August 15 will probably go down in history as the day that marked the formal end of the ‘American Century’ and the beginning of the ‘Asian Century’. On that day, the US-propped Kabul regime collapsed, with its head fleeing with around $169 million cash stashed in his luggage, and the ignominious, panicky exit of the American military coincided with the surprisingly swift but subdued return of the Afghan Taliban back to power after 20 years. Messy exits are now a hallmark of the US in the Third World countries it once dominated, but ‘incompetence’ was never an adjective that described the American way of doing things, until Kabul last week.
The dizzying speed of these developments reinforce what Lenin once said: “There are decades when nothing happens; and then there are weeks when decades happen!”
There is now a glimmer of hope that the 42-year old Afghan conflict can perhaps come to an end after three Afghan Wars (1979-1989 ‘Afghan Jihad’ funded by the US against the Soviet occupation), then the Afghan Civil War (1989-2001), and finally the ‘War of Terror’ undertaken by the US after 9/11.
President Carter’s National Security Adviser Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski claimed in his memoir, Power and Principle, that Carter had signed a directive on July 3, 1979, to start funding the dissident Afghan Mujahideen with an initial funding of $695,000 which would be distributed by the CIA via Pakistan. This was six months before the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
Eventually, Afghanistan became the centre of CIA’s biggest covert operation after WWII, codenamed Operation Cyclone. When the Geneva Accords were signed a decade later, providing the framework for the defeated Red Army’s exit from Afghanistan, almost $5 billion had been funnelled for this guerilla war, with Saudi Arabia providing matching funds to the American money ($2.1 billion each), plus another $1 billion from other countries over a 10-year period. Over 100,000 Afghan Mujahideen had been trained and armed, besides about 10,000 Arab and other Muslim volunteers. The Afghan Taliban, who now are in power, are the ideological offspring of the Afghan Mujahideen, some actually having fought in the war against the Red Army.
During an interview with French newspaper Le Nouvelle Observateur published in its issue of January 15-21, 1998, Dr Brzezinski was asked whether he had regrets in funding a struggle that spawned religious extremism, destabilising parts of both the Muslim and Western worlds, he answered without batting an eyelid: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet Empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and end of the Cold War?”
It was largely an American-created genie that the US tried, albeit abortively, to put back into the bottle when Washington, under President George W Bush, launched the ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11. Pakistan was coerced into joining the war, although India was the first in the region to offer unstinted cooperation to the American war effort. And Saudi Arabia too was cajoled into the post 9/11 war effort because it feared American reprisals as 15 of the 19 hijackers that attacked the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington were from Saudi Arabia (of the remaining four, two were from Egypt and one each from Lebanon and the UAE).
America’s Afghanistan Project came unstuck for three reasons starting in 2003.
First, that year, an over-confident US went to war with Iraq, instead of stabilising and strengthening Afghanistan. The US shifted attention to Iraq, fighting a war of choice because of Bush’s ideological foreign policy fixation, when he labelled Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, although none of these countries had anything to do with 9/11; and, in fact, Iran had actively cooperated with the US in the removal of the Taliban regime.
The second reason was an inability to learn lessons from history due to imperial hubris and US duplicity with allies like Pakistan. Just before the Anglo-American invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, a top-secret British delegation was in Moscow seeking ‘expert advice’ from the Russian experience in Afghanistan. Their advice was instructive, but never followed: “You will make the same bad choice we did, you will go in, you will lose, many of you will die and then you’ll be forced to retreat, which will be good for us”.
Regarding duplicity with allies, for example, in his book, Lawless World, Philippe Sands reveals the contents of a telephone conversation between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair on January 30, 2003, just a few weeks before the launch of the war on Iraq on March 20. In that conversation, Bush tells Blair that he “wanted to go beyond Iraq in dealing with WMD proliferation, mentioning in particular Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan”, at a time when Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were supposedly US allies. And by 2005, the US, in another example of double-dealing with Pakistan, violating its own laws as well as IAEA rules, went ahead to sign a major civil nuclear deal with India, with a view to roping in India against China, backed later by massive armaments and sophisticated technology to India, to the detriment of Pakistan.
The third reason for failure – apart from the confusion why the US was in Afghanistan – was the US perpetuating its military presence by propping up a small self-serving corrupt Kabul elite dependent on doleouts from Washington. To expect any self-respecting Afghan soldier to lay down his life for such a corrupt clique was delusional, to say the least. The Washington Post did an excellent expose of the deception and lies that lay at the heart of America’s ill-fated Afghanistan Project, by publishing the Afghanistan Papers in November 2019, as there was a yawning chasm between was publicly stated and what was privately believed.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Afghanistan debacle has evoked memories of Cambodia and Vietnam 1975 or Iran 1979, where the departing American ambassador announced somewhat bitterly: “Till yesterday, we were ruling this country!”
Afghanistan is much more than an intelligence failure or an error of policy judgment. It has turned out as the nemesis of the US policy of ‘regime change’ in the Third World, which the US attempted 72 times during the Cold War, 1945-1989.
Over 75 years ago, when the US emerged as the victor of WWII, it was heralded as the harbinger of the ‘American Century’. This view was reinforced when the Afghan War against the Soviet Union sparked the collapse of the USSR and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, symbolised by the demolition of the Berlin Wall. The sole superpower’s President, George HW Bush, triumphantly proclaimed in 1991: “What we say goes!”
That was 30 years ago. Today, the image, clout and confidence of the sole superpower lies buried in the debris of the destruction of the war in Afghanistan, which has lived up to its reputation as ‘the graveyard of empires’, devouring the American superpower, as it did earlier with Britain and Soviet Union – the superpowers of the 19th and 20th centuries.