Afghanistan has often been conquered but never been defeated. The very nature of its magnificent but forbidding terrain tell that story every bit as clearly as history. A succession of foreign armies has come in triumph but left in defeat. The Russians quit in 1989 humiliated after nine years during which they failed to subdue the country.
Time and again Soviet generals assured the Kremlin they just needed more troops, more weapons, more time to crush the popular resistance. It didn’t work. Though the Russians did not suffer a defeat on the scale of the British in 1842 when an occupying army was wiped out as it retreated from Kabul to Jalalabad, they discovered their modern weaponry was no match for the determination, courage and local knowledge of the mujahideen who resisted them.
There was a general belief that the NATO occupation would be different. In 2001 the Taliban were chased from power and there was genuine hope among Afghans that the foreigners would bring radical economic change but stake no political claim to the country. In 2014 when its operation formally ended, it was clear that economically and also militarily, NATO too had failed. Weapons systems infinitely more powerful and sophisticated than those deployed by the Russians had failed to defeat the Taliban.
As most of their NATO allies marched away the Americans stayed on in limited numbers to support the Afghan National Army. At 16 years, this is now by far America’s longest war — the traumatic conflict in Vietnam lasted just ten years before it ended in humiliating defeat.
There are lessons here, underlined by failures in Iraq, in Lebanon and in Somalia, that do not seem to have been learnt. This week US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did not blink when he told the Senate Armed Services “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this as soon possible.” The Trump administration, like its vacillating Obama predecessor and the gun-slinging George W. Bush White House which is responsible for much of the current regional mess, seems determined on perpetuating failure, on throwing good money after bad and in the process continuing the violent agony of the Afghan people.
Only a political solution is possible and as in every war, the thick gun smoke of conflict obscures the issues that need to be negotiated. Had the defeated Taliban been brought into the political process from the outset in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement which sought to set the country’s political direction, the subsequent conflict could perhaps have been avoided. Had Bush kept his focus on Afghanistan instead of the scandal of settling his daddy’s unfinished business with Saddam Hussain in Iraq, transformational investment could have brought peace and prosperity to a country that had then been at war for over 22 years.
The international community had promised tens of billions in aid and projects. But in the event a fraction of this was delivered because a recovered Taliban destroyed the security essential for the delivery of this help. If the Taliban march into Kabul tomorrow their rivals will take to the hills and the whole wretched cycle of violence will start over. Defense Secretary Mattis should get real. Military failure in Afghanistan cannot be “corrected”. Only negotiation can win and it would appear that the resurgent Taliban are currently in no mood to talk.