American Engagement in Afghanistan


History is too dynamic a force to repeat itself in a stagnant manner. Its repetition is always of transitional nature and its manifestations differ radically from epoch to epoch.  The contemporary American involvement in Afghanistan must not be perceived identical to her earlier engagement in eighties during Soviet invasion of the country. Also the usual references to the invincibility of Afghanistan, with the backdrop of British defeats during Afghan wars and Russian debacle in eighties, are misplaced in the present context.

First two Afghan Wars were waged in 19th century and the third one in early 20th century. In the absence of modern means of mechanical transport, all these British expeditionary forces were dispatched from India, without any logistical infrastructure, in a hostile terrain, inhabited by a savage tribal society. The international climate was also hostile to the British during all the Afghan wars waged by them. The motivations of the first Afghan war go back to 1807 when Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia decided on a combined invasion of India that raised British fears to secure Afghanistan. The expedition was though mounted later in 1838 to restore Shah Shuja to the throne. The Sikhs did not allow the British even to pass through their territory. The British contingent, therefore, had to take a tedious and much longer route through the Bolan Pass in order to advance on Kandahar. Shah Shuja was installed as the King but soon the Afghans rejected the foreign occupation and also a king imposed by a foreign power. Consequently a violent insurrection started and the British had to retreat with approximately 4,500 British and Indian troops, ending with hardly any survivals, in 1842.

Even on the dropping of a hat in the region, the British would get panicky. British got apprehensive of Russian designs when Sher Ali’s reception of a Russian mission to Kabul and his refusal to receive the British one brought the matters to a head and the second Afghan war (1878-81) was fought. The third Afghanistan war was also undertaken on frivolous grounds. When Amanullah Khan seized the throne in 1919, he proclaimed complete independence, internal as well as external, and informed the British Government of India of his decision. The British invaded Afghanistan but the fighting remained inconclusive and a peace accord was signed in Rawalpindi conceding independence of Afghanistan.

It is observed that all the three wars were fought against Afghanistan during an unfavourable climate while all neighbours of British India and Afghanistan were hostile to the British. The Sikhs of Punjab, Iran as well as Russia, all were contenders to extend their respective spheres of influence in Afghanistan. With all the odds against the British, their unthoughtful adventures in Afghanistan were justly doomed to failure.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan, coincidentally, took place at a time when the foundations of the Soviet Empire had already been shaken and the Union was moving fast on the road to its dismemberment. The world in fact did witness its collapse in 1989. Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan just happened to be the preamble of Soviet disintegration. Apart from that the Soviets moved into Afghanistan, lock, stock and barrel, with a view to capturing and ruling the country for good. They physically moved into a hostile terrain with their heavy ordnance, targeting population centres for physical occupation and administration. They did not prepare for the eventual insurgency and guerilla warfare. The contemporary American engagement in Afghanistan has no parallel in Afghan history. Americans are retaliating against the accomplices and perpetrators of atrocities committed against their innocent citizens in World Trade Centre in New York and at Pentagon in Washington. The justification of American cause has been recognized internationally. In their war against terrorism in Afghanistan, the Americans are heading a coalition of almost all the developed countries of the world, including many from the under developed world as well.

The Americans are engaging a group of religious extremists, in a third world country, in cyber space age, in a global village, in 2001. They are fighting a hi-tech war from their warships stationed in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, while their stealth bombers fly from home bases or Diego Garcia and carry out mid-air refuelling. They fight their war with their bombers fitted with sophisticated infra red night vision gadgets and missiles guided to the pinpoint targets. Their marines move to the battlefield with sophisticated modern equipment including infrared goggles, in helicopters and return to their bases for rest and recuperation, after doing their missions. They are fighting the war in an environment when all the neighbours of Afghanistan vie one another for a more important role to liquidate Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. There is no example of such a set piece war in military history. The question of losing this war for the American coalition, therefore, does not arise.

At this stage when the Taliban rule in Afghanistan has almost liquidated, it is no big deal to predict American victory in the war in Afghanistan, but predicting the future course of events in that country involves real foresight and discretion. Here again most analysts are deriving misplaced inspiration from history. As if history was a stagnant and not a dynamic force. Like the tangibles suggesting a sure victory for the American-led coalition, the intangibles holding obvious and enormous promise for America in Central Asia and Afghanistan suggest an enduring commitment of America in the region, including Pakistan.

The foremost American concern and for that matter of the entire developed world be to transform Afghanistan into a forward looking modern state to obviate the chances of Taliban’s phoenix resurrecting from its ashes to infest the world of religious extremism once again. That transformation cannot be brought about summarily. It would require a long period of time to achieve that goal. Therefore, active presence of US in the region is a foregone conclusion. Loud thinking about the Afghan reconstruction is already on. Even the factors like approximate amount of funds required and the ideal period of time necessary are being considered in full glare of media coverage. The results of various brain storming exercises at various forums in the United States and elsewhere about the reconstruction of Afghanistan have already started trickling. The estimates of funds required vis-a-vis the period involved range from ten to twenty billion dollars over a period of same number of years.

Oil and gas rich region of Central Asia remained unexplored and unexploited due to the mercurial conditions in Afghanistan for the last over two decades. Ironically the feasible route to the world markets from Central Asian states is only through Afghanistan and Pakistan or Iran to the Arabian Sea. This factor is of great material importance to the US and all other countries that would like to interact with Central Asia.

The United States leadership has learnt a lesson, though the hard way. That the fallout of their abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan, immediately after disintegration of Soviet Union at the end of eighties, and their flawed foreign policy elsewhere, has manifested in the shape of terrorist attacks on 11 September in New York and Pentagon. The national leaderships of all the countries try to act in conformity to the respective national interests. Foreign policies are hardly charted to promote philanthropy. In 1989 United States’ leadership also thought that they were acting in their national interests but the later events proved them wrong for which they had to pay far heavily. Learning from the past index, under no circumstance can United States behave the same way in 2001. All pragmatics of the proposition indicate that the developed world in general and United States in particular will be around Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan with a serious business, if not for centuries, definitely for decades.