view in this regard. Therefore, Obama passed the legacy that he had inherited to his successor Donald Trump.

Trump announced a new strategy of sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Instead of thanking Pakistan for its sacrifices in the war against the Taliban, Trump accused Pakistan of granting safe havens to terrorists and at the same time threatened to expand cooperation with India, which, according to some observers, is involved in many of the developments in the region.

While the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the recent statements of Donald Trump, especially those pertaining to Pakistan, the Taliban again vowed to make Afghanistan a cemetery for Americans and turn it into a new Vietnam. However, in a recent interview with the BBC, Ghani invited the Taliban to participate in a dialogue to solve all outstanding problems in a peaceful way. This is what happened with the Colombian government and the rebels who laid down their arms and sat at the negotiating table and reached solutions that were acceptable to both parties.

It is yet to be seen whether this strategy will work or if it will meet the same fate as the failed strategies of Ghani’s predecessors.

— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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