The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014, leaving behind about 10000 odd soldiers for training and limited operations, in a sense symbolizes the end of an era. An era that has spanned over two and a half decades beginning with the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan,the civil war, the Taliban era and the intervention by USA and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on the heels of the 9/11attacks. This signal event, rather its anticipation, has thrown up opportunities for writers; two that readily come to mind are The Wrong Enemy by Carlotta Gall, and No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and The War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal. Vishal Chandra’s book The Unfinished War In Afghanistan 2001–2014, is one of them
The chapters are not all set in chronological sequence. They cover various facets of this period in Afghanistan. The first chapter, which introduces the intervention forces, documents the rise of the Taliban. Despite their being seen as a panacea to a civil-war torn Afghanistan, their fanatic Sunni-Islamist Deobandi-Wahaabi orientation and uncompromising interpretation of Islam, intolerance of other ethnic groups, other schools of Islam, and intolerance towards the characteristic and traditionally diverse nature of Afghanistan has led them, till today, to be viewed and feared as the biggest source of concern in the region. Pakistan’s forked-tongue policy ensuring their direct sustenance, by the ISI in particular, through thick and thin of the decade, Saudi Arabia’s financial backing, and the early indifference of the USA to the Taliban, until it was too late (and inconvenient?), have been given appropriate coverage. Chandra astutely observes that the US began to take note of developments in Afghanistan only when Osama bin Laden shifted his base to Afghanistan and issued Jihad on USA. Even then, he points out, they worried less about a rising Taliban and more about their Stinger Missiles supplied to Mujahideen in 1986-87 falling into the wrong hands. Strange that notwithstanding the politics that the US practices, they failed to anticipate the Frankenstein they would create, much as Pakistan is learning, and not yet heeding, that the Taliban can be most treacherous in their own backyard! He has, nonetheless offered the view that the hardened position of the Taliban may to an extent be ascribed to the failure of the international community to engage with them in time, on contentious issues, with tact and diplomacy, pushing them further into isolation. He talks of lost opportunities by the US, offered by the likes of Abdul Haq, which may have reduced Pashtun alienation and the heavy collateral damage.
Chandra has documented the Bonn Agreement processes, assessing that they were possibly recast on existing faultlines of ethnicities and alignments which re-created erstwhile mujahideen structures. His analysis of the intricate ethno-tribal-religious troika of Afghanistan postulates that the Muslim identity of the Afghan population is relegated to the backseat vis-à-vis ethno-tribal affiliations. This factor, he claims led to traditional resistance parties being more successful than the Islamist resistance and remains a determining factor in the power politics of Afghanistan to this day. He states that to ‘expect modern democracy to take roots in a country that is not even remotely homogenous and has been at war for more than three decades, would be political stupidity.’ Nonetheless he admits that the political system now established is far more inclusive, participatory and representational, and the ‘survival of the current political system and constitution is, therefore, critical to preventing Afghanistan from sliding into another round of civil war.’To Karzai, he grants nine lives, describing, how he has been able to remain President with suspect support from his own clan, scheming, dividing, sacking and re-aligning. However, whether a tribally-ethnically diverse country like Afghanistan, can ever work with a centralized imposed structure, is a question Chandra has often raised. The Taliban have clearly been driving the course of recent history of Afghanistan—with their ‘live to fight another day’ strategy,of course with a little help from friends across the border. The Taliban have played upon ‘factors which had earlier facilitated their rise in 1994-95’, thereby coming a full circle even as the ISAF and USA is out of Afghanistan for all practical purposes, leaving a nation ‘betrayed’. His verdict that the US focus was only on al Qaeda elements active in areas along and across the Durand Line, while the Taliban flourished, is an endorsement of Carlotta Gall’s book that they were fighting the wrong enemy.
There is, without qualification, no future for an orderly Afghanistan without the Taliban. Vishal Chandra contends that the hardliners in Taliban, the foreign component, especially the Arabs, and Pakistan, will not let it happen, especially now with the US withdrawal. Chandra poses a key question—‘whether Kabul has enough time and resources at hand to pursue a comprehensive nation-wide reconciliation process as the West continues to drawdown its troop levels’.Unwittingly Chandra may have the answer in an earlier quote of Taliban to the West—‘You may have the watches, but we have the time’.
Outlining the creation of the Afghanistan Security Forces (the ANA and the ANP), he provides insightful analysis, claiming that the ANA was one of more successful initiatives of the western presence in the decade passed. But, infiltrated and subverted by the Taliban, a high rate of desertion (a better–paid Taliban?), questionable loyalty (in the face of a deserting West?) and the ever-persistent problem of ethnic composition, he portrays a gloomy prognosis.
Chandra avers that the US unilateral strategy in Afghanistan and how it looked at other ‘Key’ neighbours through its tinted glasses apparently led to missed opportunities. He devotes one chapter to Iran, India, China and Russia. Of India, his comment that while earning ‘the goodwill of large sections of Afghan people has failed to provide New Delhi with enough leverage to protect its interests’ seems spot on. He analyses China’s opportunistic strategy, which continued to deal with the Taliban regime and now is one of the largest investors in Afghanistan.
Chandra’s book presents a wholesome picture of the larger politics that continue to manoeuvre the country to an unfinished and unpredictable journey. There are a number of editing errors which diligent editing could have avoided .
V. Ganapathy, a Colonel in the Indian Army, is currently on a research assignment with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi..