We’ve Been Here Before

There’s a sense of déjà vu about all this. We have seen it all before. The Soviets went down the same road and what did they have to show for their efforts? They were no more successful in pacifying Afghanistan than the Americans are now proving.

By Ayaz Amir

Published: Fri 4 Dec 2009, 11:11 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:48 AM

Eventually they had to get out, that being the most sensible thing about their entire Afghan adventure, begun amidst high hopes in December 1979 and ending in humiliating circumstances in February 1989. It takes a leap of faith, and a fistful of salt, to believe that what didn’t work for Brezhnev’s Kremlin is going to work for Barack Obama’s White House.

Bleak and grim thoughts but the facts, alas, support no other conclusion. Obama is sending 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan to be deployed over the next six months. Then the US begins withdrawing from Afghanistan after eighteen months.

Does this add up to a winning strategy? Osama bin Laden, if he is still around, and Mullah Omar, very likely the Ho Chi Minh of the Afghan resistance, are not likely to be impressed.

Cut away the rhetoric and in Obama’s West Point speech the two crucial things were only these: 30,000 more troops and the beginning of withdrawal in 18 months. This is the clearest signal anyone could get that even as the US prepares to put more troops on the ground, the outline of a withdrawal can already be detected on the horizon.

Will this deter the Taleban? The prospect embedded in Obama’s speech is only likely to embolden them. The 68,000 troops the US has in Afghanistan and the 35,000 troops provided by its assorted allies are fighting a war about which there is no shortage of predictions that it is already a lost war. Will 30,000 more troops reverse this tide? Will the failures of the last eight years be finally redeemed?

The Soviet Union’s Afghan experience is not the only spectre looming over this conflict. The other spectre, more haunting for the US, is Vietnam. Obama was at pains to stress Afghanistan was not Vietnam. There was an international coalition fighting the war in Afghanistan, unlike in Vietnam. There wasn’t the kind of popular resistance in Afghanistan that there was in Vietnam. And Vietnam, unlike al-Qaeda, had not attacked the US.

He was noting only the dissimilarities. If only he had dwelt a bit on the similarities. The US was in Vietnam fighting a war whose purpose was less clear with each passing day. As victory seemed elusive American commanders kept asking for more troops, to turn the corner that never really arrived.

Eventually, the US had half a million troops in Vietnam. It was bombing Hanoi and Haiphong in the North and the war had expanded into Cambodia to cut off Vietnamese supply routes and deny the Viet Cong safe havens. In the context of purported safe havens in Pakistan, this sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Americans bled, just as the Soviets were to bleed later in Afghanistan, but victory remained as elusive as before. Short of nuclear weapons, the US tried everything, throwing more bombs than the total tonnage of bombs used in the World War II.

There was even a Karzai in Ngo Dinh Diem, who was accused of presiding over a corrupt regime and of not waging the South Vietnamese side of the war as effectively as his American godfathers wished. In the context of the criticism levelled at Karzai, this too sounds familiar. There was a good deal in the speech about strengthening Afghan capacity and training Afghan troops. In Vietnam it was called Vietnamisation, the building of Vietnam capacity, so that when the Americans withdrew the burden of confronting the Viet Cong, the Taleban of the time, would be borne by the South Vietnamese regime and army.

The Vietnam accords under the cover of which the US withdrew from Vietnam, in circumstances not much different from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, were concluded in 1973. Two years later the North Vietnamese army attacked the South.

The ‘capacity’ the Americans had taken so much pains to build evaporated not in months but in a matter of a few weeks. Will the building of the capacity of the Karzai regime lead to any different outcome? There is a fallacy at work here, spreading confusion.

There can be no capacity building, much less the still more foolish notion of nation-building, under the shadow of military defeat. Arms have to prevail in the field before words can inspire confidence. American arms are not prevailing in the field and 30,000 more troops are unlikely to make much of a difference. So under the shadow of this looming failure what capacity-building are we talking about?

If Obama had said that no matter what the cost in blood and treasure the US would hold the line in Afghanistan, it would have been a different matter.

The approach might have been criticised but the US resolve at least would not have been questioned. But Obama suggested no such thing. His speech implied no open-ended commitment but the eventual trimming and rolling back of the present commitment. If anything, this will spur Afghan corruption as an insurance policy against rainy days. It is important to take this point to heart if Pakistan is to chart the right course for itself. For too long we have gone with the flow, driven not by our own necessities but the compulsions arising from our American alliance.

It should take little genius to figure out that as America’s difficulties in Afghanistan mount, and victory is no more within reach as it was for the Soviets, there will be growing pressure on us to do more.

This is where we need to preserve our cool. Any operations we undertake in our tribal areas must strictly be calibrated to our own reading of the situation rather than be a knee-jerk response to American pressure or demands.

To label Pakistan as an American satellite is to do injustice to ourselves. We have been less pushed around than readily allowing ourselves to be pushed around. If we have been foolish about many things it was folly we chose for ourselves. No one pushed General Zia into the Afghan ‘jihad’. No one drove Musharraf into America’s arms.

Later he did his best to window-dress the decisions he took by saying that Pakistan had no other choice. But it is not too farfetched to suppose that a political government might have opted for a more calculated response.

So we must learn to think more clearly for ourselves. We are in this war together with the Americans. Geography leaves us with no other choice. But in this new Vietnam war we must not become another Cambodia, a country which has still not fully recovered from what America did to it 30-40 years ago. Our military must do what is necessary in Waziristan and perhaps beyond. But, under American pressure, it must not allow itself to become over-extended.

The higher direction of war is where our greatest weakness lies because while our military, recovering from the malaise of the Musharraf years, has finally got its act together, giving a good account of itself both in Swat and South Waziristan, our political front is not as well covered as it should be.

This leaves the military very much on its own. There should be a surer political hand on the tiller but with the Presidency mired in rumour and scandal and the Prime Minister yet to acquire the look of a war leader, we have to throw up a collective prayer.

Ayaz Amir is a distinguished Pakistani commentator and Member of National Assembly (parliament). For feedback, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com

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