“The military don’t start wars. Politicians start wars.”
– Gen William Westmoreland
US Army Chief [1968-72]
The speed with which Taliban managed to seize control in Afghanistan has both shocked the entire world and resulted in a lot of criticism on Washington’s inept handling of the situation. One of the biggest fears now concerns safety of those locals, who for the last two decades had in some way helped coalition forces and the government in Kabul to fight the Taliban, have now shamelessly been abandoned by the US and left to fend for themselves.
The great betrayal
After the cold-blooded murder of 22 unarmed Afghan National Army commandos who had surrendered on June 16 in Dawlat Abad of Faryab province near Turkmenistan border, forsaking those Afghans whom Taliban would view as collaborators or government sympathisers, is tantamount to signing their death warrants. Thus, this is indeed a matter of serious concern, because after this massacre, it’s abundantly clear that while seeking retribution, Taliban will resort to the same savagery that it had exhibited while seizing power in Afghanistan, a quarter century ago.
Now that its ignominious Afghanistan chapter is over, Washington has already started absolving itself of any lapses, and seems apparently confident just like its previous betrayals, like that of the South Vietnamese people in 1973, the world will soon forget about how it ‘used’ and conveniently ‘discarded’ Afghans. However, while it may have a lot explain for the Afghanistan debacle to the international community, Washington also has the moral responsibility to enlighten to its own people as to why it was patronising a country that was actually sleeping with America’s nemesis in Afghanistan!
That nearly 2,500 US troops were killed in action while more than 20,000 were wounded in Afghanistan since 2001, bears testimony to the fact that the US Army fought with exemplary grit and valour. The inordinately high casualties suffered by US troops in Afghanistan should thus logically become focus of domestic attention. Washington needs to apprise its people why it remained a passive onlooker despite being in the know that Pakistan was double crossing it by hosting Taliban that was targeting US troops in Afghanistan?
In 2016, Sartaj Aziz [who was the then Pakistani Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs], admitted that “We have some influence on them [Taliban] because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here.” Whereas, Aziz’s claim of Islamabad having only “some influence” over Taliban was highly underrating Pakistan-Taliban relationship, his revelation that Pakistan had been hosting Taliban leadership all along, while it was waxing eloquent on its war on terror and getting US aid in return is, to say the least, unpardonable!
Three years later, Prime Minister Imran Khan himself admitted that “when you talk about militant groups, we still have about 30,000-40,000-armed people who have been trained and fought in some part of Afghanistan or Kashmir.” Unfortunately, the US, which was spearheading a global war against terror didn’t bother to ask Khan what was he doing about this grave threat that had global implications. Nor did Washington care to enquire as to who was providing sustenance to such a massive congregation of armed renegades, and more importantly, what had motivated them to seek refuge in Pakistan?
Isn’t it ironical that even though both Aziz and Khan made these revelations during their US visit, yet these damning confessions of sanctuaries being provided to Taliban didn’t arouse any public debate even though they were directly jeopardising safety of US forces in Afghanistan?
More recently (June 27 to be precise), Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed admitted that “Taliban families live here in Pakistan in areas like Rawat, Loi Ber, Bara Kahu and Tarnol.” He also went on to reveal that “Sometimes their [Taliban fighters] dead bodies arrive and sometimes they come here to hospitals to get medical treatment.” While this was repetition of what Aziz and Khan had admitted earlier, but one had expected that Taliban fighters and their families would be either staying in some remote area of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan or living incognito in refugee camps to escape detection by Pakistani intelligence agencies and security forces.
In fact, this is exactly what Khan hinted at when he said, “Now, there are camps of 500,000 people, there are camps of 100,000 people. And Taliban are not some military outfits, they are normal civilians. And if there are some civilians in these camps, how is Pakistan supposed to hunt these people down? How can you call them sanctuaries?” Whereas Khan’s contention made sense, but the locations where Taliban fighters and their families are staying as mentioned by Pakistan’s Interior Minister happen to be suburbs of the country’s capital and not refugee camps.
So, it’s more than evident that Taliban has always enjoyed a ‘special status’ in Pakistan, and needless to say, this is not out of mere goodwill but the result of a quid pro quo arrangement. That’s why the Pakistan Prime Minister’s claim that “We are not responsible, neither are we spokespersons for the Taliban” is hard to believe. Furthermore, with Pakistani NSA Moeed Yusuf saying “The situation [in Afghanistan] is bad and out of Pakistan’s control” and “If a phone call [from US President to Pakistan’s Prime Minister] is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options,” Khan’s puerile attempt to distance Islamabad from Taliban stands exposed!
