Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
Once again after 20 years of violent conflict, Afghanistan is now plunged into turmoil being conquered by heavily armed Taliban. The Taliban laid siege to Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on 15 August, hours after President Ashraf Ghani escaped to a central Asian nation, signalling the takeover of the war-torn country’s reigns. The hard-line Islamist group has surged through the country following the precipitous and bungling military exit of US forces, with military outposts, towns, and major cities falling under its control.
This has brought an ignoble end to America’s longest war. And it took them just a month to defeat the Western-backed forces of Afghanistan and take control of the country again after 20 years. The US forces remained in Afghanistan for about two decades – since 9/11 – and have spent trillions of dollars but all that came to naught in front of Taliban blitzkrieg.
The Taliban, which means “students” in the Pashto language, have been waging an insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul since they were ousted from power in 2001. The group was formed by “mujahideen” fighters who fought Soviet forces in the 1980s. Emerging in 1994 as one of several factions fighting a civil war, the Taliban gained control of much of the country by 1996 and imposed its own strict version of Sharia or Islamic law. Only four countries recognised the Taliban when it was last in power: neighbouring Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkmenistan.
AMERICA IS REAL VILLAIN
During the cold war, America was used to destabilise and weaken the Soviet Union always to spread its hegemony -the political, economic, or military predominance -over other states. It is believed that the United States was complicit for allegedly training Osama bin Laden and the Taliban for their Soviet Union hating approach.
The Taliban group was formed by “mujahideen” fighters who fought Soviet forces in the 1980s with the backing of the America Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had also tied with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and its “Afghan Arab” fighters when it armed Mujahideen groups to fight the Soviet Union during the Soviet-Afghan War.
About the same time as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States had collaborated with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to provide several hundred million dollars a year in aid to the Afghan Mujahideen insurgents fighting the Afghan pro-Soviet government and the Soviet Army in Operation Cyclone. The US was never able to generate sufficient pressure on Pakistan to stop providing a safe haven and support to the Taliban.
The US government maintained stoic silence when Pakistan aided Taliban even after capturing Osama Bin Laden from Abbottabad, Pakistan. In order to spread its hegemony, the US deliberately imposed on the world the worst iteration of Islam in its existence by aborting the growth of democracy in the most evolved parts of the Islamic world such as Iran and Iraq for fear of losing them to Soviet Union in the post-World War -II. It also supported murderous Suharto dictatorship.
But when Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Centre in New York trade union centre on 11 September 2001, then US-led military coalition launched an offensive on 7 October 2001 to oust the Taliban, whom they said were harbouring Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the 9/11 attacks. Out of revenge, the US had installed its puppet government dethroning the Taliban group. Despite being ousted from power, the Taliban continued a guerrilla war against the Western-backed governments and US-led forces in the country.
COST OF WAR
The war in Afghanistan cost America $300 million per day for 20 years. According to the US Department of Defence, the total military expenditure in Afghanistan (from October 2001 until September 2019) had reached $778 billion. To put the figures in perspective, the amount spent in keeping Taliban at bay is more than the combined net worth of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the 30 richest billionaires in America.
However, according to estimates by Costs of War Project at Brown University, United States has spent more than $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan. This includes the direct funding cost of $800 billion and $83 billion to train the Afghan army.
The cost is even greater in terms of lives lost. Since the war against the Taliban began in 2001, the US lost 2,448 of its service members while fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and nearly 4,000 civilian contractors. Around 150,000 British military personnel have served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, and 457 have been killed. A further 20,660 US soldiers have been injured in action. But these casualty figures are dwarfed by the loss of life among Afghan security forces and civilians.
According to Brown University’s research, more than 66,000 Afghan national military and police personnel have also been killed in the last 20 years. The number of Taliban and other opposition fighters killed in the war stands at 51,191. And according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), nearly 111,000 civilians have been killed or injured since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009.
The US has also committed a substantial amount in health care, disability, burial and other costs for roughly 4 million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. That amount will peak after 2048. And because the US borrowed most of the money to pay for it, generations of Americans will be burdened by the cost of paying it off.
Virtually, the US failed to sustain the war and reached an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw its troop. The Taliban entered into talks with the US in 2018 and struck a peace deal in February 2020 which committed the US to withdraw its troops while preventing the Taliban from attacking US forces. However, the Taliban have continued to kill Afghan security forces and civilians.
