Who Failed Afghanistan? Who will help it to succeed?

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was a multinational military mission in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. It was established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386 pursuant to the Bonn Agreement, which outlined the establishment of a permanent Afghan government following the U.S. invasion in October 2001. ISAF’s primary goal was to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and assist Afghanistan in rebuilding key government institutions, though it gradually took part in the broader war in Afghanistan against the Taliban insurgency.

ISAF’s initial mandate was to secure the Afghan capital of Kabul and its surrounding area against opposition forces to facilitate the formation of the Afghan Transitional Administration headed by Hamid Karzai. In 2003, NATO took command of the mission at the request of the UN and Afghan government, marking its first deployment outside Europe and North America. Shortly thereafter the UN Security Council expanded ISAF’s mission to provide and maintain security beyond the capital region. It gradually broadened its operations in four stages, and by 2006 took responsibility for the entire country; ISAF subsequently engaged in more intensive combat in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

From 2006 until 2014, NATO debate on ISAF centred around means instead of ends: how the burden of fighting should be equally distributed among the member states; what operational concepts like the “comprehensive approach” or “counterinsurgency”—often wrongly termed “strategies”—should be followed, or how to “transition” to Afghan responsibility. Pursuant to its ultimate aim of transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan forces, ISAF ceased combat operations and was disbanded in December 2014. A number of troops remained to serve a supporting and advisory role as part of its successor organization, the Resolute Support Mission.

The decision to launch a follow-on, NATO-led non-combat mission to continue supporting the development of the Afghan security forces after the end of ISAF’s mission in December 2014 was jointly agreed between Allies and partners with the Afghan government at the NATO Summit in Chicago in 2012. This commitment was reaffirmed at the Wales Summit in 2014.

Resolute Support was a NATO-led, non-combat mission. The mission was established at the invitation of the Afghan government and in accordance with United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2189 of 2014. Its purpose was to help the Afghan security forces and institutions develop the capacity to defend Afghanistan and protect its citizens in the long term. 38 Countries (Albania, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mongolia, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom an United States) had posted their personnel to the mission in Afghanistan at different points in time.

In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement on the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan by May 2021.

On 14 April 2021, recognising that there is no military solution to the challenges Afghanistan faces, the Allies decided to start the withdrawal of RSM forces by 1 May 2021.

NATO’s assumption of ISAF command on the one hand, and ISAF expansion on the other did not go hand in hand with a total revision of the DOD’s (US Department of Defence) position. Not only the sentiments of the “unilateralist” major US but the emotions of the non-Muslim world post “9/11”, which pushed NATO to be engaged in Afghanistan as intensely as possible − even without clearly defined political goals. This was not a conscious project but an unintended result of the colluding interests of the political masters in NATO countries with those of their administrative cadres. UN was made the Accidental Front.

The Afghans now have suffered generation after generation of not just continuous warfare but humanitarian crises, one after the other, and the world has to remember that this is not a civil war that the Afghans started among themselves that the rest of the world got sucked into. This situation was triggered by an outside invasion, initially by the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, and since then the country has been a battleground for regional and global powers seeking their own security by trying to militarily intervene in Afghanistan, whether it be the United States after 2001, the C.I.A. in the nineteen-eighties, Pakistan through its support first for the Mujahedeen and later the Taliban, or Iran and its clients. To blame Afghans for not getting their act together in light of that history is just wrong.

In the nineteen-nineties, there were only three governments in the world that recognized the Taliban: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. And this time around, too, Pakistan will be one of them. It isn’t the nineties, but Pakistan is still in the same awkward place that it was last time around. The Saudis and the Emiratis have a new geopolitical outlook. But China is not the same country that it was in the nineties. How will China support Pakistan in trying to manage a second Taliban regime, especially one that may attract sanctions or other kinds of pressure from the United States and its allies is something to be watched? Flirting with Taliban will blow back on Pakistan in one way or another, be that in the form of international pressure or instability.

Biden Administration is unlikely to change its policy. US cannot reverse the Taliban’s momentum without bombing Afghanistan to shards. US can certainly take responsibility for the lion’s share of the response to this unfolding humanitarian crisis to arrest the setting in of another massive refugee flow, which could certainly have political consequences.

US does what it likes – be it in Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq or Afghanistan – the rest of the countries either support or keep quiet, few feeble voices of dissent are barely audible noises.

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First posted on 28 Aug 2021

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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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