Soft pedalling Pakistan-Taliban link
By not being specifically assertive on the issue of Islamabad maintaining close links with Taliban and merely asking it to “do more” in the war on terror and making allegorical references to the dangers of “keeping snakes in the backyard,” three US Presidents, willy-nilly gave Pakistan a carte blanche to continue romancing Taliban. It was only former US President Donald Trump who showed some spunk by mentioning in his 2018 new Year tweet that “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit… They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan…”
Washington can’t say that it wasn’t aware of this nexus and Pakistan Army’s near-complete hold over Taliban’s powerful ‘Quetta Shura’ heading the Doha US-Taliban talks for two reasons. One, when Pakistan’s National Security Advisor [NSA] went [or was summoned?] to Washington, in end July, he was accompanied by Director General [DG] of Inter Services Intelligence] General Faiz Hameed- a dead giveaway of Rawalpindi’s close links with Taliban.
Two, while the Pakistani NSA didn’t mention initially that the situation in Afghanistan had been discussed, US NSA Jake Sullivan tweeted that during this meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, “We discussed the urgent need for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement to the conflict”! It’s hard to believe that at a time when Islamabad was proudly telling the world how it was playing the mediator in Afghanistan, it’s hard to believe that Pakistan’s NSA inadvertently missed out mentioning that Afghanistan was the central focus of this discussion!
Taliban’s unofficial “spokesperson”
Prime Minister Khan may say that “We are not responsible, neither are we spokespersons for the Taliban,” but by the way the Pakistani establishment has come out in defence of Taliban’s actions speaks otherwise.
Despite brazenly initiating a bloodbath in Afghanistan in a flagrant violation of the Doha Agreement, Prime Minister Imran Khan still wants the world to see them as “normal civilians.” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister maintained that “this impression that the violence is high because of the Taliban, again, that would be an exaggeration,” and even tried to shift the blame of violence perpetuated by Taliban on Daesh [Islamic State] by adding, “Aren’t there other elements over there who are playing the role of a spoiler?”
Finally, when Khan hails Taliban’s bloody takeover of Kabul as an act by which Afghans have “broken the shackles of slavery,”is any more evidence of Pakistan acting as Taliban’s “spokesperson” necessary?
Islamabad’s enduring romance with Taliban dates back to the days when Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation. Let’s not forget that it was one of the three countries that recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan and the last to break diplomatic relations with it. However, it continued to covertly nurture Taliban as its ‘ace of spade’ for extracting aid from the US in the garb of fighting its war against terror, while simultaneously using this terrorist group to wage a proxy war in Afghanistan.
The bad guy wins
Islamabad’s bold gamble that brazenly violated international law paid off and it continued to receive funds from Washington despite providing Taliban safe sanctuaries on Pakistani soil as well as military and logistical support. While this was a win-win situation for both Pakistan and Taliban, the only losers were US forces fighting in Afghanistan!
What has happened can’t be undone, but to any veteran [and I’m one], the idea of a government playing games with its own soldiers is downright revolting, especially when it’s matter of life or death. Just because a soldier lays down his life unflinchingly in the line of duty doesn’t mean that he’s expendable. So, someone from Capitol Hill must explain why “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” when it was giving a safe haven to the terrorists the US forces were hunting in Afghanistan?
If the past is any indicator, then chances of Trump’s above mentioned matter-of-fact observations being seriously debated in America are indeed very slim. While President Joe Biden may not appreciate the Afghanistan debacle being equated with the Vietnam fiasco, a song written during the Vietnam war gives a very strong sense of déjà vu through a poetic but indisputable link between the two. Titled ‘The Grave’ and written by Don McLean in the 70s, this poignant song fits seamlessly into the Afghanistan scenario as an apt requiem for those US soldiers who fought and fell in Afghanistan while fighting Pakistan-hosted Taliban, particularly the lines:
“When the wars of our nation did beckon
The man barely twenty did answer the calling
Proud of the trust that he placed in our nation
But Eternity knows him, and it knows what we’ve done!”