Strategy without an objective

America must write a new chapter in its history by walking out of the Afghan war, regardless of how much its ego is damaged

Big decisions in the lives of humans, as well as nations require serious deliberations. Any decision or steps taken in haste or without walking through all the stages and consequences of the decision would only lead to misery and possibly catastrophic results. History books and folklore are filled with adages suggesting avoidance of haste in life.

US President Trump has announced in his State of the Union address that America would not give a time line for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This decision shows that the US President has lost all touch with logic and rationality. However, the world will have the privilege to continue debating as to how a superpower, with no shortage of resources and intellect at its disposal can go wrong in such a manner. But the US has never been known to respect or heed the world’s opinion in the first place. So why cry about the repetition of instinctive acts?

The adage “war is too serious a business to be left to generals alone” has come alive once again in Afghanistan. The US has now been in Afghanistan for seventeen years, and still has no exit strategy. Steve Coll wrote an excellent line in his New York Times article, “We cannot win in Afghanistan because we don’t know why we are there.” This is the essence of America’s confusion in Afghanistan. You can only win a war if you know what you are fighting for.

Today, nobody remembers the last time al-Qaeda was mentioned in the American media

The Afghan war started with initial proclaimed objectives of “defeating al-Qaeda and toppling the Taliban government”. Half of the political aim, removing the Taliban, was achieved within the first few days of the war. The Taliban were a ragtag militia, and were no match for American military might. No doubt, the world knew the result of the campaign in advance. Now comes the second part of the war aim, which was perhaps kept very vague and subjective on purpose. What will constitute the defeat of al-Qaeda?.

Al-Qaeda never had any Afghan territory under its control nor did it have a rigid command and control hierarchy. It was an ideology embraced by a few extremist elements who were partly created with American dollars during the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation. That said, 2011 gave a psychological victory to the Americans when they eliminated Osama bin Laden. Today, nobody remembers the last time al-Qaeda was mentioned in the American media.

So, both war aims met; it is logical to expect that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan triumphantly. But that is not how the Americans think of victory. Their impression of victory is derived from the Rambo movies, where the super commando destroys and annihilates the enemies and changes the landscape beyond recognition. That has not happened yet.

The American military was well advised by many observers of the conflict to refrain from chasing the illusive aims of “counterinsurgency” and “nation building”. The Americans have never been good at these two aspects of war. They are a lethal war machine which is best at destruction and not building a nation. Iraq is a case in point. The country was once a thriving place for business, art, tourism and was free of religious extremism. Compare it with today’s Iraq and you get a taste of American “nation building” efforts. Iraq is practically split into three parts which are fighting among themselves. It has also seen the rise and fall of ISIS. The Kurds are attracting American and Turk attention for all the wrong reasons. In Northern Africa, Libya is practically a repeat of Iraq and the textbook story of a failed state after the US invasion and regime change. Europe is flooded with refugees and immigrants. Was this the expected and planned result of the “nation building” efforts in the Middle East?

The USA has spent nearly $1 trillion in Afghanistan during the last 16 years. Loss of human life to both the Afghans and Americans has been tremendous and distressing. Psychological traumas suffered by both are beyond calculations. The Americans have not been able to win hearts and minds of the ordinary Afghans in this war. Except for the American cronies and beneficiaries, opinion of the world and Afghans is not favourable to the Americans. It is time the Americans take stock of things and decide some other strategy other than military strategy alone. Military component of the American war effort has failed to deliver results. Why not think of some other means to reach the end?

Pakistan has been pushing for an all inclusive political solution to Afghanistan. Pakistan is in the neighborhood, and we know we have to live here when the Americans have left Afghanistan, either victorious or defeated. Pakistan and world has witnessed Soviet withdrawal in 1989.Pakistan had to suffer the consequences of American indifference to Afghanistan post-soviet withdrawal. We have learnt few lessons from history and are not interested to see repeat of history. But it is so hard to sell sanity to an arrogant super power.

Why is America shy of trying a political solution to the problem? American diplomatic and political clout is still pervasive and can shape the outcome of afghan problem. But this will happen if and when America decides and crystalizes her war aims in Afghanistan. Unless that happens, it is just following shadows in a vast territory.

A war’s objectives have to be realistic and according to the issue at hand. What worked in Vietnam may or may not work in Afghanistan. Although, not much worked in Vietnam either. Afghanistan should be treated as a human issue, not an egoistic issue. The Soviets learnt this lesson in 10 years. Americans may be slow learners, but will likely learn this lesson eventually. Afghans should be left to themselves to mend their way of life. An imported solution which does not take majority of afghan ethnic people onboard should be avoided. The Taliban know that they are too weak to inflict a total defeat on the US, but strong enough to survive all American attempts to annihilate them. Therefore, the US will have more successin Afghanistan if they opt for a political solution.

The world is watching with surprise as President Trump appoints the same generals and the same policies which got the US into this situation in the first place. If they were so capable, they could have delivered in their previous positions as military commanders. The Department of Defense has been tried and tested a lot so there is no harm giving a chance to state department as well. America must write a new chapter in its history by walking out of the Afghan war, regardless of how much its ego is damaged.

The author has served in Pakistan Army as Brigadier

Published in Daily Times, February 3rd 2018.