DEATH OF PAX AMERICANA
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research describe the Taliban’s terrifying triumph in Afghanistan as the death of Pax Americana. The Pax Americana has come to describe the military and economic position of the United States relative to other nations.
Pax Americana (Latin for “American Peace”, modelled after Pax Romana and Pax Britannica; also called the Long Peace) is a term applied to the concept of relative peace in the Western Hemisphere and later the world after the end of World War II in 1945 when the United States became the world’s dominant economic and military power. In other words, America behaved as global power and the guarantor of world peace.
The Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman Peace”) is a roughly 200-year-long timespan of Roman history which is identified as a period and golden age of increased as well as sustained Roman imperialism, order, prosperous stability, hegemonial power and expansion, despite a number of revolts, wars and continuing competition with Parthia.
Pax Britannica (Latin for “British Peace”, modelled after Pax Romana) was the period of relative peace between the Great Powers during which the British Empire became the global hegemonic power and adopted the role of a “global policeman”.
The terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, that brought an ignoble end to America’s longest war is a watershed moment that will be remembered for formalising the end of the long-fraying Pax Americana and bringing down the curtain on the West’s long ascendancy.
The Biden brand has taken a dive with cataclysmic series of events over the last several days. Biden’ s foreign policy is stained. Of course, why Biden only, leaders in other NATO countries and major non-NATO allies-many of whom have been with the US virtually since the beginning of the 20-year war deserve scorching denunciation.
Indeed, Donald Trump is real culprit who first struck a Faustian bargain -willing to sacrifice anything to satisfy a limitless desire for knowledge or power- with them and then the Biden administration rushed to execute the military exit dictated by the deal, even though the Taliban had been openly violating the agreement.
Biden admits Trump ‘drew US forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500’. By refusing to retain that small military footprint and by ordering a rapid exit at the onset of the annual fighting season, Biden pulled the rug out from under the Afghan military’s feet, thus facilitating the Taliban’s sweep.
The dramatic collapse of the Afghan defences and then the government was directly linked to the US betrayal. Clearly, the US has failed to create an enduring institutional and security structure, popular pro-people government in Afghanistan, despite an overwhelming presence for two decades. There is also a failure of the Afghan leadership in not being able to consolidate, come together and create mass support for their leadership.
The America is culpable for allowing the Taliban to play a profitable trade in opium and its derivatives and even run a mining business. The Taliban group has a $2.3 billion fund for its fight in Afghanistan, with millions coming in from the opium and heroin trade, drugs, donations, extortion, illegal mining, and real estate. Annually, the Taliban has earnings of over $1.5 billion. But question is does any religion allows such illegal activities to generate revenues?
America also failed to disarm and decimate the Talibans in the long war of 20 years, and equip the Kabul regime with adequate military strength to cope with assaults and ambushes of the Taliban.
IMPACT OF UPSURGE OF TALIBAN
As the Biden administration surges for more evacuation of personnel to Kabul’s international airport, aid groups are warning that a much larger refugee crisis looms because of the displacement of half a million Afghans in the past eight months of fighting between the Taliban and Afghan National Army. The size of refugee outflow depends heavily on how the Taliban governs and whether an insurgency emerges to challenge its rule, resulting in further bloodshed and displacement.
Just as millions of Afghans fled their country when the Taliban first took power in 1996, the re-emergence of the militants on the streets of Kabul and other cities has already sent thousands fleeing to the closest border they can find.
India should brace itself up for serious security challenges. With the Taliban in power in much of Afghanistan, India has other concerns as well. One worry is that groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad that have been keeping bases and training grounds along the southern provinces that border Pakistan could now have more ungoverned spaces to carry out attacks against India.
The Taliban’s control will also mean a bigger hand for the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies to influence outcomes for the country. The Taliban’s advances are unlikely to stop while Pakistan continues supplies, support, and safe havens on the ground.
As Islamabad’s triumphalism at the successful reinstallation of the Taliban begins to rise and Pakistan-based jihadi groups turn their attention to Kashmir, tensions are bound to arise on India’s western borders. Indian government must maintain vigil against a resurgence of cross-border terrorism that could quickly destabilise Kashmir and escalate the conflict between India and Pakistan.
