Is the US set to repeat past mistakes in Afghanistan?

It would be interesting to know how American security experts view the threat perceptions from the numerous affiliates of the bodies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, some of whom target India, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved May 05, 2021
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Al Qaeda (File)

Some world events and their anniversaries are intrinsically connected. Nothing seems better linked than 9/11, the reason why the United States went to Afghanistan two decades ago, and stayed on this long after eliminating, a decade back, the man it believed was responsible for it. That was 5/2.  

The US is to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11,   marking the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Tower. Had President Joe Biden retained May 1 as the deadline under the Doha Pact reached by his predecessor Donald Trump in February 2020, it would have been on the eve of 5/2 -- the taking out of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011.

To recall, bin laden was supposed to have caused 9/11 from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Their refusal to hand him over led to the multinational invasion. Dislodged from power, the Taliban moved to Pakistan and, as 5/2 proved, so did bin Laden. He either evacuated along with them in 2002, or his shelter was organized subsequently. Who organized it and how he managed to stay undetected for long years will, perhaps, never be known.

Yet, the two dates are significant, and not just as anniversaries. The US is, in effect, yielding space, and possibly, power to the same Taliban, now a more resolute force. It has secured assurance that the Taliban will not attack US interests. According to one report, they are ‘protecting’ American bases threatened by other groups and warlords to facilitate the withdrawal.

US now a ‘far enemy’ 

Unsurprisingly, in the new US estimation, the superpower has become a “far enemy” for the Islamist extremists who have ‘localised’ their presence and operations. In Washington Post (April 30, 2021), Indian-American columnist Fareed Zakaria notes a 59 percent decline in Islamist terrorism since 2014. 

“The movement is in bad shape,” he says, yet he lists Afghanistan as one of the hotspots.

“Most Islamist terrorism today tends to be local — the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. That’s a major reversal from the glory days of al-Qaeda, What remains now are local problems, local discontents that are really not part of some great global movement.”

If that is so, what happened to the Trump administration’s assessment of last year, which was shared by others, including Russia and Iran that the threat to the region across West and South-West Asia comes from Al Qaeda and Islamic State? Zakaria does not mention China as America’s Number one adversary, unlike Henry Kissinger who has warned of a "catastrophe" if the US-China rivalry goes out of hand. 

Zakaria’s counsel, although it may not be the official viewpoint or represent the dominant US perception, is: “As we scour the world for new foes, let’s learn to right-size our adversaries and find a way to run fast but not run scared.”

There is opinion, however, and not just in the US, that America did “run fast” in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. Anxious to shift focus, it is now “running scared” from a war it cannot win.

Threat perception for India

Al Qaeda and the IS might not be potential threat to a far-off US. In Zakaria’s estimation, recent extremist attacks in France and other European nations were by those unconnected with the two groups. But it would be interesting to know how American security experts view the threat perceptions from the numerous affiliates of the bodies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, some of whom target India.

It is essential, unless they choose to ignore it. Or place their faith in Pakistan notwithstanding its record of nurturing and exporting Islamist militancy. Or, they may be conceding the policeman’s role to China, hoping that the latter would combat militancy, if only to insulate Uighur Muslims in its restive Xinjiang, and to secure the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The emerging ground reality in Afghanistan is such that the US and its allies may have resigned to leave Afghanistan’s strategic space to be filled by Pakistan. Having sheltered and promoted Taliban for two decades, Pakistan has emerged as the “lead player”. In conceding this, the US and allies have chosen to ignore Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s warning about “foreign soldiers” fighting in Afghanistan. He was obviously not referring to the US-NATO contingent.

Pakistan’s ‘connection’ with Al-Zawahiri

Having decided to implement the withdrawal, whatever the cost, the Biden administration may ignore Pakistan’s description of an “unreliable ally” by Trump’s, which had itself caved in at Doha. But it needs to verify an August 2019 report by the Associated Press (AP) that Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri could be hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Associated Press quoted an Al Qaeda statement that the Pakistani authorities had "detained" Al Zawahiri’s wife and two other members of his family for nearly a year. The “treacherous Pakistani authorities” had supposedly captured them as they left for Waziristan, the tribal area bordering Afghanistan that was also bin Laden’s hideout for long.

The statement said: “We … hold Pakistan’s government and its treacherous army and their American masters responsible for their criminal acts.” The Pakistan Government did not react to this report. The Pakistani media also blacked out this report, the AP report said. If this is true, is the US prepared for another 5/2 in future?

This is not Pakistan’s only ‘connection’ with Al Qaeda and bin Laden. The US State Department's Annual Country Report on Terrorism for 2019 spoke of Pakistan continuing to be a “safe haven” for terrorist groups.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has more than once praised Osama. On June 24, 2020, he told the National Assembly that he considered bin Laden a "martyr". The context, he explained, was of Pakistan being “humiliated as never before” when Osama was eliminated.  

Ten years since 5/2, a conspiracy of silence persists in Pakistan. The dust has not settled on the event that triggered massive consternation in public. More than that, the red-faced military leadership of the day found it hard to explain to their own brass how the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) failed to detect Osama’s presence on Pakistani soil, and worse, its failure to detect and prevent the way he was taken out by foreign commandos, violating airspace.

An account of that turmoil is contained in a just-out book “No Win War” by Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain. He reveals something less-known: “With a widening trust deficit between Islamabad and Washington, the CIA had built its own clandestine network to track down Osama bin Laden, bypassing the ISI. In fact, the CIA had stopped sharing any information with its Pakistani counterparts about the bin Laden investigation since 2005. During President Obama’s tenure, there was a growing suspicion in his administration that elements in the Pakistani security agency might be protecting the Al Qaeda leader.”

Needle of deep suspicion

Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had pointed fingers of suspicion. During her visit to Islamabad in 2009, she declared: “I’m not saying that they’re at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda is. 

Her comments were indicative of difficult relations between the two countries and evoked a strong reaction from Pakistani authorities,” Hussain writes.

Obama in his memoirs “A Promised Land” published last November, has said much that is known about the deep suspicion, lending authenticity of a former president who had risked 5/2. But he does not confirm whether the Pakistan Government knew of Osama’s presence.

Hussain laments: “The question of how or whether bin Laden eluded the view of Pakistan’s military intelligence remains unanswered. It was just too much of a coincidence that bin Laden would be hiding in a neighborhood close to the military academy, inhabited by retired and serving military officers. Either the ISI knew about his presence there, or it was a complete intelligence failure.”

This sums up a complex and riddled situation that the US and its allies cannot ignore. Unless there is to be a repeat of the past – and of the mistakes made.

(The writer is the editor of thecommonwealthnews.com. Views are personal. He can be contacted a mahendraved07@gmail.com)

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