The Limits of Power: Lessons from Afghanistan

In all likelihood, Afghanistan will be mired in internal instability for quite some time.

Keywords: Power, Taliban, Afghanistan, Military, Conflict, US, Pakistan, China, ISI, Panjshir, Resistance, Intervention, Evacuation, NATO


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Helicopters carrying U.S. Army soldiers from the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, take off from Combat Outpost Terra Nova as the soldiers head home following a 10-month deployment in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar April 23, 2011. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN – Tags: MILITARY POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Perhaps no other international geo-political event has been covered in such great detail and in such depth by all sections of the Indian media as the unfolding events in Afghanistan. In the shrill cacophony of trying to be the first off the block in delivering news, the day to day minutiae of events has led to the blurring of the larger global landscape and the impact therein.

Foreign interventions today carry greater risks than in earlier times, largely due to the fact that the uni-polar world order is gradually giving way to multiple power centres. Though the US still retains pole position, the push back now from other parts of the globe is far more consistent and firm, as China too, the next emerging superpower is finding to its cost. In addition, intervention operations now carry with them much greater risk from transparency and exposure than earlier times, especially as multiple media outlets exist which cover all shades of political opinion. The advent of the smart phone has also contributed to this phenomenon, as it has enabled every individual who possesses a mobile device to be a potential reporter at the scene of action. Ubiquitous flow of information now covers all shades of opinion, which militates against shaping the narrative towards any particular line of thought. This space is the new battleground, which too has to be won, over and above the physical war. Perceptions shape the idea of what constitutes victory and defeat, though in actuality, the immediacy of the event may obscure what the long-term implications could be.

The manner in which the US and NATO forces left Afghanistan certainly made for extremely negative media bytes. But the battleground had been ceded to the Taliban long before these forces left Afghanistan. Post the September 11, 2001, attacks by the al Qaeda on US soil, the Taliban was quickly unseated from power by a lightning US offensive; but the Taliban leadership simply moved to Pakistan, where it was provided sustenance and support. The US and NATO forces continued to fight the war on terror in Afghanistan, when the centre of gravity had clearly shifted to Pakistan. It was thus an unwinnable war, as it was being fought in the wrong country, which made it impossible to seal and enclose the area of conflict. The Soviet Union made the same mistake when it carried out intervention operations in Afghanistan in December 1979, and then had to make an ignominious exit ten years later, in February 1989.

The US, which had intervened in Afghanistan to avenge the September 2001 terrorist attacks on its soil, lost track of the ball and shifted its focus to Iraq in March 2003, before it could stabilise Afghanistan. A divided focus ultimately led to adverse consequences on both fronts. With the US public getting weary of these endless wars, which appeared unwinnable, the US decided to pull out from Afghanistan. Here, it made the strategic error of making a deal with the Taliban, in Doha in February 2020. As the elected government of Afghanistan was not a party to the deal, the US effectively gave legitimacy to the Afghan Taliban, and undermined the authority and prestige of the Afghan government.

The Afghan army crumbled without much resistance, which surprised all military professionals, including this author. In terms of size and equipment, the government forces were better placed than the Taliban, so the collapse points to weaknesses in the higher political and military leadership, which lost the psychological battle before the first bullet had been fired. Kabul surrendered on 15 August without resistance, which led to a rather chaotic withdrawal of all foreign military personnel who were still in Afghanistan as well as personnel of many countries, including India, which closed their embassies and withdrew their staff.

But the fact remains that the US still had the power to carry out the evacuation and kept control of the Kabul airfield till completion of the evacuation process, despite the Taliban having taken over. No other country could have exhibited such will and resolve, which indicates that the US is still the only country in the world which has this global reach. With the US having exited and left a power vacuum, both China and Russia are reluctant to step in. And this despite the fact that China has land connectivity to Afghanistan through the Wakhan corridor and the Russians through the Central Asian Republics which were part of the erstwhile Soviet Union!

The Taliban has announced an interim government on 8 September, but the resistance movement in Panjshir Valley is still ongoing and is likely to gather steam and spread to other parts of Afghanistan in the coming months and years. The women of Afghanistan are also not taking the Taliban diktats lying down and are protesting all over the country. In all likelihood, Afghanistan will be mired in internal instability for quite some time. The jubilation by Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia on the withdrawal of US troops has already started giving way to voices of alarm, especially as food scarcity hits Afghanistan with the potential of leading to a huge humanitarian crisis. Individual nations lack the capacity to influence events in Afghanistan, indicating the limits of power even of the powerful and rich countries and the need for cooperative action to resolve crisis situations.

For India too, there are lessons to be learnt from the events in Afghanistan. While for the US, the lesson that emerges is the limits of power play, for India it is important to pitch our response on our strengths and not underplay the hand. Indian diplomacy is already at work, shoring up a world response to the events in Afghanistan. But it would be good to look at the source of the trouble, which is Pakistan, and impose pressure and penalties on that state for errant behaviour. As a start, it would be worth considering espousing a doctrine of deterrence, clearly stating that the movement of terrorists or drones from across India’s border with Pakistan would be considered an act of war and responded to accordingly. Pakistan needs to be put on notice, soonest. While an over-reach of power capabilities leads to unintended negative consequences, not playing up to one’s capacity and capability too has penalties, and makes a recalcitrant neighbour take chances that it would otherwise desist from.


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  • A very insightful analysis. Holding Pakistan accountable is indeed the way ahead but the unwillingness to do so is so very obvious. The hesitation in relegating it to the FATF blacklist and retaining it on the grey list clearly indicates that there is an agenda at play. Perhaps now that NATO has vacated Afghanistan and therefore Pakistan’s usefulness for maintaining NATO’s logistic supply lines is diminished, perhaps things might change. How will China react to pressure being put on Pakistan ?

  • A sound analysis.

    But it was unreasonable to expect the Afghan army to fight after Washington signed the Doha deal in February 2020 and effectively disowned the freshly elected Ashraf Ghani government and made Taliban the de facto power.

    This, after forcing Dr Abdullah Abdullah to accept the results of the contested election. Since he did not flee Kabul like Mr. Ghani, it is possible that he might have proved to be a better leader for the Afghan people.

    Worse, as admitted on CNN, America underwrote the disaster by not paying the Army for over SIX months before the abrupt withdrawal. So exactly whom were the soldiers expected to fight? The incoming regime?

  • Very well analysed and written article. It gives the reader a good sense of how events are unfolding in Afganistan and what India should do in this situation. What happens in Afganistan will surely impact the world in one way or the other.

Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch

Major General Dhruv C Katoch is Director, India Foundation and Editor, India Foundation Journal.

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