The Afghans are not a nation as such but a composition of numerous tribes. These form loose groupings based on ethnicity. Individuals owe their allegiance first and foremost to the tribe and after that to the ethnic group. Among the latter, Pashtoons constitute the dominant force and are the main element in the insurgency. They are divided into a number of tribes and sub tribes that have a common code of conduct known as Pakhtoonwali. There are more Pashtoons in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. They have traditionally treated the border between the two countries as informal and interacted with each other freely.
Contrary to the impression that has been created, Taliban are not a standing force driven by an ideology. They have been branded as terrorists to serve a political purpose. Their basic aim is to rid the country of foreign occupation and they also do not export terrorism as is often alleged. Each Pashtoon family is honour bound to commit one or more adult males to the fight whenever needed. The US is not at war with a conventional army in Afghanistan but the greater majority of Afghan tribes as a whole.
In a piece in The New York Times of 22nd August 2017 Rod Nordland reporting from Kabul wrote, ‘Shortly after President Trump’s speech on Monday, a retired Afghan general recalled a Taliban fighter who had taken up arms after six of his sons were killed, one by one. The same AK-47 was handed down to each.
‘Then the father was killed.
“You don’t make peace with people like that,” said the retired general, Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a combat veteran and Parliament member who comes from Helmand Province, the heart of the Taliban insurgency. “You also don’t win by killing them; there are always more. ———”
‘Hajji Naqibullah, an insurgent commander from Sangin District, cited Hajji Amanullah, who had 13 members of his family killed in battle, all replaced by his nephews. And Mullah Abdul Salam had four sons killed, but his fifth volunteered and is now a local commander. “His mother is now living with widows and orphans,”
‘Hajji Naqibullah said three of his own cousins were killed during the fight in Sangin, where more American and British soldiers died than anywhere else in Afghanistan, and which fell to the insurgents in March after a yearlong campaign. The three were brothers, and their widowed mother had one son left, who joined after they died.
To win the Americans will have to annihilate the overwhelming majority of Pashtoon males. Killing Taliban leaders alone will not help. An aspect of Pakhtoonwali is the absolute obligation to avenge any killing even if it takes a hundred years. All American, Russian and by default European males over the age of twelve have become fair game all over Afghanistan. This is what makes the war unwinnable and Afghanistan the graveyard of empires. The only way out is to make a deal and the sooner the better.
According to Eric Margolis, the number of brain damaged U.S veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq due to improvised explosive devices may be more than two hundred thousand. They are committing suicide at the rate of twenty-two a day. Because of this U.S politicians have become highly averse to taking casualties, fearing adverse public reaction.
As quoted by David Rohde in The New Yorker of 22nd August 2017, the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Post that the strategy was to minimize American casualties in Afghanistan to the point where few Americans would care. “The fact is, if you slow down the casualty rate and you’re not losing young Americans, the American people will support gradually growing allies for a long time.” It will make long-term troop presence in Afghanistan acceptable to the American people as happened in the case of Germany, Japan and Korea.
He also quotes an American officer who had done two tours of duty in Afghanistan, “We couldn’t even drive anywhere unless we had helicopters flying overhead to attack anything that attacked us,” The officer, who asked not to be named, told him, “Any little hiccup and the mission got completely scrapped.”
The American dilemma is that they are not willing to take casualties but at the same time want to have control over Afghanistan. The solution they seem have found is for the Afghan army to do the heavy lifting while the U.S lean on Pakistan to weaken and disable the Pashtoon resistance. Since the Afghan army is mainly composed of non-Pashtoons it will in all likelihood lead to deepening of divisions and civil war in Afghanistan. This is good for the U.S because it provides the justification to remain in Afghanistan.
Pakistan cannot stop Pashtoons on her side of the border from going to the aid of their brothers nor could NATO while it had 130,000 troops in the country. There are no Taliban sanctuaries as such, just ordinary duty bound Pashtoons. President Trump’s threat to take the war to Pakistan is unrealistic and may lead to a very dangerous situation. At the very least it will put the lives of Americans and Europeans in Pakistan in great danger from Pashtoons bent on taking revenge. What it will not do is bring peace to Afghanistan.
Presence of ISIS in Afghanistan is a different issue. There is no evidence of how its fighters arrive in Afghanistan, who recruits, trains and provides logistic support or who pays them. Recently ex-DG ISID, General Durrani has expressed his opinion on this issue and there are disturbing reports from Russia as well. All we know for certain is that some ISIS elements are present and that they clash with Taliban which is strange since both of them are supposedly on the same side.
Accusing Pakistan of providing sanctuaries to Afghan insurgents is meaningless. The latter control more than half of Afghanistan, not one-third as Trump claimed. This would not be possible if they did not enjoy popular support within the country. It makes no sense and there is no need for them to seek protection and operate over long distances from bases in Pakistan.
For Trump to shed tears over civilian casualties is both hypocritical as well as frivolous. Terrorism worldwide kills only a fraction of the people that are killed in road accidents every year. The war against terrorism on the other hand has and continues to kill millions of innocent men, women and children in Muslim countries. According to the prestigious Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) landmark study released in June this year ‘total deaths from Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 1990s from direct killings and the longer-term impact of war-imposed deprivation could be as high as 6 to 8 million’.
President Trump threatened unspecified action against Pakistan. He also invited India to join the US in Afghanistan. It may be just a ruse to increase pressure on Pakistan, knowing India may not want to get overly committed to the U.S game in Afghanistan. It is hard to say how the Pakistan government and military will react after the rhetoric has calmed down. What is certain is giving in to pressure will not change the US long term plans. Musharraf had laid down the country for them but still President George Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he ‘wanted to go beyond Iraq in dealing with WMD proliferation, mentioning in particular Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan’ (see Douglas Jehl in The New York Times of 14th October 2005).
Trump’s threat does not impact only Pakistan. It has profound implications for the entire Central Asia region including Iran, China and Russia considering the U.S intention to maintain permanent military presence in Afghanistan. Chances are they will come together to make it as difficult for the U.S as possible for their own sake. One way or another the latter will be obliged to withdraw, blaming Pakistan’s ‘treachery’ for the fiasco. If that is going to be the end, why not withdraw gracefully now and save all the bloodshed and expense?
Ultimately, the fate of Afghanistan will be decided by the Afghans themselves. It will be much more messy than it would have been had the U.S not intervened. Nonetheless the situation will stabilise in much less time than the sixteen years Americans have taken without anything to show for it except killing. But it will only happen after the Americans leave and not before.
The writer is a retired Pakistani naval officer.