The first is to securely evacuate Indian diplomatic personnel and other citizens from Afghanistan. This will require a major logistical effort. The government of India must also offer refuge to a large number of those Afghans who have worked with Indian initiatives and are desperate to avoid potential retribution from the Taliban.
Delhi must make all possible efforts to get the international community to hold the Taliban to its word on letting all foreigners leave in peace, protecting the lives of all Afghan citizens, including those who worked with the government and foreign institutions and respecting international humanitarian law. However, the reports from various cities in Afghanistan, including from Kabul, suggest the opposite.
According to a Bloomberg report based on confirmation, the US blocked Taliban access to $9.5 billion Afghan monetary reserves. US treasury secretary Janet L Yellen and the Office of Foreign Assets Control gave orders to freeze Afghan government reserves held in American banks. The Taliban, which remains on the list of ‘Specially Designated Nationals’, would not be able to access any Afghan central bank assets kept in the United States.
ILLUSION OF PEACE
The Taliban, since taking over power in Afghanistan, have promised peace and said they would respect the rights of women. The group has said it will end mixed-gender education and return Islamic law to a central place in society. However, the reality on the ground is something else.
Taliban violently suppressing protests. They are beating demonstrators and cracking down at airport. Photos and videos emerging from Kabul show that Taliban fighters are using sharp objects to beat back women and children who are desperately trying to enter Kabul airport in a bid to leave the country. The gunmen escorted some women to their homes and told them not to return to their jobs. Instead, they explained that male relatives could take their place.
The fundamentalist group wishes to restore Sharia to Afghanistan and those unable to leave the country will have to adapt to a way of life they have not seen in two decades. The Taliban years of the 1990s (i.e., 1996 to 2001) are a constant reminder of something very dark, the enforcement of laws that deny women even basic rights – from curbing their movements to denying them education to strict rules on their attire.
The women could not work, girls were not allowed to attend school and women had to cover their face, and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to venture out of their homes. Music, TV and cinema were banned. The Taliban also carried out public executions, chopped off the hands of thieves and stoned women accused of adultery. Men had to grow their beards and women had to wear the burka, which covers their whole body.
HINDU FUNDAMENTALISM IS NO ANSWER TO ISLAMIC RADICALISM
The rise of the Taliban makes the danger of Islamic radicalism in South Asia more potent. Islamophobia will only feed it. Now some Hindu fundamentalists think that Hindu fundamentalism is the answer to Islamic radicalism. Such an approach will exacerbate the situation. A theocratic state or state based on religion does not function properly and is blind to the misdeeds of many groups.
Any administration, governance, or rule based on any religion is likely to curb human liberty, freedom and will spur unscientific temper, superstition, obscurantism and will prove antagonistic to the liberty of women. Even what is written in religion many years back may not hold true in all aspects in all times with scientific innovation, reasoning, rational thoughts. However, no religion is bad nor preaches any violence.
Taliban conquering Kabul through violence was or ruling people through gunpoint is never bolstered by the Quran. It is an act of perversion of a religion. Taliban groups are violating the spirit of Islam to advance their nefarious, surreptitious design of ruling people ruthlessly.
While terrorism — even in the form of suicide attacks — is not an Islamic phenomenon by definition, it cannot be ignored that the lion’s share of terrorist acts and the most devastating of them in recent years have been perpetrated in the name of Islam.
In an article published in Independent (10 April 2017 ) Qasim Rashid says, “Anyone who says the Quran advocates terrorism obviously hasn’t read its lessons on violence. The permission given in Quran to fight in self-defence was not only granted to defend Muslims from persecution but to defend Christians, Jews, and people of all faiths from acts of terror like those committed by Isis today.”
This simplistic conclusion ignores that many groups in many countries are experiencing terror right now. It ignores the international arms trade from powerful western nations that wholly disregards human rights and are not buttressed by any religion.
DEMOCRACY AND SECULARISM HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE
Democracy, inclusive growth, an increase of literacy, improvement in human development can counter religious fanaticism. There is no substitute for democracy and secularism. The problems like inequality, corruption, hunger, unemployment, and oppression need to be addressed by rulers to curb violence triggered due to deprivation. Greed, obsession for power makes one arrogant, vindictive, violent. Democracy can survive only when there is strong opposition and a check-balance system.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.